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Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 9/28/2011 12:16 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Anthony Rebora
Posts: 102
First: 3/4/2008
Last: 9/28/2011


In a recent Education Week Commentary piece, teacher Paula Stacey argues that, thanks to increased attention from the education establishment, writing instruction in schools has become overly prescriptive and process-oriented. She cites the now habitual and unquestioned use of graphic organizers, brainstorming worksheets, idea-structuring exercises, fixed essay formats, and required "genres"--none of which seem to help students once they get to college and are asked to develop complex ideas in writing. "In our desire to help students engage in the process of writing," Stacey contends, "we have defined a process that really isn't writing." Her advice: "Let's get rid of the narrow models" and allow for "the messy process that is thinking."

What's your view? Has writing instruction become too prescriptive? Can less structured approaches be effective? What supports do students need? What works (or doesn't work) for you?

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 9/29/2011 8:59 AM EDT on EdWeek

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phdee
Posts: 1
First: 9/29/2011
Last: 9/29/2011

I have seen the five paragraph essay work wonders for young students facing multiple challenges.  A hamburger essay, with organized paragraphs inside the top and bottom of a bun is fun and engaging.  My special education students responded well and wrote passing essays.  That, however, is where the structured essay should end.

My son, who is not a struggling learner, was damaged by his school's adherence to strict rubrics and restrictive demands on the writing process.  There was no credit given for imaginative thinking or good ideas; it was all about the structure and conventions.  Complex sentences were discouraged due to the high value placed on proper capitalization and punctuation (he was eight years old, by the way).  Eighteen sentences and a single page restriction led him to short, simple sentences, boring and repetitive patterns, and a hatred for the task.  His free time story writing  has now been reduced to comic books with minimal dialogue as an expression of his thinking.  

The funny/sad thing about this patterned writing program is that after a first year boost in test scores (fifth graders who had freedom in the early years and were taught the structure only later), the school's writing scores went down and plummeted with the last group who had only been exposed to this method (from 76% passing writing to 55% the following year).

So, whoever killed writing instruction also killed my son's belief in his ability to write.  He is now in a school with somewhat lower test scores but one that understands and cares about the effect of negative feedback on young children.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 9/30/2011 12:05 PM EDT on EdWeek

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RHE
Posts: 20
First: 10/24/2008
Last: 9/30/2011

Who killed writing:  State curriculum standards and teachers who are not writers.  Writing is a highly personal endeavor.  When a teacher doesn't know how to write they fall back on stupid "rules."  I want my students to write so that I can laugh or cry.  I want to be moved.  I do not expect the elected state board to understand what it means to be a writer. 

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/1/2011 8:04 AM EDT on EdWeek

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jeffro
Posts: 1
First: 10/1/2011
Last: 10/1/2011

Shouldn't the degree of structure for writing be based on individual need?  As one commenter noted, her son was actually confined by the structure and unable to flourish.  Controlled writing was not only unnecessary, it made his writing stale and boring.

Yet, at the same time there are students who do need the structure...... now read this carefully.......just to get started.  (I believe there was a time when this would be called a rough draft and not a finished product.)  Once the hamburger is made, make it better!  Beethoven's works are not great because the adhered to the understood form. Picasso's art did not follow the rules of the time.  And Allen Ginsberg's Howl was a part of an entirely new type of writing.

Rigid writing structures should be guides.....not rules.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/1/2011 5:26 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Peter DeWitt
Posts: 2
First: 9/25/2011
Last: 10/1/2011

Hi Anthony,

Yes, writing, just like reading, has been turned into a scientifically-based phenomenon instead of a balance between teaching writing using researched-based methods and writing for fun. When I first began writing for Ed Week I posted a blog called Pyrotechnics on the page which is linked below. 

Educators feel so constrained because of high stakes testing that they do not always find time to allow kids to write for fun, which means we are dangerously close to ruining the writing process. As one of the posts said, teaching writing is difficult.  However, it doesn't have to be as difficult as we make it sometimes. 

Thanks for your time. 

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/finding_common_ground/2011/08/pyrotechnics_on_the_page.html?qs=pyrotechnics 

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/3/2011 12:32 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Peter
Posts: 2
First: 7/30/2008
Last: 10/3/2011

In order to learn to ride a bike well, many people need to start with training wheels. But it is equally important to their growth and skill that when the time is right, they take the training wheels off.

