My domain registration for pushwriting.com ends April 14, 2022. I’ve decided close up shop before then. Since this may be an unwise decision, it seems appropriate for me to schedule my last post for April Fool’s day.
I, along with many other teachers, have been growing increasingly dissatisfied with the American educational system. Many of us might have held on had it not been for the Covid-19 epidemic, which exposed more problems than we wanted to acknowledge and for which we didn’t want to take the blame.
As things “get back to normal,” I’ve a gnawing feeling normal will be worse than it ever was.
Sadly, teachers who are supposed to teach writing don’t really understand that writing is a skill, just as playing an instrument is a skill. From one week to the next, writing teachers may switch from having students write poems to having them write essays about historical figures. They don’t see that what they’re asking is like the PE coach expecting to field a winning football team when they have students practice hitting a golf ball one week and practice putting a basketball through a hoop the next.
Here and there a few teachers get it.
Unfortunately, all too often good writing teachers often leave teaching for some other line of work.
I’m tired of trying to tell teachers how to teach writing so that students learn to write because I don’t think most schools actually allow teachers to teach so students do learn to write. School boards see the importance of students having band practice and football practice day after day and week after week, but the idea that writing is a skill requiring regular practice over an extended period of time would never occur to them.
The next three Fridays, I’ll try to come up with an encouraging word or two for you writing teachers who stick with the work. Meanwhile, I’m going to look for something to do that will be, as one of my college students once said, “fun and exiting.” (I’ve already got the exiting part figured out.)
The ability to recognize patterns is an essential life skill. Whether a pattern is learned by association, the way a very young child learns to associate certain sounds with being fed, or at a sophisticated level using spreadsheets and graphs, the ability to see and derive meaning from patterns in data is vital to humans’ existence.
Not all students come to school able to recognize patterns. Absent direct instruction, some of them will remain unable to recognize patterns throughout their schooling. I’ve had students in their thirties who couldn’t recognize patterns. Most students can develop pattern recognition skill simply by having their attention called to patterns in the class content they need to learn. You need to deliberately, habitually, draw students’ attention to patterns in the class content they must learn.
Deliberately look for patterns.
If you’re going to teach successfully, you need to be sensitive to the presence of patterns in the material you teach. If you can see patterns in a large number of individual cases, you can—and should—condense that vast number of cases to a fraction of its original size. The condensed version—the pattern— can be more readily taught to students than the dumpster-sized loads of individual cases.
Patterns don’t produce replicas.
It’s very important to note that individual examples of a pattern are not replicas of the pattern. A paper pattern may be used to produce objects made from fabric, sheet metal, or cardboard boxes. In the hands of a skilled workman, a single pattern can produce objects with very different appearances and very different functions.
A visitor to the apartments of the Blacks, the Greens, and the Browns, shown at the top of this blog post, might not be consciously aware of the common floor plan even though all three were built by the same construction crew from the same blueprint. The owners put their individual stamps on their homes with different furnishings and distinctive decorations. Similarly, writers put their own individual stamp on writing they built following a pattern.
Part of your teaching job is to impress upon students that being able to see patterns simplifies their lives. Something as simple as putting your house key in the same place every day or putting your mask in the same place every day is a pattern that saves you from a frantic turn-the-house-upside-down search before you can make a 10-minute run to the grocery. Identifying a new place to put your keys/mask every day wouldn’t be efficient; it would be dumb.
In just that same way, having a pattern for planning a piece of nonfiction writing lets students concentrate on what they need to accomplish, instead of trying every day to invent a new way to organize their writing. If you can teach students that patterns automate routine procedures, they’ll have time and attention to devote to the task at hand. When there’s already a pattern available for organizing most nonfiction writing—thesis and support—it isn’t efficient to expect students to identify a new way to organize their writing every day; it’s dumb.
Identify course concepts.
For convenience—I’m a big fan of convenience—I suggest starting with one course for which you have what you think is a pretty good textbook. Use that text’s table of contents to help you identify the essential concepts within its subject matter. There are usually a lot of concepts, but far fewer of them than there are individual facts.
