From Thesis to Focus: In Pursuit of Coherence

Having spent nearly four decades teaching high school and college students to write, I have also during that time talked with and listened to many colleagues also either teaching writing or assigning writing in their courses.

As teachers are prone to do, these teachers often complain about their students; I am apt to argue that teachers of writing are even more prone to complaining because teaching writing is labor-intensive work that often fails to produce short-term evidence that the teaching has been effective.

If we don’t complain, well, there simply may not be enough wine to buoy us through the weekends and stacks upon stacks of essays.

While I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, I often shudder at the usual complaints about “students today”—complaints that often are grounded in deficit views of students and misguided perceptions of what teaching writing means, much less what sorts of writing outcomes we should be expecting of teens and young adults.

Howe Professor and Director of Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Elizabeth Wardle offers four important challenges to the most common complaints about students as writers:

First, students are what they have always been: learners. There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing….

Second, to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut….

The third point: All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general….

Which brings me to a final point: Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

These are powerful broad challenges to some of the most common complaints I hear. Therefore, I want to focus here on her third point by addressing a persistent refrain from teachers of writing—students can’t (or don’t) write effective thesis statements.

While many K-12 and higher education teacher and professors uncritically view the thesis statement as an essential aspect of what Wardle refutes (“singular ‘good’ writing in general”), I do not teach students to write thesis sentences (within a broader effort to have them move beyond the introduction/body/conclusion template of the essay), but instead, we seek writing that develops a focus over the opening paragraphs (usually about 2-5 paragraphs) and an essay that has coherence.

This approach is grounded in helping students develop essay awareness along with a broader awareness of the many conventions of essays across academic disciplines as well as writing beyond the academy.

What guides this practice is, first, my experiences as a writer, and then important challenges to the negative consequences of thesis-driven writing offered by Duxbury and Ballinger.

But I also have students move away from the thesis sentence and toward focus and coherence because I witness in every course that most students have been misguided by the tyranny of the thesis sentence. Students write badly trying to accomplish the very thing many teachers complain they cannot do.

Most students in K-12 writing experiences have been required to submit an introduction and thesis before they can draft an essay. This practice ignores the power of discovery drafting but it also suggests that very young writers must always write from the perspective of making direct and fixed claims, to assume a stance of authority they simply do not (and cannot) have.

Conversely, especially for young writers still developing their awareness of writing craft, their understanding of conventions, and their content knowledge, writing that raises questions or interrogates ideas is far more compelling and effective than students making grand pronouncements beyond the scope of their authority.

And nearly all writers come to understand their focus while drafting because the best drafting is a form of thinking.

As a teacher of writing, I more often than not while responding to early drafts point to a sentence or two late in the essay and respond, “This is your opening,” because the student has wandered into a strong essay focus.

Focus and coherence, while both are complex concepts, prove to be better guiding principles than thesis sentences as well as stilted introductions and conclusions (the template approach found in the five-paragraph essay and its cousins).

Warner and many others note, however, that template writing (the five-paragraph essay) is both very bad writing and really lazy thinking. Few topics worthy of discussion, especially in formal education, can be neatly reduced to three points.

In the 1990 edition of Style, Joseph Williams dedicates two chapters to coherence because, as he explains:

All of us have stopped in the middle of a memo, an article, or a book realizing that while we may have understood its words and sentences, we don’t quite know what they should all add up to. …[W]e will offer some principles that will help you diagnose that kind of writing and then revise it. …No one or two of [the principles] is sufficient to make a reader feel a passage is coherent. They are a set of principles that writers have to orchestrate toward that common end.

Williams speaks here to the third point Wardle is making—that writers achieve “good writing” in many different ways to fulfill many different purposes.

As teachers of writing, we are left with helping students “orchestrate” the many and varied conventions, forms, and purposes that they face. But templates cannot and do not serve those needs.

Like the five-paragraph template, the thesis statement is a pale and flawed way for writers of any age to create and achieve focus and coherence.

Moving away from thesis sentences and toward writing that establishes focus and coherence can best be achieved by inviting students to draft as an act of discovery and allowing students to interrogate ideas instead of seeking ways to make fixed claims that they then must support.

