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Writing Junk

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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messy desk

First, we need to understand that the state of writing instruction has never been great.

If you are of a Certain Age (say, mine) you may recall a type of writing instruction that we could call the Lego Building Approach. In this method, students are first taught to construct sentences. Then they are taught how to arrange a certain number of sentences into a paragraph. Finally, they are taught to assemble those paragraphs into full essays.

This is junk. It assumes that the basic building block of a piece of writing is a sentence. No-- the basic building block of a piece of writing is an idea. To try to say something without having any idea what you want to say is a fool's errand.

Not that the Lego Building Approach should feel bad for being junk. The instructional writing landscape is littered with junk, clogged with junk, sometimes obscured by the broad shadow of towering junk. And on almost-weekly basis, folks try to sort out what the junk is and how best to clear it away.

Here's John Warner at Inside Higher Ed trying to answer the question, "Why can't my new employees write?" Warner reports that he hears that question often from employers. With a little probing he determines that what they mean by "can't write," is "They primarily observe a fundamental lack of clarity and perceive a gap between the purpose of the writing and the result of what’s been written, a lack of awareness of audience and occasion."

In other words, they don't seem to get the idea that they are supposed to be communicating real ideas and information in a real way to real people. It's not a question of rigor or expectations, Warner notes. It's that they were trained to do something else entirely.

I believe that in many cases, these young professionals have never encountered a genuine and meaningful rhetorical situation in an academic or professional context. They are highly skilled at a particular kind of academic writing performance that they have been doing from a very early age, but they are largely unpracticed at that what their employers expect them to do, clearly communicate ideas to specific audiences.

My students’ chief struggle tends to be rooted in years of schooling where what they have to say doesn’t really matter, and the primary focus is on “how” you say things.

This is the flip side of our current bad ideas about reading-- the notion that reading is a set of skills that exist independent of any actual content. Current writing standards and therefor instruction assume the same thing-- that a piece of writing involves deploying a set of skills, and the actual content and subject matter are not really important. This is not so much a pedagogical idea as a corporate one, somehow filtered down form the world where it's believed that a great corporate manager will be great whether the company makes lubricating oil, soup, soap, or fluffy children's toys.

Michelle Kenney at Rethinking Schools talks about how this skills-based writing turns to junk in "The Politics of the Paragraph." Innumerable schools have found ways (or borrowed or bought ways) to reduce writing to a simple set of steps, providing a checklist for students to follow when writing (and for teachers to use when scoring). Kenney writes about the inevitable outcome of this approach, even when using a procedure developed in house:

I also noted a decline in the overall quality of thought in these paragraphs. Students had more confidence in their writing, but they were also less invested in their ideas. Writing paragraphs and essays was now a set of hoops to jump through, a dry task only slightly more complex than a worksheet. 

Mediocre writing starts with the wrong questions, and a focus on a set, proscribed structure and process encourages students to ask the wrong questions. Hammer them with writing templates, and students start to see an essay as a slightly more involved fill in the blank exercise. "I have to have five paragraphs-- what can I use to fill up the five paragraph-sized blanks?" "I need three sentences to make a paragraph-- what can I use to fill in the the three sentence-shaped empty spaces." This gets you junk.

The appeal of the template is easy to see-- teaching writing is hard and grading writing is even harder. Every prompt has an infinite number of correct answers instead of just one, and every piece of writing has to be considered on its own terms. The very best writing includes a unique and personal voice, and teaching a students to sound like him- or herself is tricky. Much easier to teach them all to sound like the same person.

The important questions for writing are what do I want to say, who do I want to say it to, and what's the best way I can think of to say it. But the results of those are really hard to scale up, if not impossible. So it comes as no surprise that the Age of Common Core College and Career Ready Standards has provided us just with more junk writing instruction. Here's Madeline Will over at Education Week, trying to make the case that the Core somehow "include detailed writing expectations that go well beyond previous state requirements. Specifically, they call for proficiency in argumentative, explanatory, and narrative writing that draw connections from and between texts."

This is a tricky claim to respond to because, first, if the standards did include detailed writing expectations, that would not be a good thing. "Detailed expectations" is just another way to say "template," and a template is junk writing instruction. But the writing standards are, by and large, gibberish. I'm going to take a look at the Original Common Core State [sic] Standards for writing. In your state the standards may have been rewritten a bit (or simply rebranded), but the original flavor standards certainly capture the essence of what we're dealing with. But we need to go back to the standards because Will makes the usual Common Core mistake-- "Okay," says some consultant or state official or district administrator, "Let's put these yellow yarmulkes on our heads, because that is totally what the standards say to do." In the unpacking stage, lots of folks have added their own versions of ideas about interpretations about readings of the standards and we end up with classrooms haunted by the pedagogical ghosts of standards that never really lived.