Identify concepts that are also patterns.
If possible, reduce the list of concepts by identifying those that are also patterns. For example, when the Common Core State Standards were compiled, they realized that all the different ways of organizing short, nonfiction writing—that long list of “types of essays” in English books—boiled down to just three patterns: narrative, argument and informative/expository texts.That was a stroke of genius. They distilled what students needed to learn to about 20 percent of its prior size.
When you have a list of essential course patterns, you have all the information students will need to memorize before they can begin to work with individual data points. (Actually, you’ll have more than just essential course patterns, and you’ll have to put the other stuff aside to concentrate on the patterns.)
Teach concepts via descriptions.
Most of the time, we can start teaching using descriptions to identify objects or concepts rather than taking time to teach course vocabulary. Were you required to learn the correct names of the parts of a shoelace before you learned to tie your shoes? I’ll bet you weren’t. I’d also bet a small sum that you can’t tell me right now the name of the hard things on the ends of shoelaces. There are many objects and processes and other thingies you engage with daily that you can’t identify by their proper names. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt if you don’t know an aglet from a piglet.
You can plunge into having students work with specific examples rather than presenting abstract and theoretical content and they will pick up the correct terminology as they work. Working with examples—even if the examples are written descriptions—is more like hands-on activity than listening to your lecture, stimulating as that may be. Even students who think they hate your subject would rather do something—anything—than listen to a teacher lecture.
According to Google search, there are about 769,000,000 places on the Internet that discuss how to start writing.
Despite having all those resources, most of the teens and adults who wind up in my first year college composition courses don’t know how to start writing.
One student stands out in my memory as the poster child for the how-to-start problem. He was a computer programmer in the years when many programmers were self taught rather than college educated.
The student contacted me privately by email the first day of class. He said that he was taking ENG101 for the third time.
Once he failed the course because he spent so long trying to decide what to write about that he never turned in any work.
His second time through the course, he came up with a topic in time to write a paper, but not with enough time to correct his work. That time he failed the course because of mechanical errors.
He was attempting the course a third time only because his daughter was getting her bachelor’s degree in communications and he was embarrassed to tell her he couldn’t pass ENG101.
The guy’s email made perfectly good sense. There were no serious mechanical errors. I could see no reason for his failing English except that he didn’t know how to start writing.
So I told him what he needed to know. My response went something like this:
This is a writing course. The object is for you to learn the process of writing.
It doesn’t matter what you write about. You don’t have to write about an important topic. You don’t have to write about something that matters to you personally; in fact, its often easier to write on a topic about which you don’t care at all.
Instead of looking for the perfect topic, pick the first topic that comes to mind about which you think you could reasonably write 500-750 words.
Work with that topic.
The writing process is no different for a so-so topic than for the perfect topic.
The topic might not work, but you’ll find that out right away, and you can pick a different topic. You’ll have spent less time working on the so-so topic that didn’t pan out than you spent trying to discover the perfect topic.
Once you’ve learned the process of writing, then you can write about topics that actually matter to you because by then you will know enough about how to write that you can concentrate on what you’re writing.
That was all the NASA guy needed to know. He got an A without breaking a sweat.
If you are going to succeed in teaching all students who come through your classroom door to write competently, you, too, have to begin by teaching them how to start writing.
I suggest you have students think about how people start learning other skills, whether it be playing a musical instrument or a sport, keyboarding, cartooning, cooking, or simply brushing their teeth.
When students grasp the fact that writing is a skill that is learned much as other skills are, they are ready to start writing.
Above: NASA Photo ID: STS061(S)103 File Name: 10093034.jpg Flight Director Robert E. Castle uses a laptop computer to aid his busy tasks during one of the five space walks performed to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) temporarily berthed in Endeavour’s cargo bay. STS-61 lead Flight Director Milt Heflin is at right edge of frame.
Some kinds of knowledge are acquired only by trial and error. For example, students need to see a direct cause- and-effect relationship between a particular writing choice and the its result before they understand the need for planning before they write.
