Seeing the Essay Again for the First Time

Teaching writing, like writing itself, is an arduous journey without any hope of a destination fairly called “finished.” Both require equal parts confidence and humility as well.

Each fall, then, when I wear my writing teacher hat most visibly while teaching two sections of first-year writing, I am as anxious and apprehensive as my students about teaching them to write. This past Friday, I responded to their first essay submissions, and then, I posted on their course blog a brief set of common issues we will explore during the require conferences before they revise essay 1, and prepare to draft essay 2:

I recommend reading these two pieces:

Here are some common issues you should focus on for rewriting Essay 1:

  • Work more diligently and purposefully on your openings and closings. You need to take more care with specifics and details; avoid telling about and show the reader a story instead.
  • Establish your focus (thesis) within the first 4 or so paragraphs and then keep the discussion on that focus throughout the essay.
  • Can you explain briefly to someone what your focus is and what organizational planguides your essay?
  • Reconsider your title and subheads (add subheads if you haven’t used them). Be interesting and vivid with both.
  • While one or two purposeful fragments can be effective even in academic writing, run-on sentences always appear to be “errors.” Edit run-ons and take much greater care with sentence formation and sentence variety.
  • Huge and formless paragraphs are unappealing and ineffective. Form your paragraphs with purpose and prefer shorter, not longer.
  • Integrate quotes with care to both how to punctuate and in connected to the source.
  • Add sources where needed and begin citing properly using APA.
  • Avoid extreme claims of “all,” “none,” “most,” etc.
  • Your word choice (diction) determines the tone of your writing, and also creates your authority. Lazy verbs and informal words should be revised.
  • Verb tense should be appropriate but also should be purposeful and consistent. Verb tense shift (jumping between, among tenses without any clear reason) exposing the writing as careless.

Having taught writing for 34 years—from high school through graduate courses—I have adopted a process I find most effective (although still lacking): I provide students ample models of the whole authentic artifact I want them to attempt (in this case, the essay), and I ask them to make a genuine attempt with some but not full explicit instruction before that attempt; after I have their work in front of me, I then prepare a more explicit plan for direct instruction (the bullets above).

Somewhere long ago, I culled from the work of Howard Gardner that teaching should begin with clearly identifying what students know, what they don’t know, and what they misunderstand. I build on what they know, provide them what they don’t know, and then wrestle like a priest confronted with Regan in The Exorcist to release them from those misunderstandings (a task Gardner admits is nearly impossible).

Over my more than three-decade adventure as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I have rejected writing templates (five-paragraph and otherwise), the tyranny of the thesis sentence, rubrics, and writing to prompts as well as detailed writing assignments that relieve students of any choices as writers and thinkers. However, I remain mostly baffled at what works instead of these traditional approaches—and continue to seek ways to understand better what impedes my students from writing—and thinking—with greater sophistication.

This fall’s experience with essay 1 has revealed to me, I think, a bit of an epiphany.

While I am never really surprised at any of my students’ essay drafts, and I can predict many of the revision needs before I see a set of papers, I do continually read those essays not to uncover my students’ deficits, but to rethink how to teach writing better.

Over the past few days, I have come to recognize something, if not new, that is far more clear to me.

In one of our course texts, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, the concept of coherence is central—but I have never thought of the importance of that concept as clearly as I do now. The essays I read demonstrated to me that these very smart and genuinely engaged first-year students, admitted to a selective college, have almost no real conceptual understanding of sentence formation (and variety), paragraphing, and worst of all, just what the hell an essay is as a form.

That itself is not anything new, but what is new, for me, is that I can argue very directly that the root of what my students do not know and often badly misunderstand is the template used to teach students in most K-12 settings. Further, I now believe that teachers using those templates are also misled about their students’ concepts of sentence formation, paragraphs, and essays because the template and prescriptions mask the lack of understanding.