The five paragraph form is a fine set of training wheels, but if the wheels aren't taken off, they turn from a help to a hindrance.

I've been teaching for thirty-some years, and there have always been English teachers intent on killing writing instruction. Some were lazy and wanted an approach that would be simple to grade. Others were control freaks who wanted every student to write exactly as they would. Some just didn't know anything about writing-- the last time they wrote anything was the last time a college professor assigned a paper. 

These people have always been around, arguing with the rest of us in the department. What has changed is that the government has stepped in a declared that these teachers and their approaches to writing are correct.

All good writing starts with thinking (I have often told a student, "This essay doesn't have a writing problem-- it has a thinking problem"), but for the writing required by the state, thinking just gets in the way. The essay format, which is meant to be an open, free-flowing form that follows the needs and demands of whatever idea the student wants to express has become a five-paragraph fill-in-the-blank exercise.

Writing is a uniquely human and individual mode of expression. There is no more One Right Way to construct an essay than there is only One Right Way to kiss a woman. But bad instructors and state testing have joined up to kill writing as an expression of anything other than conformity and compliance.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/3/2011 12:50 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Becky H
Posts: 1
First: 10/3/2011
Last: 10/3/2011

I agree that writing has been overly "educated" in schools.  Right now I am working with a high school junior who cannot write.  His basic problem is identifying key ideas and formulating them into a sentence, essentially going from his head to the page A graphic organizer doesn't help him, but continuous work in finding key words, and constant writing and rewriting is working. As someone who also writes for a living I have never used a graphic organizer, but I do rely on constant rewriting, revisions and editing to make my ideas clearer.  Kids need to get over the fear of writing before they can write and using fancy accessories to writing only complicates an issue that should be relatively simple.  

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/3/2011 3:15 PM EDT on EdWeek

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BWatts
Posts: 1
First: 10/3/2011
Last: 10/3/2011

My twenty-five years in education as a secondary English teacher and teaching librarian have seen creative writing relegated to elective status.  There is nothing creative about assignments that dictate how many simple sentences you may use, what the purpose of each should be, what categories verbs must come from and what transition terms you must use--no joke!  I'm told that the writing prompts I used years ago are too time consuming when my 56 minutes per day with a class is needed to prepare them for high-stakes, state-mandated exams for both reading and writing.  We are told to teach poetry to ensure that students know how to respond to possible questions on figurative language.  NCLB is a factor.  So we teach our students to jump through the hoops and try to squeeze in as much passion, inspiration and creativity for language as we can.

Another negative factor for writing instruction is the myth that anybody can teach language arts, especially in the early grades.  For several years I was the only teacher in my middle school that had majored in writing and literature.  Incentives like financial aid and class-size ceilings are offered to keep math, science and special education teachers in classrooms.  In fact, some badly informed, budget-minded legislators in Washington State have suggested a revised pay schedule that will allow compensation for advanced degrees only to teachers from those three curricular areas.  So I worry not only where the Steinbecks and Hughes of the future will come from, but who their English teachers will be.  Will it matter to a citizenry that has had limited exposure to the power of the written word? 

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/4/2011 2:46 AM EDT on EdWeek

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Thinker
Posts: 39
First: 9/3/2008
Last: 10/4/2011

You aren't going to like this, but this is your own fault.

Not each of you individually, but the collective profession starting hundreds of years ago. The root of the problem is an authority based philosophy that values credentials and years of experience over lojik, creativity and results. It is literally part of the DNA of education.  

I suppose many of the bureaucrats that make up the rules you live by started out as teachers, so who is to blame? Every aspect of the educational system is about following the rules and walking on the prescribed path to get rewards. 

Instead of rewarding teachers for producing successful students, you earn raises by getting more certifications. So the creative, talented young teacher who is good at generating enthusiasm in her students will maybe get a trophy, while the career drone will work her way up the chain of command by accumulating degrees that supposedly tell her what the only way to teach is. 

At the risk of seeming to repeat myself, I believe it started with spelling. 

English is a mixed up mess. It gets pounded into the students heads with an underlying message 'Don't think about it, just memorize it. Lojik and efficiency are of no importance. Don't question anything, just believe authority.' 