If students discover they messed up only after they get their grade, writing teachers need to get students to see where in the writing process where a different choice could have produced a different outcome. Focus their attention by asking, “Where’s the first place you could have made a change that would have changed how this outcome?”
The biggest messes are caused by not having a clear working thesis. The working thesis should be the first sentence students write; it’s the main idea that directs everything they do. Students may recall that as a fact they’ve filed under “dumb stuff my teacher says,” but until need experience of attempting to write without a working thesis before they realize effort they put into initial planning pays big dividends later.
Allow students correct as best they can before deadline any goofs they discover before they’ve submitted a final draft . Refusing to let students modify a topic or outline after they discover it won’t work is just plain dumb.
Giving students extra time to correct a first-part-of-writing-process error they discover at the last minute is dumb, too. The whole point of planning is to develop the ability to figure out how to produce desired outcomes without trying all the available options.
Deadlines are marvelous for concentrating attention.
High school and college essays may have an arbitrary length (e.g. 2,500 words) or structure (e.g. abstract, introduction, literature review, discussion). However, the way writers go about writing nonfiction exposition is the same regardless of length or number of paragraphs. The expository writing process does not change. It always begins with finding a topic and goes on to:
developing a working thesis on the topic
finding support for and opposition to the working thesis
organizing a response around the working thesis or some modification of it
drafting the paper
editing the paper
Of course it is.
That’s its virtue.
Once students have gotten the hang of the process, which many can master in third or fourth grade, teachers can teach them how to approach more complicated topics and formats as modifications of what they already know. When students aren’t focusing on their fear of something new, they can focus on their writing.
So tell students they have just one process to learn.
I was trying to explain why students must learn only one writing process to write nonfiction ranging from how-to articles to arguments. The teachers understood when I used an analogy to sewing a dress.
Once Susi Sewer can make a short-sleeved dress from a pattern, she knows the process well enough to make a long-sleeved dress with contrasting bodice and skirt from that same pattern. The appearance of the product changes; the process does not.
While that analogy worked for teachers, the analogy to sewing a dress would not work for their middle school students. Middle schoolers need an analogy to something that’s part of their experience.
A better analogy for youngsters is to the process of getting dressed. Middle schoolers get dressed the same way whether they put on their soccer uniforms or put on their Halloween costumes, but they end up looking very different.
By analogy, depending on the materials used, the products of nonfiction writing can each be built with the same process yet look very different.
Cecelia Munzenmaier takes what she calls the Julia Child approach to writing: learn the basics, practice, correct what you can, and accept the fact that your writing won’t always be perfect.
In her forthcoming book Write More, Stress Less: From Getting Ideas to Getting It Done, Munzenmaier draws on her experience as composition instructor and freelance writer, as well as research into writing and other creative activities, to present a smorgasbord of ideas that will appeal to writers with a wide range of needs and interests.
Both fiction and nonfiction writers will find suggestions for ways of doing things that their English teacher may not have advocated but may be just what they need in a certain situation.
Munzenmaier assumes readers have at least a general idea of how to write the kind of material they are planning. She organizes ideas into four sections that represent four stages of any writing process: getting ideas, determining a way to organize material, constructing the actual piece of writing, and “quality control,” which I like as an umbrella term for revision and editing tasks.
Many suggestions Munzenmaier offers are ones I also suggest, such as editing for a single error at a time and not feeling obligated to write a formal outline—or any outline—if some other way of organizing material works better for you.
She also suggests some resources I recommend writing teachers could try with students, such as the Write or Die software and the Polodormo technique for managing time.
However unlike my work, however, Write More, Stress Less includes many ideas that would appeal to writers of fiction or of nonfiction narrative. Many novice writing teachers would undoubtedly appreciate having Munzenmaier’s volume as a kind of extended glossary to writing techniques for a wider range of types of writing than I discuss.
Since I’m a linear thinker, the nonlinear arrangement of material within sections annoyed me. It would delight many of my students and critics who are not linear thinkers. I was also irritated by the absence of in-text tags to signal why author A was an authority on a particular topic. That information is in an appendix. Again, I suspect that many readers would be pleased not to have those details in the text itself.