Let’s Teach Some Students Some Writing

Several bloggers have posted pieces lately about the need stop teaching writing the way we’ve gotten into the habit of teaching it. In her take on the problem, “Let’s Stop Teaching Writing,” Paula Stacey sketches her 30-year journey through the trenches to a better way of teaching writing:

My proposal is modest, cheap, and deceptively simple: Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions. Questions and answers. Nothing fancy. Much like home cooking, however, this kind of questioning takes time, it requires practice and honing, and the kitchen is a mess afterwards. But it is worth the trouble and the mess, for in this back and forth, this conference between teacher and student, real thinking and the work of real writing occur.

Stacey’s thoughtful and well-written piece got me thinking about why the education establishment seems to have such difficulty finding ways to teach writing. Ignoring the superficially easy reasons (testing, teacher education, etc.),  I think a big part of the reason is our own fault.

Writing teachers talk about the issues of teaching students to write as if “a student” and “writing”were clearly defined entities. When I hear the best way of  “teaching students to write,” I interpret that in terms of my students and my writing classes. And every other writing teacher does the same thing.

That personalization is our downfall.  When we’re offered a new idea to try, we need to know the situation in which it was discovered so we can decide whether or how we could apply it to our situations.

A third grader, a high school junior, and a budding novelist in a MFA program may all be students who need to develop writing skills. However, their cognitive development, educational needs, and intended out-of-school applications of writing are very different.

Stacey’s approach to teaching writing appears ideally suited to the elementary school student. It engages them in writing about what’s going on in their classroom, which is why they all have something to write about and why they were willing to write.

At the high school level, having students write about course content is still the best way to teach writing, as well as being a boon to the teaching of other course content. However,  I’m not sure that Stacey’s approach is manageable for the typical high school teacher with a huge class load and multiple preps. Also I think students need to master some pattern for nonfiction writing that they can adapt to college or workplace writing they need to do. 

Stacey’s question-and-answer approach would probably be great with writers in an MFA program. They are eager to reflect on their experience and to experiment with writing.

Educators  would do themselves (and students) a favor if they scrapped the broad terms “students” and “writing”  for descriptors that indicate at least age/grade level (as a proxy for cognitive development levels) and the writing genre.

The person with no experience in teaching writing might still assume the same strategies and techniques could be used to teach third graders to write poems and high school seniors to write research papers,  but at least educators wouldn’t be confusing each other. We know, even if the state education department doesn’t, that any teaching idea applied to every student in every situation is a bad teaching idea.