All of this must be supported by helping students understand achieving coherence conceptually (principles) and then connecting those principles to craft and strategies that students mine from mentor texts and then apply (through experimentation) in their own original writing expressing their own original (and evolving) thinking.

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Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind

While many, including myself, have focused on Jennie Young’s provocative argument that “that we stop teaching [academic citation] entirely” in first-year writing, Young builds to an important and broader point by the end: “Writing instruction is a messy business, and there are few simple fixes for any aspect of it.”

I certainly agree there are no simple fixes, but here I want to consider a foundational need if we are in fact concerned about writing instruction—the “why.”

Writing in 1946, Lou LaBrant asserted, “There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach.”

Here, I think, LaBrant is calling for any teacher of writing to understand both the “what” and the “why” before coming to terms with the “how” of teaching writing.

At the K-12 and higher education levels, I suspect there are far more teachers assigning writing than teaching writing, and far more teachers grading writing than giving substantive feedback on writing.

I also would anticipate that too few teachers have investigated the “what” and “why”—in part because they are teaching in a curriculum that is absent a cohesive writing program, some guiding principles for why any teacher is assigning or teaching writing to students.

In a brief exchange with Young, she noted two points from a post of mine grounded in her citation argument. First, Young paraphrases a question, “Is first year writing a service course or a discipline for its own sake?” and from my post, “First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.”

Both of these, I propose, are inherent problems when writing instruction is not grounded in a writing program with clear purposes and goals that are shared by the faculty and the students.

Let me stress now that I am not suggesting there is a singular set of purposes and goals that all writing instruction and programs should adhere to; I am arguing that writing instruction must be grounded in some programatic purposes and goals that are communal (not top-down mandates such as meeting states standards or university mission statements or initiatives) and related to the larger educational purposes and goals of that school.

However, writing instruction in any one course can be greatly improved if—along with insuring that the teaching and learning conditions are conducive to writing instruction—that course and instructor have a clear set of achievable goals. In other words, writing instruction is best when each course has less to accomplish and is also working within a series of courses and a writing program that have overarching guidelines.

A sophomore level high school English class and first-year writing, for example, often labor under the same problems—hostile teaching and learning conditions, an unachievable amount of expected learning outcomes (some of which include writing, but other non-writing expectations crowd the teacher’s and students’ time for learning writing), and a lack of program cohesion or buy-in by teachers and students.

To be blunt, there is little any of us can do about writing instruction being messy and complicated, but one way to help those realities not unnecessarily impede good instruction and robust learning is to be aware as a teacher of the “why” and “what” before designing the “how.”

And for students, less will be more when any writing-intensive course or individual writing assignment in a course is grounded in clear purposes and achievable outcomes.

To return to Young’s specific concern, do all first-year students need intensive academic citation instruction—and more pointedly, is it reasonable to expect all or most of them to understand and apply academic citation well before they have determined their major, the discipline that will dictate what citation stylesheet and writing conventions matter?

When I was briefly directing my university’s first-year seminar program, I argued (without as much success as I intended) that first-year writing needs to be transitional (from high school to college) and foundational (for the needs and expectations of whatever major any student may choose in college, and eventual career).

And as I have repeated often, I dissuaded anyone from thinking first-year writing (or any writing-intensive course) could be an inoculation, somehow “fixing” students for whatever future teachers or courses expected of them.

Decades of teaching and writing and also writing myself have proven to me, humbled me, to the reality that both teaching writing and writing are journeys, often without any ultimate finish line. And I must stress, as Young did, that the messy and not simple are the realities we as teachers and our students must mostly accept.

For writing instruction to work, schools and universities must first design a shared vision for a writing program, and then develop a series of courses that work together to meet the needs of that program in the service of students. With that framework, teachers must be allowed and encouraged to address the “why” and “what” of the courses they are charged to teach.

With their students in mind, next, teachers can begin to fashion the “how” of writing instruction.

Without this purposeful and communal approach, we are likely left with writing being assigned and graded—and writing itself being as poorly served as the students laboring under those assignments and grades.

