Storytelling should be tethered to a cause

People read what they want to know about.

Most people must be seduced into reading what they need to know about.

When business and professional leaders tell teachers they want students to be able to tell stories, what they want is writers who can tell the stories the business and professional leaders want told.

Those stories are rarely first person narratives.

They are nearly always third person reportage.

And they are almost never a story the writer would have chosen to tell if she weren’t being paid: They are almost always boring stories.

The only reason writers get paid is because, unlike the suited-individuals who hire them, they can take uninteresting stories, find something in them that could be made to be interesting, and use that nugget to grab the attention of people who haven’t been paying attention and move them to action.

If you are going to teach narrative writing, what you should be focusing on is what people are willing to pay for: third-person reportage that finds a human story that can be told to breathe life into the boring story so it moves people to action.

Growth mindset for writing teachers

Carol Dweck showed that a growth mindset can be taught and that it matters.

If you teach teens and adults, that doesn’t mean you can tell students they can learn to write competently and think you’ve done your bit toward promoting a growth mindset.

If you are paid to teach expository writing to teens or adults, you must:

  • Believe that every one of them can and will learn to write competently in your class.
  • Convince every one of them that they can and will learn to write competently in your class.
  • Teach every one of them to write competently in your class.

Your mindset matters.

You had better be focused on growing each of your students into a competent expository writer before your class is over.

If that’s not your mindset, then you are not earning your paycheck.

About the five paragraph essay

The "five paragraph essay" is rarely presented as an essay outside of schools and even less rarely has just five paragraphs, yet even in 2018 it flourishes unnoticed as the organizational skeleton for most expository nonfiction that’s not presented as a narrative.

Consider this: Revealing a skeleton ought to require a serious surgical operation. When you can see a skeleton beneath someone’s skin, that means the person has a serious deficiency. That body is undernourished.

When you can look at a piece of writing and spot the five-paragraph structure at 50 paces, the problem isn’t bad bones but malnutrition.

The "five paragraph" skeleton needs to be fleshed out well enough that the bones don’t stick through the skin.

Be fair.

Give explicit directions  so students can tell whether they did or did not meet your standard. Vague directions and hints are both unfair and counterproductive.

If material is essential for students to know, present it at least once from each primary learning mode. It’s not  fair to expect all students to learn well the way you do.

Don’t grade student writing on factors you don’t teach. For example, don’t evaluate work for creativity unless you teach all students to be creative.

Evaluate for a grade only writing in your chosen instructional genre.

Best practices in teaching writing

The best practices in teaching writing not only produce competent writers, but allow the teacher to live to tell the tale.

Here in no particular order are practices I’ve found work in teaching teens and adults to write expository nonfiction competently:

Teach one lesson multiple times in multiple ways. If the lesson’s not important enough to teach, it isn’t worth presenting in the first place.

Give explicit directions so you don’t have to keep re-explaining.

Make every writing assignment do double or triple duty. Don’t give writing prompts that do nothing other than force students to write.

Develop good writing prompts that you can reuse.

Enlist other students and outsiders to provide students with an audience.

Teach students to make checklists and use exemplars to monitor their writing behavior.

When you grade papers, focus on a strictly limited number of serious issues.

Hold students responsible for correcting their own work.

Slow down teaching writing.

If you rush through a writing unit because you need to cover the curriculum, you risk producing whole classes of students who

  • cannnot write.
  • hate the thought of having to write.
  • may also hate having to read. 

It is far preferable to take six years to turn out competent writers than to run those risks.

Whatever you teach about writing, teach well and teach thoroughly.