Of course, this may seem obvious, but the path to understanding the essay as a form, and then the academic essay as a discipline-specific form, includes not a linear or sequential but foundational grasp of both sentence formation and paragraphing.

My work as a teacher of writing will now include more aggressively investigating how to address coherence better, how to foster purpose and awareness in my students-as-writers.

Rules and prescriptions, I am convinced, impede the development of conceptual understanding of how and why to form sentences and paragraphs in order to achieve an essay—a non-fiction short form with an opening and closing, with claims supported by evidence and elaborations.

Again, my students have taught me that our traditional urges to start with parts and build to wholes is flawed; students often need to have the whole in mind so that the parts make sense.

As we work toward revising these first essays, I am more convinced than ever that we need to keep our eyes on model essays, asking always: What makes an essay, an essay?

Templates and prescriptions may make the journey seem easier, but ultimately, that trip is hollow because students have mastered mostly compliance.

Writing, however, is an act of composing—building something new out of the craft at the writer’s disposal. There is no way to make that easy, but there are ways to make it purposeful. That is grounded in conceptual awareness of authentic and whole artifacts; the essay always in pursuit of the essay.


Pre-Service Teacher Education vs. the World

I cannot promise below anything as exciting as battling a potential new partner’s seven evil exes, but I do want to wade into an important but too often overlooked aspect of how we assign power and blame to teacher impact of student achievement.

In two recent posts, I have confronted teacher blaming as well as teacher buy-in because far too many people simultaneously overstate teacher impact on student outcomes while ignoring that teachers in the U.S. have very little professional autonomy.

First, and I will not belabor this point, teacher quality contributes to only about 10-15% of measurable student achievement, dwarfed by out-of-school factors accounting for about 60% or more.

Yet, what is also important to emphasize is that teacher practices in public schools are highly regulated, increasingly so over the past thirty years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Teacher professional autonomy has been nearly absent in the U.S. over the last century-plus in the U.S.—likely since it is seen as a woman’s profession—but current in-service teachers will attest that their practices are significantly restrained by state mandates and schools polices anchored to state standards and a wide assortment of high-stakes tests (from state accountability to the SAT/ACT and Advanced Placement as well as International Baccalaureate).

Part of the reason I resist the inherent teacher-blame in pieces such as Goldstein’s on how writing is taught rests on my own experiences as a teacher educator of English teachers for 15 years.

My journey to teacher education began as adjunct teaching in local colleges throughout the 1990s, culminating with two wonderful years as the co-lead instruction in the Spartanburg Writing Project (SWP).

That fist summer institute of SWP introduced me to Dawn Mitchell as well as how common her struggle is among in-service teachers across the U.S.

While we at SWP worked diligently to teach our participants best practice in teaching writing, they—as did Dawn—routinely met resistance in their real-world schools and classrooms.

Principals and parents balked repeatedly at changed practices, even as those changes move from unwarranted to warranted instruction.

Once I became a full-time teacher educator, I had to anticipate a recurring refrain from the wonderful young people I was helping move into the field of teaching English; they nearly all said they valued what I had taught them about best practices in teaching reading and writing, but they were not able to implement most of those practices once they secured a job teaching.

So here is the dirty little secret of education blame in the U.S.: we simultaneously want to hold teachers accountable for student achievement even though we know teacher quality is a small percentage of those measurable outcomes and even though teachers are often implementing practices that are not supported by research but by mandate.

If we return to the Goldstein article and consider why student writing continues to fall short of our expectations, we must accept that how we measure student writing proficiency significantly shades what we believe about student proficiency and that teachers are mostly practicing in their classes what they are required to do (teach to standards, teach to tests) even when those mandates conflict significantly with what we know is best practice in fostering young students as writers.

Ultimately, there is a type of education reform that has never truly been implemented—seeking ways to increase teacher professional autonomy.

As someone with almost two decades as a public school English teacher and now 15 years as a college professor, I can attest that professional autonomy is one of the most powerful aspects of university teaching; we are hired for our expertise and then given the respect we deserve for behaving as professionals in our classrooms.