See Also

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to writeEnglish Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

The Weaponization of Academic Citation, Jennie Young

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

“How much we should emphasize academic citation in the first-year writing classroom has long been a matter of debate,” explains Jennie Young, director of the first-year writing program at University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. Then Young argues: “However, I’d like to take it one step further: I suggest that we stop teaching it entirely.”

I taught high school English for 18 years, much of that instruction focusing on teaching writing and preparing students for college. Since then, I have been a professor in higher education, including over a decade teaching (and briefly directing) first-year writing.

woman writing on notebook

Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Young’s provocative and compelling proposal speaks to many of the problems I have experienced with teaching first-year writing as well as with providing faculty the guidance and support they need to teach first-year writing (and writing in general)—especially those faculty outside the fields of composition and English.

Students typically come into first-year writing with a very narrow and distorted understanding of academic writing and citation; they have mostly written cited essays in English (and thus have very little awareness of the wide range of conventions for writing across academic disciplines) and have been inculcated into thinking “everyone uses MLA.”

Faculty charged with teaching first-year writing often struggle with teaching writing broadly because most college faculty are academics who write (by necessity and often begrudgingly) and not writers who happen to teach or do scholarship (this second category is where I reside).

These of course are not the only problems I have experienced, but they do serve as solid foundations for entering into a dialogue with Young’s call for not teaching academic citation in first-year writing based on four powerful reasons:

  • The vast majority of our students will never use an academic citation system after they graduate. Most writing is now digital and uses active links to document source material.
  • It hogs time from teaching the more important (and far more practical and transferable) aspects of writing, such as clarity, correctness and rhetorical effectiveness.
  • There are other ways to attribute credit. Journalists, for example, just write “according to” and provide the information and the date if it’s relevant.
  • The citation systems change from style to style and update to update. Why are we spending so much time insisting on something that’s not standardized across disciplines and is going to change the minute MLA decides to make arbitrary changes (to an already arbitrary system) in order to justify yet another new edition?

As I have examined before about my own instruction in first-year writing, I seek ways to scaffold student experiences in order to first dismantle their learned misunderstandings and garbled sense of disciplinary writing/citation and then to help them reconsider evidence-based and cited writing at a conceptual level.

Young’s first and third bullet above speak directly to my own teaching and assignments since I ask students-as-writers to investigate the diverse ways writers cite (I also emphasize journalism and on-line writing that incorporates hyperlinks) while introducing them to cited writing through hyperlinking so that we can focus on choosing high-quality sources and writing well instead of the tedium of formatting.

For students and writing instructors, however, I have to pause at Young’s use of “teaching” and ask that all of us charged with teaching writing in higher education reconsider some key aspects of first-year writing as well as the entire writing program at our colleges and universities.

Broadly, faculty must understand and also support the explicit goals of first-year writing and the writing program; obviously this assumes those goals have been decided and are available for faculty and students.

Young, I think, is pushing against the purposes of first-year writing: Is first-year writing designed to prepare students as writers and informed thinkers, or is first-year writing designed to prepare students as academic writers during their college experience?

These are not trivial questions in terms of whether or not we support Young’s argument about dropping citation instruction in first-year writing.

One of the tensions I have witnessed in my providing faculty development for colleagues teaching first-year writing is that I tend to work big-picture in terms of fostering students as good writers (not primarily disciplinary academic writers) while also cultivating student awareness of the more narrow (and often tedious) aspects of disciplinary academic writing.

Here is where I struggle with the word “teach” and also acknowledge that Young is making an excellent point about assessment and grades for students in first-year writing.

So here are the conditions of first-year writing that must be addressed when considering Young’s proposal.

All courses are inherently contracts between faulty and students while also being contracts among faculty. Students expect to receive identified instruction in any course, but faulty also teach each course with the understanding that students have had other courses that address content and behaviors that inform that instruction.

First-year writing—like general education requirements and introductory courses—has obligations to both each student and the entire curriculum of a college or university.

If we step back from Young’s specific proposal, I think the essence of her argument is one that is deeply compelling to me as a writing instructor: First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.

As many of those with whom I have worked to guide and direct first-year writing have come to repeat, no writing-intensive course is an inoculation. I would add, especially first-year writing.