So our entire civilization gets indoctrinated from kindergarten on up with this mindset. How often do you read something that you know from your own experience is utter nonsense, but it begins with the impressive credentials of the source, so you know that most people are going to accept it? 

Anyway, thats my 2 cents worth.  
       

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/4/2011 6:29 PM EDT on EdWeek

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wendyo
Posts: 1
First: 10/4/2011
Last: 10/4/2011

I

Prescriptive writing has a place in learning but at present in schools there is little room for the students to write creatively and use their imagination.  It is time for teachers to become less controlling about what the chidren write and then the students will become less fearful about their written expression and begin to write from the heart! 

Response to Who Killed Writing Instruction?:
In a recent Education Week Commentary piece , teacher Paula Stacey argues that, thanks to increased attention from the education establishment, writing instruction in schools has become overly prescriptive and process-oriented. She cites the now habitual and unquestioned use of graphic organizers, brainstorming worksheets, idea-structuring exercises, fixed essay formats, and required "genres"--none of which seem to help students once they get to college and are asked to develop complex ideas in writing. "In our desire to help students engage in the process of writing," Stacey contends, "we have defined a process that really isn't writing." Her advice: "Let's get rid of the narrow models" and allow for "the messy process that is thinking." What's your view? Has writing instruction become too prescriptive? Can less structured approaches be effective? What supports do students need? What works (or doesn't work) for you?
Posted by Anthony Rebora

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/5/2011 12:53 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Dan Danforth
Posts: 6
First: 6/19/2008
Last: 10/5/2011

Writing has always taken a back seat to reading and is sometimes taught as an afterthought.  Many English teachers have a reading specialty.  I have personally taken 4 graduate level reading classes, but nowhere did I have an option for writing and, heaven forbid, writing remediation.
I often use a little narrative to illustrate the writing conundrum - imagine that you would like to study rabbits, so you go out to the wild, capture a bunny, take it back to the lab, euthanize it,dissect it and label every part.  Then, you very carefully put the bunny back together and say "hop" bunny.  Obviously, the bunny will not hop, as you have taken the life from the bunny with your analysis.  Conversely, you can study the bunny in the wild, setting up blinds, cameras, tagging and so on to monitor the bunny's movements, mating, feeding, etc.  

In English, we tend to "parse" sentences, dissect them, label them and expect the student to be able to recreate the life of the sentence.  Rarely, do we use that which has been written to teach writing.  We can explore the writing flow, style, tone and voice of a particular writer or writing genre.  We can ask questions about why a particular writer wrote a particular sentence in the way he/she did.  
But, like the bunny, we need to know the labels of the bits to ask such questions.  Neither grammar study with dead sentences, nor writing study in existing writing can exist without each other.
We all have to be careful that we don't "kill the bunny" and have dead writing through an adherence to forensic grammar study.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/5/2011 12:59 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Dan Danforth
Posts: 6
First: 6/19/2008
Last: 10/5/2011

In Response to Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?:
I have seen the five paragraph essay work wonders for young students facing multiple challenges.  A hamburger essay, with organized paragraphs inside the top and bottom of a bun is fun and engaging.  My special education students responded well and wrote passing essays.  That, however, is where the structured essay should end. My son, who is not a struggling learner, was damaged by his school's adherence to strict rubrics and restrictive demands on the writing process.  There was no credit given for imaginative thinking or good ideas; it was all about the structure and conventions.  Complex sentences were discouraged due to the high value placed on proper capitalization and punctuation (he was eight years old, by the way).  Eighteen sentences and a single page restriction led him to short, simple sentences, boring and repetitive patterns, and a hatred for the task.  His free time story writing  has now been reduced to comic books with minimal dialogue as an expression of his thinking.  The funny/sad thing about this patterned writing program is that after a first year boost in test scores (fifth graders who had freedom in the early years and were taught the structure only later), the school's writing scores went down and plummeted with the last group who had only been exposed to this method (from 76% passing writing to 55% the following year). So, whoever killed writing instruction also killed my son's belief in his ability to write.  He is now in a school with somewhat lower test scores but one that understands and cares about the effect of negative feedback on young children.
Posted by phdee


I feel your pain.  (see my post below). Your son was the victim of "dead bunny" writing.  He knew inherently what he needed to say, but the suggestions to accomplish it were not adequate.  The tendency for teachers faced with inadequate writing preparation in their training and a need to simplify the task, dictates the minimal dialogue approach and a belief that there is a stencil for writing.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/6/2011 6:40 AM EDT on EdWeek