There is much about teacher certification as well as in-service teaching that deserves attention and reform, but currently, the discourse around teacher blame and why students (and schools) fail completely ignores the key cause behind all of this discord: accountability driven by standards and high-stakes tests, which is all folded into federal and state legislation.

Both teacher education and in-service teacher practices would be exponentially improved by teacher educator and teacher autonomy—and then we would find a much more valid context for holding both accountable.

See Also

Many Teachers Have ‘No Say’ in Decisions About Their Own PD, Survey Finds

Why Journalists Shouldn’t Write about Education

Over the past couple of days, I have watched almost universal praise for Dana Goldstein’s Why Kids Can’t Write*. Since those sharing this article have tended to be people and organizations that I respect, my own response has been tempered—even though I recognize in the overview of teaching writing the same problems with edujournalism I have been confronting for many years.

Other than Jim Horn’s challenge that Goldstein takes the “blame the teachers” route and former NCTE president Douglas Hesse’s letter posted at his blog, many in the writing and teaching writing community have posted and shared this article without challenge, and several have added that Goldstein does a more than adequate job covering the landscape of teaching writing.

The irony here is that this article on the failures to teach students to write is a model for both typical mainstream journalism and everything wrong with mainstream journalism: the breezy recounting of a complex field within which the journalist has no real experience or expertise and the “both sides” coverage of complex issues that treats “sides” as somehow equally credible.

The key problems in this piece can be unpacked in a few claims made by Goldstein.

Early, Goldstein asserts (without any link to evidence):

Focusing on the fundamentals of grammar is one approach to teaching writing. But it’s by no means the dominant one. Many educators are concerned less with sentence-level mechanics than with helping students draw inspiration from their own lives and from literature.

What is profoundly garbled here is a conflating of what the field of teaching writing shows through research and what teachers actually do in their classrooms.

The reality of 2017 and how students are taught writing is best reflected in a comment by former NCTE president Lou LaBrant from 1947:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

Isolated grammar instruction has been shown to have almost no transfer into student writing, and George Hillocks (among others) detailed that traditional grammar exercises could even make student writing worse.

However, I invite Goldstein and others to visit classrooms and, better yet, simply read through the Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum (NCTE) where weekly English teachers voice their continued commitment to “[f]ocusing on the fundamentals of grammar.”

I want to come back to this point with another example below, but next, Goldstein wanders into the fatal flaw of edujournalism with this splash of evidence:

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to successfully complete a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.

The relentless and uncritical faith in what standardized tests tell us is one of the great problems with edujournalism across all discussions of education, but with writing, this is particularly problematic since standardized testing of writing is universally horrible, lacking validity and itself providing the context for why the teaching of writing is in fact inadequate.

Again, Hillocks has carefully analyzed that one of the most negative influences on teaching students to write has been the high-stakes testing movement. Teachers and their students have become slaves to state-level and national tests of writing that make writing to prompts and conforming to anchor papers as well as rubrics supersede any authentic writing goals that were endorsed by important movements such as the National Writing Project (a key focus of Goldstein’s article).

As I noted earlier, the irony is that a professional journalist’s piece in the NYT fails to provide the sort of credible evidence that many would expect as essential to student writing.

Just as test data are accepted on face value, Goldstein embraces an even worse source for her foundational claim of blame:

The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.

Kate Walsh and NCTQ have no credibility in writing instruction, and worse yet, their so-called research on teacher education has been exposed as ideologically corrupted and methodologically inept, especially the syllabus studies noted by Goldstein.

Here I want to link this misplaced use of Walsh/NCTQ and the first point above.

Goldstein’s article flirts with some very important issues about why the teaching of writing does continue to be mostly inadequate across the U.S. But the entire piece could have been saved by simply seeking out the research on that exact problem, research that already exists in a highly accessible form—for just one example, Applebee and Langer’s Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

Applebee and Langer have conducted multiple studies over many years examining what actually happens in terms of writing instruction in classrooms as well as what teachers know and how that is reflected in their practice.