The teaching of writing, whether discipline-bound or not, takes a great deal of time and several writing-intensive courses over the entirety of any student’s formal education.

All colleges and universities with first-year writing and writing programs (and ideally several writing-intensive courses designed to address the goals of that program) must confront at least Young’s argument in terms of what any first-year writing course can accomplish.

Since, as Young notes, academic citation is discipline-specific and those style sheets are in a constant state of flux, it seems quite reasonable to focus on the broad elements of writing well and being well-informed during first year writing while also conceding some space and time to introducing students to academic citation (fostering awareness, not teaching and assessing it).

Academic citation can and should be left to upper-level writing courses and courses in a student’s major where the tedium has at least some relevance in the moment of performing at a high level in a discipline in order to achieve a degree (and where faculty in that major can make informed decisions about what those majors need, as they say, in the “real world” after college).

The great irony about first-year writing and writing programs in higher education is that they are simultaneously framed as essential since they are charged with incredibly high-stakes expectations (teach all first-year students how not to plagiarize and how to select high-quality sources to incorporate into flawlessly formatted citation guidelines while also being nuanced and well informed about the topic) but are often under-staffed or staff in haphazard and poorly supported ways while also receiving inadequate funding and allowed to exist in conditions that work against those lofty goals.

First-year writing is an introduction to a next step as writers and thinkers for college students, and it is an introduction in many ways to college itself.

First-year writing, again, is not an inoculation, and Young’s call for removing academic citation from what we demand of first-year writing instructors and students is the least we can do to create the sort of courses that serve well both our students and out curriculum goals.

See Also

On Citation and the Research Paper

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

Real-World Citation versus the Drudgery of Academic Writing

Navigating Writing-Intensive Courses as a Student

Teaching writing as part of a course, or the primary focus of a course, is especially challenging for teachers. Managing a workshop approach and surviving the paper load are demanding elements when teaching writing and not simply assigning writing as part of the course assessment.

However, we less often acknowledge that writing-intensive courses that require students to participate in workshop environments, submit multiple drafts of major writing assignments, and navigate different expectations for student behavior and assessment are also challenging and even paralyzing for students.

Both assessment elements grounded in process and product as well as the structures of the workshop approach present students with expectations unlike traditional courses driven by tests and transmissional classroom structures (lecture, discussion).

Writing-intensive courses tend to approach assessment differently than traditional class-based one-session testing. Writing assessment includes, then, feedback on products (essays), meaning that the assessment is integral during the learning not simply something that occurs after the learning.

In writing-intensive courses, instruction and assessment are integrated, but students may also experience multiple rounds of assessment (feedback) and even multiple grades on the same product since several drafts are being submitted for teacher response and/or grades.

Along with the holistic nature of instruction and assessment, writing-intensive courses tend to require that students meet deadlines, submit work fully, and participate in the process—not just produce a product, especially in one sitting.

And that leads to the unique expectations of the workshop approach. The broad components of workshop tend to include time, ownership, and response.

For students, this means that their student behavior must include participation—such as drafting and submitting multiple drafts—over the entire course (time), must include students making their own decisions (ownership) in terms of drafting and revising their essays, and must include submitting work for multiple rounds of feedback (response) from the teacher and peers.

A course grade in writing-intensive courses is grounded in how well a student fulfills all of these dynamics, not just the singular quality of the final essays.

Ultimately, then, writing-intensive courses that require and allow students to submit multiple drafts have different expectations for student behavior throughout the course but also in terms of how that student is graded. Those different expectations (and thus different student behavior) include the following:

