Last month I wrote about attempting to take my students beyond writing-as-rule-following to a more open, flexible view of what writing can do and do for us. This month I’d like to share my comic strip version of a story that illustrates why this idea of “Tools Over Rules” matters. I promise you that any exaggeration for comic effect is very mild.
My wife and I have been teaching at the same schools for a good chunk of our careers, first at a middle school and now at a high school. She had been a character in my comic strip, Mr. Fitz, before she became a teacher later in life than I did, so of course Mrs. Fitz became a teacher as well. A few years back, an administrator asked if we would run a class for high school juniors who were in our Take Stock in Children Program. We would be teaching them writing techniques to write a successful college admissions essay.
Of course we said Yes, and one fine Saturday morning we gathered in my wife’s classroom with a small group of soon-to-be-seniors eager to learn how they could write their college essays during the coming year. None of them were students we’d ever had in class, and some came from neighboring schools. We ran into our first difficulty almost immediately: these students had a very, very limited idea of what writing was.
I do not blame these students for their misconception, or their teachers, many of whom are simply trying to hold on to their jobs (in a state that no longer grants tenure) by doing what they are told to do. I do hold the system to blame, however. Florida had adopted the Common Core State Standards but renamed them because the name had become a political hot potato. Thus, we were supposed be teach the Language Arts Florida Standards, or LAFS. (I really wanted the state to come up with an “I teach for the LAFS” campaign for English teachers. Alas, they were not capable of humor.)
The standards said we were supposed to be teaching narratives, both real and fictional, at every grade level. However, the standardized writing test students took each year only valued one kind of writing: writing-to-text. So writing-to-text became the only kind of writing on anyone’s curriculum map, and in many classrooms, it was the only kind of writing taught: read three or four articles on an innocuous topic and then synthesize them into an informational or argumentative 5-paragraph essay. Not only that, this form of writing was not taught as one kind of writing among many, but as the only way to write. Writing for the state test became writing itself: monolithic, rule-based, and oppressive.
For instance, most of the students in our class had been taught never, ever to use certain pronouns.
Not only that, most of these students had been taught that not only could they not use personal pronouns, they couldn’t use personal details, or indeed details at all. Many of them had been trained to only use details from the texts they had read…
We discovered that students didn’t know how to write about themselves and were addicted to stringing together text-evidence-quotes instead of doing the real work of elaborating. But there were worse consequences to the monolithic view of writing they’d been handed…
When we rob students of the chance to write about themselves, their hopes and dreams, their pasts and possible futures, we rob them of some of the best benefits writing has to offer: self discovery and creating a sense of future. Social-emotional learning is very big right now, yet the system, in its never-ending quest to “raise student achievement” has failed to realize that one of the best tools to help students socially and emotionally is sitting in plain sight, unused: personal writing. Without being encouraged in class to write for themselves, many students never will, and many end up with, perhaps, an impoverished sense of who they are.
But we didn’t have time, in one session, to completely remedy the situation. What we did need to do was cure them of thinking that writing was one, monolithic bundle of rules that were the same in every writing situation. Our rising seniors didn’t need to be taught how to write so much as they needed to be taught that writing needed to be flexible.
In the end, though, they wrote some sample college essays that were personal, vivid, funny, and sometimes… moving.
It occurred to us, and to some of the students, that maybe having a more flexible view of writing might help them not just apply to college, but to do better once they arrived.
And even better, it took just a few hours to convince some of them that writing might even be… not terrible.
I believe that our educational systems should actually encourage teachers, and students, to view writing as more than test prep. But I’m not holding my breathe. In the meantime, we owe it to our students to teach them that there is more than one way to write, and that writing about yourself is one of the best ways to find out who you are and where you want to go in life.
David Lee Finkle
Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.
How do you get writers to think about the choices they make? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics
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