Broadly, Writing Instruction That Works reveals, as I highlighted in a review for TCR:

In Chapter Two (Writing Instruction in Schools Today), Applebee and Langer (2013) lay the foundation for what becomes the refrain of the book: “Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face” (pp. 15-17).

Their substantial work from 2013 offers as well some key points that I outlined as follows:

  • Across disciplines, students are being asked to write briefly and rarely, with most writing falling within narrow templates that are unlike discipline-based or real-world writing.
  • Teachers tend to know about and embrace the value of writing to learn content, but rarely implement writing to achieve rich and complex examinations of prior or new learning.
  • Student technology savvy is high (notably related to social media), while teacher technology savvy remains low. Technology’s role in teaching and learning is detailed as, again, narrowed by high-stakes testing demands and “primarily…used to reinforce a presentational mode of teaching” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 116). These findings call into question advocacy for greater investments in technology absent concern for how it is implemented as well as raising yet another caution about ignoring research showing that technology (especially word processing) has the potential to impact writing positively if implemented well.
  • While English language learners (ELLs) tend to be one category of students targeted by education reform and efforts to close achievement gaps, high-stakes testing and accountability stand between those students and the potential effectiveness of extended process writing in writing workshop experiences.
  • Like ELL students, students in poverty suffer the same fate of disproportionately experiencing narrow learning experiences that focus on test-prep and not best practice in writing instruction: “By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149).
  • One important counter-narrative to the education reform focus on identifying top teachers is that Applebee and Langer (2013) note that when teachers have autonomy and implement best practice, high-poverty students outperform comparable high-poverty students in classrooms “with more traditional approaches to curriculum and instruction,” driven by test-prep (p. 148).

But, again, what is incredibly important about causality in Applebee and Langer’s analysis, and what is totally subsumed by Goldstein’s focus on teachers, is that the standards and high-stakes testing movement killed the path to authentic writing instruction begun by the National Writing Project in the late 1970s and early 1980s (I outline that phenomenon in a chapter on de-grading the writing classroom).

Teachers and their students are being held accountable for writing standards and high-stakes tests—and everything we know about teaching writing well be damned.

On balance, then, Goldstein fails to expose accurately why students can’t write by glossing over the field of teaching writing without the care and expertise that topic deserves and by depending on weak evidence at the exclusion of a wealth of evidence that powerfully addresses the exact problem she seeks to examine.

Writing and teaching writing are highly complex fields, but we have a great deal of research, we do know how to teach writing well, and the field of composition, like all vibrant fields, remains a living thing driven by debate and investigation.

If we need a simple statement, then, on why students can’t write, let me offer something to consider: Students can’t write well because teachers are blocked from teaching well, and thus, the wall that must be torn down so both can excel is the standards and high-stakes testing movement.

* Goldstein’s title alludes to one of the worst but also enduring works ever on literacy, Why Johnny Can’t Read. This book spurred the school-bashing movement and engrained some of the most negative attitudes about literacy still remaining in the U.S. See Revisiting Content and Direct Instruction.

See Also

9 Misconceptions About Student-Centered Writing Instruction by @HeinemannPub

10 Myths about Learning to Write (NCTE)

Writing as Discovery: When Process Defaults to Script

For most people, I imagine, vacations spur thoughts of welcomed relief from day-to-day routines and obligations. But as a writer—one who writes almost daily—I find vacation’s necessary break from routine is almost unbearable.

My ideal existence would include waking early, 5:30 or 6, and then shuffling through my morning ritual online—some things practical and some, quasi-recreational/quasi-professional—while drinking coffee.

And then I would write for several hours.

Just last week, I was on a 6-day cycling trip to Asheville, NC, and did not have any of those options for the first few days. While cycling and touring the breweries of Asheville were wonderful, I grew increasingly anxious about not writing.