  • Understanding the writing process in terms of submitting work and meeting deadlines. Two aspects of this are important for students to rethink their participation in writing-intensive courses: first, essay submissions should all be good-faith attempts at the draft (not a “rough” but a first or second, etc., full submission, as if the student will not revise); second, submitting work fully and on time (meeting deadlines) is about fully engaging in the learning process, not a way to avoid having points deducted for being late.
  • Major essay assignments and multiple essay assignments as the primary evidence of learning. Since students tend to think about courses as “how do I earn X grade,” writing-intensive courses require students to rethink grades since the writing assignments tend to be the most important or the only evidence for those grades. Students must understand, then, how each draft will (or won’t) be graded, and then how a final grade will be determined for the course (portfolio assessment, for example, as a final and cumulative process versus averaging a list of grades over an entire course).
  • The role of process in learning and receiving a grade. In some courses, students are explicitly told effort (such as class participation) factor into grades, although often as a very small percentage. However, writing-intensive courses forefront effort in the form of participating as a writer: students brainstorming and drafting during class session, students peer conferencing, students conferencing with the teacher, and students submitting multiple drafts for feedback and then revising guided by that feedback. This means that course grades require this type of participation, rendering participation a minimum requirement, not optional.
  • Revising and editing instead of correcting. Submitting drafts, receiving feedback, and then revising to resubmit—this process is fundamental to writing-intensive course, but students who remain trapped in traditional ways of thinking about doing school also fail to understand the distinctions between revising/editing and correcting. Teacher feedback is both instruction and guidance for students to become their own agents of revision and editing. In other words, students should rethink and re-examine each draft fully, guided by the feedback but not simply walking through what is marked to “fix” that only.
  • Novice learner vulnerability and growing as a writer. One of the most crippling aspects of traditional grading and classroom dynamics is the deficit perspective that students enter a grading situation will 100% and must work not to lose credit or points. Oddly, this creates in students the compulsion to be perfect in the eyes of the teacher as the agent of their grade. Learning to write, however, require student vulnerability and transparency. To navigate a writing-intensive course, students must make good-faith efforts early and often throughout the course, fully realizing they are exposing their weaknesses and trusting that the process and growth will be honored over those initial struggles.
  • There is no finish line. Many students view learning as two fixed points: at the beginning is the learner who knows nothing (empty vessel) and then at the end is the finished (filled) learner. Writing, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition since all writers and all writing can be improved by the process. This means that any time designated for learning to write is a valuable span, but it is the time frame that is fixed or set—not the status of the learner or the quality of the product (essay).

Writing-intensive courses where students are learning to write and not just being assigned essays are also demanding because many times students must rethink their behaviors, less like traditional students and more like writers. These are challenging and overlapping conditions that often inhibit students navigating these courses successfully.

A key to making the transition from traditional student to engaged student-writer includes a better understanding of participation over a long period of time. In other words, while the final product of any essay is important, in a course designed to teach a student to write (or write better), the process itself is equally important; therefore, students need to be engaged in drafting, submitting, and revising throughout the course—and not simply trying to turn in a “great” essay in one shot.

Traditional courses that are transmissional and focus on the acquisition of content (disciplinary knowledge) tend to establish for students how they best can behave in order to succeed (or survive) as students. Writing instruction may often overwhelm these students in high school and college since writing-intensive classes are seeking a complex behavior (not factual knowledge but process) as well as asking students to behave in many new ways.

Here, then, I have circled back to why writing-intensive courses are so challenging for teachers since to be effective we must address all of the challenges facing students.

 

Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

About midway through my first 18 years in education as a high school English teacher, I had mostly de-graded and de-tested my courses except, of course, for having to comply with mandates such as midterm/final exams and course grades.

At some point, my students and I began to openly parody grade culture in a sort of wink-wink-nod-nod way that included my saying “Minus 5!” any time a student offered an incorrect answer during a class discussion.

We all smiled and laughed.

As I approach the same amount of time in the second wave of my career as an educator, now a university professor at a selective college, I continue to use that skit, adding at times a “Plus 10!” with exuberance when someone offers something really thoughtful.

My college students are hyper-students, having been very successful in school for many years while receiving as well as expecting high grades because of the student-skills they have developed.

Despite my careful and detailed explanations upfront that I do not grade and do not give tests, these college students struggle, some times mightily, in a de-graded classroom. Once, for example, a student emailed me about how to make up the “minus 5” I had taken away in the class discussion.

This semester in my educational foundations course and an upper-level writing/research course, many of the greatest flaws with grading culture have sprung up once again.

Even as we approach the end of the semester, I have had several students email me asking for extensions on submitting their major essay. I have to carefully reply that the concept of an extension isn’t relevant in a course that doesn’t grade and is grounded in the requirement that all assignments must be completed fully (and ideally on time) and resubmitted in a final portfolio.

