Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing in all its forms

A fellow teacher asked me the other day, “How many essays have you done so far?” Already over six weeks into the school year, I replied, “One.”

It has taken me quite a long time to learn that English classes, especially honors English classes, are not essay driven courses. Instead, I wish that same teacher had asked, “What have your students written so far this semester?” I would have replied that my students have crafted letters to pen pals in foreign lands, written research project proposals, analyzed themes in many reflection journal entries, revised a personal narrative essay, and prepared a script for a video-taped speech. But most importantly, my students write every day in class, whether it is reflecting on a prompt related to what we are discussing or writing a brief reflection on a self-selected reading novel. Students must learn how to write in a variety of formats and in a variety of contexts. Although learning to write well-supported thesis-driven essays is important, it is a great disservice to focus on the expository essay to the exclusion of other forms of writing.

I should apologize to the students that I first taught years ago. Following every text we read in class, whether it was a book, poem, or short story, I fettered (my current students will appreciate the use of a vocabulary word here) students with predictable essay assignment after predictable essay assignment. What was the theme of this poem? Where and how does the author use symbolism in this work? What is the climax of this story, and how does this decision prove whether the protagonist is dynamic or static? My students dreaded finishing a text because they knew it meant all of them would be writing the same boring essay, which they would get back, look at the letter grade, and toss out.

I was trapped in thinking that I should teach writing like I was taught writing – through essay after essay. What I’ve learned over the years is that good writing is good writing, regardless of what form it comes in. Once I understood this, it freed me to use all sorts of writing assignments in my classroom and find better ways to engage my students in authentic writing experiences. Students talk about the best way to start a piece of writing when we analyze and write our own poetry. These same techniques can be carried over and used in academic writing. Students learn about writing effective thesis statements by first formalizing research questions into a research proposal. They practice grammar and punctuation skills when they write letters to their pen pals who are just learning the rules of the English language. I can teach students how to effectively organize an essay once we’ve written a few reflective journals based on what we’ve been reading and discussing in class. All good writing, whether it is a poem or a blog entry, starts strong, focuses on a thesis, supports that thesis with specific examples, is well organized, utilizes effective transitions, and ends strong. So my students don’t simply learn how to write expository essays, they learn how to write.


Mr. B-G said...

Great post. I agree 100 percent!

Jennifer Ward said...

Although, the other half of this discussion about teaching writing has to deal with is consistency. Sitting in our inservice session this morning, I'm left wondering how do we deal with teaching writing skills consistently across grade levels if we are all using different assignments?

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you, Ms. Ward. Although teaching students to love writing and to write in all different forms is important, learning how to write a good essay is the foundation all liberal arts educations.

Last year I decided to take an intro level English class on Short Poems (at Smith College) and I was stunned when I got the first essay and received a D on it. The professor basically thought the essay was completely wrong. Wrong topic, wrong form, wrong conclusions, wrong syntax, everything. After subsequent visits to said professor's office hours, some peer writing sessions, and subsequent rewrites I managed to get a B-. I am probably never going to take an English Course again.

Essay writing is the one area, that despite taking AP Humanities and Honors American Studies, I was not prepared well enough in for. In high school we wrote maybe 2-3 essays a year at most (about 4 in AP Humanities and AP French). On average, I write a 3-4 page essay a week here at Smith and I'm a Psychology Major. However, I realize that most of your students will not go to Smith or school like it, essay and paper writing is a staple of the college course. So, although writing across disciplines is important, there should still be a strong emphasis on the Essay.

(As a side note, this semester I have to write 3 senior project length papers and I have to give a 50 minute presentation in my Education class.)

So, I have to respectfully disagree.

Ellen Foster
(Haverford High Class of 2006)

Jennifer Ward said...

I don't actually think that we are disagreeing. I agree that students need to know how to write effective essays. However, I believe there are many ways to teach that skill. I don't think that students need to write an informational five-paragraph essay following every reading assignment. Instead, the skills needed to write effectively can be taught through a variety of formats. For example, instead of writing a paper essay or taking a short essay test on our current reading, my students are responding on an online discussion board. Not only are they getting feedback from me on their writing, but also from their fellow classmates. In the long run, such types of writing assignments get students thinking critically about and responding to a text (perhaps the most difficult part of writing to teach) as well provide them with a great deal of immediate feedback on their writing. Such feedback and practice should help them in a few short weeks when I will ask them to write a paper on a similar topic.

Jennifer Ward said...

So glad to hear from you, Ellen! But it makes me sad to hear that you're thinking about not enrolling in another English course. You loved Creative Writing while in high school. I hope you give it another shot!

Anonymous said...

Oh I still do creative writing, I just don't wanna study it. I also am a regular writer for the student newspaper. It's not the New York Times, but it's something.

I have a hard time finding classes that really interest me outside of Psychology and Education. I love Clinical Psychology especially. Plus, I can't write a good English paper if my life depended on it. So that also limits my options.

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