Friday, then, we took a break from cycling and ventured that morning to a donut and coffee shop where I did begin a blog post about the trip after taking care of bills and some of the typical online patterns of my normal life.

While I was still meandering into that post, we decided to shift to a local bookstore in town so I stopped mid-blog. As we heading to the bookstore, I talked about what I was blogging and realized it was about political bravery—realizing and saying aloud I should have titled the blog “Brave.”

Once settled in to writing again at the bookstore, I revised the title, and waded back into the blog post with a renewed sense of what I was trying to examine. The piece is typical of my public blogging—a weaving of personal, political, and literary remnants that I quilt together, hoping to produce a cohesive whole.

A better title and a clearer understanding of what my purpose as writer seemed to be, however, still did not fulfill me; I was nearly paralyzed with a sense that I had nowhere to go, no way to bring the post to an end.

I paused my drafting and scrolled through my Twitter feed, discovering an interview with Arundhati Roy. As I read, I recognized that Roy was herself discussing political bravery, what I was investigating in my blog post about visiting Asheville and watching the train wreck of debate about healthcare in the U.S.

Returning to my draft, I weaved in a bit about reduced circumstances from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and then included some key points from Roy’s interview.

I had throughout that morning discovered what I was writing and had also discovered the elements I needed to create something more cohesive than I had when I sat down to write.

I must emphasize that I had none of that before I drafted, what most people would call “writing.”

Stopping and restarting, talking through the post with someone else, and reading had all charged and shifted what that post became.

Of course, I had some initial urge to write, some focus in terms of content, but most of that post is similar to the vast majority of my work as a writer—the thing itself does not come into focus until after the drafting.

So when I came across Ann Curzan’s Why I Don’t Ask Students to Write the Thesis Statement First, I was immediately drawn to her central points:

In the well-intentioned effort to help college writers find strong theses, we as instructors can put the cart before the horse. …

I want students to have that experience of using writing to explore and figure things out, even when they are doing it for a course assignment (i.e., a requirement). The best essays, I believe, start with questions: questions about something we are curious about, a puzzle we can’t seem to figure out yet, a position or a text or an event or a kind of human behavior that we are struggling to understand. I fear that when we ask students to start with a thesis — an argument or a defined position — rather than a question, before they even begin the process of writing, we are setting them up to write less interesting essays. And we don’t set up essays from the very beginning as a chance to explore. When I came to this realization, it changed my pedagogy.

As a writer and teacher of writing, I have had the same discomfort with the writing process as I experience with the five-paragraph essay template—authentic writing guidelines are reduced to harmful practices when a script supersedes the authenticity in the practice.

In English Journal (May 2017), Nicole Boudreau Smith argues for principled practice in writing instruction, what I call warranted practice. Two of her principles are Component #1: Writers Need Process, Not Product and Component #2: Writers Need Strategies, Not Formulas.

Curzan’s piece on the pre-draft thesis and then writing to that thesis helps us investigate how our students of writing need process, but how we also need to be wary of reducing the process to a script.

In other words, for many writers, drafting is brainstorming—yet teachers often portray brainstorming as a step before drafting, just as teachers often require a clear thesis statement before students write.

I come back, then, to be a writer who teaches writing as well as the never-ending pursuit of authentic practice.

I reject completely the template approach to the essay, the five-paragraph form, but I also push against teaching students the writing process instead of helping student experiment with and discover their writing process.

Brainstorming, drafting, conferencing, revising and editing—these are common elements of the writing process, but they are not sequential or linear, and they are not exhaustive; abandoning drafts, reading, taking breaks—these are also aspects of the process that students must be aware of and then allowed to investigate.

More broadly than requiring a thesis and demanding a sequential writing process (which must be documented by the student for the teacher), we as writing teachers need to foster in students writer’s purpose, the urge to write that then intersects with process and form as well as the myriad aspects of creating a coherent text for an audience.