In all of my courses, essays must also be submitted in multiple drafts or I cap the final course grade.

I explain repeatedly to my students that we are here to learn and that if I focus on artifacts of their learning while requiring that all work be completed fully, I have no option other than accepting late work, and they have no real option except to submit work late if they cannot meet deadlines.

Yet, my college students often cannot fathom any other system except the culture of grading that they have navigated quite well for many years.

Broadly, as an educator, I am daily disturbed by witnessing my students trapped in a grade mentality and not a learning mentality. As I have explored many times, the rewards/punishments elements of grading discourages risk and even effort in students and thus weakens the learning process that often requires a series of flawed efforts by students combined with mentoring from a teacher who requires and encourages informed revised efforts.

School at all levels, however, is just a statistical wrestling match between students and grade culture in which some students persist, hoping to excel, and many students simply try to survive in order to find some sort of freedom at the end.

Over the past couple of weeks, my educational foundations students have been submitting their major essay. I purposefully scaffold this assignment by having students present in groups earlier in the semester; those group presentations include focusing on students finding high-quality research for their topics and (for many) learning some basics of APA citation (the preferred style sheet in education).

I refuse to provide groups feedback on the group presentations until the group submits a correct and adequate references list for their sources used. This strategy lays the groundwork for each member having a start on sources for their individual essay and for my students to become somewhat acclimated to my minimum requirements approach to assignments (contrasted with grading).

Major cited essays are powerful windows into how a culture of grades degrades learning.

Students are provided a sample APA cited essay with notes and several checklists for preparing and revising an essay using APA citation; much of this is meticulously covered in class as well.

I also schedule some workshop time in class to help students with both trivial and significant elements of preparing a document in Word (headers can be a nightmare using APA). Then, as the first submission due date approaches, I stress that I will not provide feedback unless students submit a full first draft that includes some fundamental elements of formatting and citation [1].

However, as I experience every semester, several students submitted essays that were unacceptable (let me emphasize here, that when I reject these essays, the only recourse is that students address this problem by submitting a minimally acceptable draft as soon as possible, and I will meet with them if they are unsure how to do that despite the ample support I have already provided).

This included essays submitted without adequate sources (I stress the need to use peer-reviewed journal articles as the foundation of their sources, but also encourage a variety of sources), without a references list on the document, with a reference list but no citations in the essay, with some jumbled hybrid of MLA (usually the references list labeled “Works Cited” and then the bibliographies a wild Frankenstein’s monster of formatting), or as a document clearly in an early stage of brainstorming—what they would consider drafting—such as huge gaps between paragraphs, different colored fonts, and their own comments to themselves scattered throughout.

I have this happen despite stressing repeatedly they should submit the first draft of the essay as if they can never revise.

These dynamics in a degraded class that emphasizes authentic artifacts of learning and provides students ample opportunities to revise their work with my feedback in the form of comments on their work and conferences highlight that many students are unable to break free from a culture of grading, even when provided the opportunity.

Most students simply have their grades lowered when they fail to format and cite properly; that process tells them that these things really do not matter.

Yet, in my work as a scholar, I know that part of the authority a writer gains if from the trivial (formatting documents) and the essential (finding, understanding, and incorporating high-quality sources).

A culture of grading allows both students and teachers to be lazy about the things we claim to care about the most, such as authentic learning that translates into the so-called real world.

Once again, I have watched as several students have become angry at me and deeply frustrated by a process that is both requiring and supporting them to learn, in some cases for the first time, aspects of being a scholar that benefits them across their work as students and then in their lives after that.

What some are framing as “mean,” however, is a tenacity on my part that often results in students coming to understand and then apply the very things we sought to learn. But that process is unnecessarily painful because of the culture of grades that, in fact, asks less of students and teachers.

The culture of grades remains incredibly powerful in formal schooling, and as I discover time and time again, it makes the work of teaching and learning nearly impossible.

In the wake of this essay assignment and many of my formerly happy students struggling, my “Minus 5” rings a bit hollow these days among the tense faces of really bright young people more concerned about their grades than anything class has to offer.