Let's start with a second grade standard for writing.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.1 Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (e.g., because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section.

First, let me get a pet peeve out of the way-- the Core repeatedly talks about giving "reasons" for opinions, when I suspect what they actually mean is "evidence." I think this liver casserole stinks. What's my reason? I hate liver. I'm pretty sure that the standards want me to provide evidence about the nature of the casserole, but my "reason" for having an opinion is that I have that opinion. Asking me for the reason I love my wife is a whole different question from asking for evidence that my wife is lovable.

Here we also see the standards' focus on specific vocabulary to connect ideas in a very specific way. And the implication here in this standard for seven year olds is that there is just one correct way to write about your opinion, which is the death of decent writing.

Ten years later, that standard has morphed into this standard for 11-12 graders.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Emphasis mine. Because as a writer, my first thought is, "Oh, you want me to use valid reasons. I'm glad you said something, because I was totally going to use stupid, irrational, insufficient reasons." My second thought is "substantive, valid, relevant, and sufficient" according to whom?

Because one of the underlying themes of the writing standards is that writing is a set of skills that you perform to someone else's satisfaction. It's not about you saying what you have to say; it's about you saying what somebody else wants you to say, the way they want you to say it. It is about jumping through hoops. And that's just the "master" standard. Here are the sub-standards.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1.a Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1.b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience's knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1.c Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1.d Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1.e Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.
 
Again, my emphasis on some of the terms that are not objective, but will have to be set by whoever is judging the writing. But here we have a template for the essay, right down to sentence structure. Some of these (heck, most of these) represent very specific requirements for an essay, even more of a straightjacket than the templates that Kenney discusses, and they also represent matters of personal style and choice. For instance, the standards love conclusions. Gotta have a conclusion. Which would not fly with my college professor who said that a bad, generic conclusion is worse than no conclusion at all-- if you don't have a good finish, then just make your point and then stop talking. But no-- to write an Essay According To The Standards, you must fill in the conclusion blank with something.
 
And we also have the usual weird mix of the obvious and the specific. "Use words, phrases, clauses or syntax" to connect the ideas-- which rules out, what, semaphore? Arrows drawn on the page? But that is followed by a list of three specific relationships that must be covered in your essay, because no good essay about opinion can be written without showing the relationship between your reasons and your evidence? Ever?
 
Of course the writing standards also cover informative/explanatory essays and narrative writing, and the mere division of writing into three separate types suggests a set of rules that don't really exist in the world of actual writing, but are created for the convenience of people who want to test and measure writing. The narrative standards are particularly restrictive and terrible and arbitrary and would disapprove of much of the great works that we teach in English classes-- but that's an issue for another day.
 
Most of all, meeting these standards would not help a single one of the employers who asked Warner why the new employees can't write. The standards provide a set of hoops to jump through so that the students can display certain writing skills-- but not any thinking or communication skills. A student can satisfy all of these standards and still not grasp that writing is about figuring out what you want to say, who you're going to say it to, and the best way for you to say it. The standards foster junk writing.
 
Will highlights one single true benefit of the standards-- they call for writing frequently, which is smart. If you made your students write twice a week for a year and never even graded any of it, that would probably still be better than the classic four week long Writing Unit in April.
 
I know there are teachers who think they are swell. I've met some. Here's why some teachers like these writing standards.
 
1) They are teaching their own set of standards and pretending that their own standards have something to do with the Core standards.
 
2) They don't like to teach writing, and what they want someone to do is just reduce it to some simple rules so that they can just go through the motions and be able to say they're teaching writing without having to suffer through the hard work.
 
3) They don't know how to teach writing.
 
I'm sorry, but if you tell me that you think the standards are great for writing instruction, I will judge you. I'm not proud of it, but there it is (especially in Pennsylvania, where we have found ways to make the writing standards even worse). Will argues that teachers need more support, that there are "veteran teachers who had no practice in teaching the kind of writing, particularly argumentative writing, that the standards call for," and that's probably true, but I'm okay with that, because the standards call for junk. Teachers do need "support" in the teaching of writing (I do love how "needs support" is now our code word for "needs to be whacked upside the head and straightened the hell out"), but the standards are not the place to find it, and they're not the foundation on which to base it. I promise that I'll present my Writing Instruction Professional Development in a Can but this is already a long post, so we'll save that for another day.
 
But I will give you Step One, because summer is the perfect time to work on it.
 
Write. Write for a blog. Write letters to the editor of your newspaper. Write long thoughtful letters to friends. You can no more teach writing without actually doing writing than you can teach reading if you've never cracked open a book. So go do that. And don't consult any standards or templates when you do. Just ask yourself-- what do I want to say? That's the only thing you need to get started.
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Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher of secondary English for thirty-many years. He lives and works in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania where he plays ni a town band, works in community theater, and writes for the local paper.

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Guest Friday, 09 December 2016