Asking students to identify their text outcome before they draft may be one of the most prohibitive practices in our classrooms. Writing as discovery has the potential to unlock the writer in our students that we often lament not seeing.

When teachers, especially teachers of writing, reach for templates and scripts, I believe that urge comes from a good place, the recognition that students who are novice or developing need structure.

However, I also recognize that templates and scripts tend to do more harm that good; we have ample evidence that students rarely release rigid templates if they have worked for them (in other words, students who made A’s using the five-paragraph essay have been conditioned that the template is effective).

The writing process is incredibly important for students learning to write, and asking them to work from blank paper can be far too daunting.

Instead of reducing the writing process to a script and demanding a definitive thesis from students before they draft, we should offer structure through a broader array of ways to begin a text—questions, problems, provocative passages from other writers, personal stories, an exciting turn of phrase, a title.

To return to Smith’s principled practice (my warranted practice), I suspect that we all must step back from time to time and investigate if our practice matches our goals.

When, how, and if students write with or to a thesis is a set of practices that may be better replaced by seeking ways to help students see writing as discovery.

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

In 1971, after years of scrounging and clawing, my parents were able to build their dream home on the largest lot at the new golf course in my home town. This was a redneck working-class vision of what it meant to achieve the American Dream.

As a consequence, I lived on and worked at this golf course (called a “country club” without a speck of irony) throughout my adolescence. Some of my formative moments, then, occurred on the golf course while I was working—including discovering that when a teen has been covertly drinking mini-bottles of liquor for hours virtually every adult can see that in about 2 seconds.

The grass on the course itself was over-seeded a couple times a year, and this required the work of all the employees and many of the club members simply volunteering, including my father.

One fall, I believe, I was told to drive around the old pickup truck used exclusively on the course. I was likely a year or so away from driving legally.

The truck was a 3-speed manual shift on the column and a transmission that worked about as well as you’d imagine for a work truck that never left the fairways of a redneck golf course.

My father hopped in the passenger seat and told me what to do, throwing around terms such as “clutch” as well as all the intricacies of column shifting. I was overwhelmed and terrified.

Within moments, he had me start the truck, and lurch forward, coaching me along the way about using the three pedals and finding the sweat spot for engaging and releasing the clutch (I would drive manual transmission cars with glee well into my late twenties when a broken ankle proved to me the practicality of automatic transmissions).

Soon I was left alone with this beast of a truck to shuttle whatever was needed all over the golf course. Within hours, I was pretty damn proficient despite the rolling berms of the fairways, the steep hills, and the idiosyncratic transmission in this truck well past its prime.

Once again on NCTE’s Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum questions about teaching grammar surfaced, and as I often do, I thought about how we learn to drive cars.

Driving a car and composing are quite similar since they are holistic behaviors that require many seemingly simultaneous decisions performed in some type of “rules” environment (driving within laws and writing within conventions, what people commonly call “grammar” to encompass grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As well, I am convinced that both are best learned by actually doing the whole thing, preferably with an experienced mentor guiding the learning process.

And thus we come to a recurring and powerful question whenever the grammar debate claws its way zombie-like out of the dirt: Do teachers and students need common terminology for the teaching of writing to be effective?

This is a very practical retort to those who caution about isolated direct grammar instruction and a rules-based approach to how language works. It is a very common complaint I hear from teachers of second languages as well.

Let me return for a moment to my adventure in a 3-speed pickup truck. My hearing the term “clutch” did me no good at all in terms of engaging and releasing the clutch and actually maneuvering the truck around the golf course.

In fact, my dad immediately added “the pedal on the left.”

So my first response to the question about the importance of common (grammar) terminology in teaching writing is that we must all step back and critically examine if this is really essential.

My sense gained from teaching writing for over 30 years is that students do not need the technical language that teachers must have and that the terms students should acquire are incredibly few.