[1] From my checklist, for example:

Checklist for Revising Cited Essay

Format in APA

[ ] Entire Word document (including header) is in Times New Roman, 12 pt. font, and double-spaced

[ ] Cover page has “Different First Page” checked, and running head formatted as follows:

Running head: RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                1

[ ] Page 2 and beyond has running head only, as in:

RUNNING HEAD IN ALL CAPS                                                                                        2

[ ] Except for new paragraphs, do NOT format page breaks (cover page to page 2 and final page to references) with returns and do NOT format hanging indents or block quotes with return>tab.

[ ] Include a few subheads to organize the essay, but a subhead should be several paragraphs (not one), and avoid “Conclusion” as your final subhead (be interesting and specific).

Style and Citation in APA

[ ] Do not announce sources (avoid referring to the author[s] and titles of your sources when citing research) in your discussion.

[ ] Prefer synthesis of multiple sources and discussing the conclusions (patterns) from those sources—and thus, avoid quoting and simply cataloging one source at a time.

[ ] Take care with proper APA parenthetic citation; note the use of commas, page numbers with quotes only, and the placement of periods, for example:

Ironically, of course, we almost never hear a word of protest about the abundant misinformation found in our U. S. history textbooks (Loewen, 1996; Zinn, 1995), primarily because the misinformation better supports the meritocracy myth our schools are obligated to promote for the good of the society.

While Greene (1978) argues that “democracy is and has been an open possibility, not an actuality”—thus requiring “the kinds of action [by teachers] that make a difference in the public space” (pp. 58, 59)—the reality of school’s focus on socialization is that we are committed to capitalism above all else, even at the expense of democracy (Engel, 2000).

Recent scholarship on this concern for diversity and the achievement gap among races and socioeconomic groups has shown that when we attempt institutional approaches to “critical issues,” the result is corrupted by the system itself, resulting in a widespread acceptance of the work of Ruby Payne (1996), work that has no research supporting the “framework” and work that reinforces the assumptions (deficit thinking) about race and diversity that are common in our society (Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2008; Bomer, Dworin, May, & Semingson, 2009; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2006a; Gorski, 2006b; Gorski, 2008; Thomas, 2009).

[ ] Parenthetical citation of paraphrased or synthesized sources require including the author(s) last name and publication year the FIRST time in each new paragraph, but multiple uses after that include ONLY the last name. Do not have several in-text citations over multiple paragraphs if all of the citations are paraphrasing. For example:

Greene (1978) is exploring the central dilemma offered by John Dewey, a dilemma that has been misunderstood at best and ignored at worst: Dewey “knew that optimism, demands for conformity, and ‘riotous glorification of things “as they are”’ discouraged critical thought” (p. 62). In U.S. society, and thus schools, critical challenges are popularly viewed as outright rejections. Within critical pedagogy, the challenges to assumptions are seen as fruitful, an essential part of process toward emancipatory practice, toward the ideal of democracy as “an open possibility” (Greene, p. 58).

[ ] Do NOT include hyperlinks in bibliographies in your references lists from your library searches (ebsco, galegroup links) or from jstor for hard-copy sources (includes page numbers).

Worksheets? We Talking about Worksheets

A few days ago, I had an Allen Iverson moment on Twitter:

Iverson, among many other athletic and pop culture accomplishments, is notorious for this rant:

“We sitting in here — I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”

What resonates with me, after I posted the retweet above, is that Iverson was almost entirely misunderstood, and received a fair among of negative feedback and is often still misrepresented by his outburst.

Once I realized that my critical list had gained a momentum of its own—many people responding positively to my intent, but a few creeping into viewing my Tweet as a burn—I noticed that some people found the Tweet to be unprofessional in tone and misread my point as somehow being against students having fun or oversimplifying the problem with worksheets.

To attempt to set the record straight, and try to calm the piling on that I did not intend, I posted a thread navigating the misunderstandings and concerns about my tone and points.

For the record, I am firmly against worksheets (although what that label means needs some interrogation, I admit), and for authentic (even fun) engagement by students with whole and real learning and artifacts of learning. But that is really complicated.