None the less, my professional concern as a teacher and a writer is not if students will acquire common terminology (they will and they should), but how and to what extent.

The grammar debate has one aspect in common with the phonics debate: too many see the argument as a yes/no dichotomy (and it isn’t).

So a foundational guiding principle for the role of grammar and common terminology in the teaching of writing is to provide students with the least direct instruction and acquisition of terminology needed for the students to be fully engaged in the whole behavior. And then during that whole behavior, students continue to build their grammatical awareness and technical terminology storehouse.

And that begins to address the how.

I learned to drive the 3-speed truck by driving the truck very badly for an extended amount of time and among a group of experienced drivers who were also incredibly patient and encouraging.

There was no pass/fail, and I never took a test on the parts of the truck or how to drive a 3-speed manual transmission.

Our students need low-stakes and extended opportunities to write by choice while receiving ample feedback from their teacher, who models the writing process and the technical terminology that helps those students learn and improve.

Ultimately, then, when our goal is to foster students as writers, let’s critically interrogate our own assumptions about what students must have to learn to write, and then let’s be vigilant about protecting that goal; in other words, prioritize the time students have to practice the full writing process in low-stakes and supportive environments over time spent on isolated and direct instruction that detracts from that foundational commitment.

I will set aside driving a truck for a final example from my teaching writing. In a first-year writing seminar, I use a text that frames effective writing in broad concepts such as cohesion and clarity.

I assign the text; students read weekly and submit response journals on key points and questions. In class and during writing conferences, I use these terms—cohesion, clarity—but we have no test and I never explicitly say they need these terms that I typically use along with some concept or analogy building on their existing schema (my father adding “pedal on the left” after “clutch”).

Regularly and often throughout the semester, students begin to say “I was trying to work on cohesion like Williams says in our book.”

Teaching writing is not well served by either/or debates, especially when warranted practice is about not if but how.

My students throughout my 18 years teaching high school (in the same redneck town when I grew up) and then at the college level have almost all acquired common terminology in context of what they do without a doubt learn—my writing classroom is about composing, and everything we do is in service to that one essential goal.

Just as the recalcitrant grammar debate spurs in me nostalgia for my formative years gaining the All-American rite of passage, driving, it also pulls me once again to my (abrasive) muse, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, who confronted in 1953: “It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need.”

In 2017, we stand on the same worn path, and I conclude here by urging us all who teach writing to keep our bearings: “writing is learned by writing,” and anything else we do must not detract from that truism.

Suggested Reading

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writingElementary English, 30(7), 417-420. Stable URL:

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to writeEnglish Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116. Stable URL:

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Discussing scholars as writers, Michael C. Munger explains, “We train people in methods, and theory, but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice.”

And that practice, Munger argues, must be “like you exercise: at least a little bit, most days….Furthermore, writing makes you a more focused and attentive reader of other works. When you are writing, you read to interrogate that author about a particular point.”

This interview about the intersection of scholars (academics, professors) and writing wades into a fascinating and troubling phenomenon that I expose first-year writing students to in their seminar midterm. I ask them to choose a professor on campus in a discipline they are considering for their major, and then to interview that professor about writing as a necessary aspect of being a scholar.

My students discover, and are surprised to discover, that most of the professors openly share that they dislike writing, struggle with writing, and/or simply tolerate having to write in order to have their research published.

A parallel reality exists in K-12 education. During my current graduate course in literacy, I asked how many of the eleven students had ever been participants in a writing workshop; none of them raised a hand.

Taken together, we are faced with a important hurdle in the teaching writing: at all levels of formal education, writing is taught by scholars/academics and teachers who themselves are not writers, who have had no or very little direct instruction in being writers (as noted by Munger above).

Some of the questions we must investigate, then, include the following:

  • Must anyone who teaches writing be a writer?
  • What are the most effective ways to foster the teaching of writing among those who are not writers, who struggle as writers, and who see writing as a necessary evil?
  • How can and should we support those who write by necessity but never feel compelled as writers (a reality that comprises most students and many scholars and teachers)?

Having been a writer and a teacher for about the same amount of time—37 years writing and 33 years teaching—and since my primary focus as a teacher has been the teaching of writing, I often wrestle with the questions above, but during the last decade while I have been teaching first-year writing at the university level and also providing faculty development for professors teaching writing, I have come to understand better that there are more disjunctures than intersections among scholars, teachers, and writers.

As a high school English teacher for 18 years, I had to fight for time to write; my life as a writer, in fact, intruded on my work as a teacher in direct and indirect ways (about the latter, I suffered subtle and not-so-subtle antagonism from some colleagues for publishing). When I moved to higher education, writing became something valued as part of my work, my schedule allowed ample time for me to do as Munger suggests and write daily, and the expectations for being a professor (teaching, scholarship, and service) included explicitly scholarly publication.

However, lest you believe higher ed to be some sort of writer’s Shangri-la, being a productive writer and writing for the public have also created tensions for me in academia, where a very narrow expectation for being a writer persists (being prolific viewed with skepticism, hints that one cannot write that much without sacrificing something such as teaching; public writing viewed as frivolous use of a scholar’s time and too political).

As noted above, though, what links my K-12 and higher ed experiences is that most teachers/professors charged with teaching writing are not themselves writers—although most professors are more likely than K-12 teachers to write by necessity.

Here is a lesson I now see more clearly: We have failed, mostly, to confront directly that writing is typically taught by those who aren’t writers, but we have implicitly addressed that disjuncture by attempting to make the teaching of writing teacher-proof.

To teacher-proof writing instruction, we have chosen, as Johns examines, genre acquisition over genre awareness [1].

Briefly, that means in-school writing instruction tends to assign writing in template form (five-paragraph essay and its cousins) and to reduce all writing to that artificial form (in terms of what “essay” means to students as both writers and readers).

In effect, teacher-proofing writing instruction removes most of the instructional decisions from teachers and almost all of the writing decisions from the students-as-writers. As well, both writing instructors and students-as-writers are primarily complying with directives that are artificial (or as Johns notes, “‘staged'”).

To foster the most effective writing teachers—and thus to foster students-as-writers—a few key approaches are warranted:

  • Couch calls for writing instructors to be writers in the acknowledgement that most are not, and may not feel compelled to be writers.
  • Be aware of and avoid shaming writing instructors who are not writers or who see writing as merely functional to other pursuits.
  • Provide all writing instructors with authentic experiences in direct writing instruction themselves; teachers of writing need to have had experiences as writers and students in the instructional practices they should use with their students.
  • Reject the traditional efforts to teacher-proof writing instruction and begin to build for teachers and students a broad range of experiences with genre awareness grounded in the disciplines and so-called real-world writing.
  • Revitalize reading and text experiences in formal schooling from K-12 to college so that students experience powerful models for the ways in which writing occurs, both within and against a manageable toolbox of conventions linked to the disciplines and published writing.
  • Include for all teachers/professors, K-12 and college, expectations for writing, professional rewards for writing, and then the sort of time and administrative support needed to fulfill writing obligations without impinging on primary obligations to teach.

The irony, I believe, is that the road to effective and empowered writing teachers is as nuanced and complex as the sorts of lessons we need to teach about writing, a many-headed beast that is often hard to wrangle, much less understand.

We can and must admit that more disjunctures than intersections exist among scholars, teachers, and writers. Bridging those gaps is a daunting challenge, but traditional teacher-proof approaches fail both teachers and their students.

Both writing instruction and how writing is viewed by teachers/professors and students require that we step away from many reductive and ineffective assumptions so that we can start again for the first time more honestly and newly committed to teaching and writing as valuable but complex endeavors.


The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham

[1] From Johns:

GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….

GENRE AWARENESS…is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts.

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.

[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.