A former student and then early-career teacher, who has now left teaching, had a disturbing experience with why this position of mine is complicated. She taught in a school grounded in project-based learning (PBL). Her course was also team-taught.

As an English teacher, however, she was frustrated that she was required to prepare lessons and activities for students that were a series of different projects; notable in that requirement is that reading and writing were excluded from being the only sorts of projects students could complete.

She found herself in the sort of dilemma Lou LaBrant rejected in 1931, in one of the earliest rounds of PBL mis-attributed to John Dewey:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant’s anger lead her to this conclusion:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

When I saw the original Tweet about hiding worksheets cut into strips inside Easter eggs, I immediately thought of my former student and LaBrant.

I am certain that I could create a Jeopardy!-style game to engage students in, for example, grammar activities. I think the game itself and student engagement could likely be exciting, and anyone observing that lesson would be fairly impressed with the energy.

I may even concede that students could learn grammar during the activity—although I am skeptical of the likelihood that a one-shot activity would produce genuine and deep understanding.

Here, however, let me return to LaBrant, who wrote in 1947: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127).

While the Jeopardy!-style game may be successful in being fun and engaging students, I am certain that whatever grammar students may learn, we remain faced with the same reality LaBrant confronted 80-plus years ago: Isolated grammar instruction does not transfer into student practice as writers.

Therefore, we must evaluate the Jeopardy!-style grammar game based on our instructional purposes. If we are teaching grammar-for-grammar’s sake, the game may be a valid instructional strategy (compared to completing grammar worksheets, for example).

But if our goal is writing instruction, even though the game is fun and engaging, it is a waste of instructional time better spent by students drafting, conferencing, and engaging in explicit instruction covering grammar, usage, and mechanics in the context of their original writing.

For those who see the teaching of English as more than writing and reading, we may be compelled to find engaging and fun ways to bring students to literature as well.

What if I designed a Thoreau-like nature walk for students to commune with nature and come to a better understanding of American transcendentalism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?

Again, this nature walk to an outside observer may appear to be very engaging and even fun for the students. But hiking in nature is not the domain of literature study; mining text for meaning, however, is what literature study entails.

Crouching in the woods or wading into a pond, like Thoreau, may help students with appreciating nature, but it is time better spent reading, discussing, and critically unpacking the essays written by Emerson and Thoreau, while also contrasting those texts with others written by their contemporaries, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Once again, as LaBrant argued throughout her career, writing is learned by writing, and reading is learned by reading.

Let me circle back, now, briefly, to the worksheet.

The decade’s long appeal of PBL comes, I think, from a realization that worksheets, workbooks, and static, silent students are elements of traditional schooling most of us want to avoid.

When I think “worksheet,” I am reminded of my early days of teaching high school English and being compelled to teach context clues because our students scored low on that subset of reading skills during state testing.

As part of our mandated test-prep, we were issued workbooks with worksheets dedicated to isolated reading skills. The context clues worksheet identified four or five types of context clues and then tested students with dozens of sample sentences requiring students to identify the type of context clue strategy needed to define the unknown vocabulary.

To be honest, this approach could likely raise student test scores since the worksheets were designed to prepare students for test-reading; the worksheets and tests involve the same sort of mechanical and inauthentic process and test a manufactured set of content designated as “context clues.”

Here’s the problem: Writers don’t write implementing context clues; writers just use words to form sentences and paragraphs. Context clues strategies work on worksheets and tests, but not so much in real-world reading.

Vocabulary acquisition is incredibly important for literacy development, but most people have the how of that acquisition backward: Students don’t need words (or context clues strategies) crammed into them so they can read better; reading more and more makes them better readers, in part, because that is how we acquire more words.

My concern and caution, then, are much broader than the worksheet since both worksheets and PBL (seemingly antithetical to each other) can be flawed practice if we are not careful to match our instructional strategies to our intended learning outcomes and artifacts of learning.

At first blush, this may seem tedious, even dull, but teaching English is mostly about reading and writing. These are often engaging and fun, but some times they are also challenging and rewarding even as they are tedious.

None the less, let’s not lose sight of what we are doing in the name of fun when that pursuit, in fact, avoids the real work that we should attend to and seeks as well to insure that students are engaged and, yes, often having fun.