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Orticari
Posts: 2
First: 10/6/2011
Last: 10/6/2011

In Response to Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?:
Who killed writing:  State curriculum standards and teachers who are not writers.  Writing is a highly personal endeavor.  When a teacher doesn't know how to write they fall back on stupid "rules."  I want my students to write so that I can laugh or cry.  I want to be moved.  I do not expect the elected state board to understand what it means to be a writer. 
Posted by RHE


Totally agree. I teach college freshman who cannot write a single well written paragraph. I think it is becuase their teachers don't write so they don't get it. I taught high school for 13 years and my graduates were amazing. If you are not a writer, be an avid reader and undersatnd voice. Prescrition works a bit, but voice and thought are magical.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/6/2011 6:42 AM EDT on EdWeek

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Orticari
Posts: 2
First: 10/6/2011
Last: 10/6/2011

In Response to Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?:
Shouldn't the degree  of structure for writing be based on individual need?  As one commenter noted, her son was actually confined by the structure and unable to flourish.  Controlled writing was not only unnecessary, it made his writing stale and boring. Yet, at the same time there are students who do need the structure...... now read this carefully.......j ust to get started .  (I believe there was a time when this would be called a rough draft and not a finished product.)  Once the hamburger is made, make it better!  Beethoven's works are not great because the adhered to the understood form. Picasso's art did not follow the rules of the time.  And Allen Ginsberg's Howl  was a part of an entirely new type of writing. Rigid writing structures should be guides.....not rules.
Posted by jeffro


Yes indeed...drafting works well as does the constant rewrtiting rethinking that follows...necessary for growth.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/6/2011 3:42 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Carina Brunson
Posts: 1
First: 10/6/2011
Last: 10/6/2011

I do believe it has become too prescriptive, but I don't think it is a recent thing. It has been something that has grown for years and has just gotten worse even though we see writing test scores going down. 

I graduated from high school in 1993.My sophomore year I had a teacher that would not accept a written assignment because it was too long. I did not turn in a writing assignment for almost two weeks. She killed me and my love for writing. She turned around after an in depth conversation with my parents and I.
I do like some of the order in writing techniques today, but I also think it makes children stay too much inside a box and does not let them develop their own techniques. Yes, there are right and wrong ways of writing, but everyone has their own style, even if the teacher is asking for the same thing from everyone.
Having four kids, three school-age, I see how they are learning to write, or lack thereof because of the prescriptive techniques. I hate to see how much our writing skills will drop in the coming years if something does not change. 

Standardized testing is the main culprit, teachers that lack real writing skills is another.

In Response to Who Killed Writing Instruction?:
In a recent Education Week Commentary piece , teacher Paula Stacey argues that, thanks to increased attention from the education establishment, writing instruction in schools has become overly prescriptive and process-oriented. She cites the now habitual and unquestioned use of graphic organizers, brainstorming worksheets, idea-structuring exercises, fixed essay formats, and required "genres"--none of which seem to help students once they get to college and are asked to develop complex ideas in writing. "In our desire to help students engage in the process of writing," Stacey contends, "we have defined a process that really isn't writing." Her advice: "Let's get rid of the narrow models" and allow for "the messy process that is thinking." What's your view? Has writing instruction become too prescriptive? Can less structured approaches be effective? What supports do students need? What works (or doesn't work) for you?
Posted by Anthony Rebora

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/6/2011 3:44 PM EDT on EdWeek

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asl1220
Posts: 1
First: 10/6/2011
Last: 10/6/2011

There are several problems with writing in the schools.  One of the main issues is that many teachers do not know how to write; therefore, how can they teach writing?  I have seen papers handed back to students with corrections made by teachers that are incorrect!  And spelling errors abound - by the teachers - on student papers and on notes sent home to parents!  Another problem is the structred writing that is being taught (i.e., SIMS).  It may seem successful on the outside, but what have the students actually encoded about writing?  All of their essays end the same way - "as you can see..."  It is awful.  There is no creativity involved or encouraged; all of the writing is so formulaic.  

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/6/2011 5:25 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Garreth
Posts: 7
First: 5/29/2008
Last: 10/6/2011

I have taught the 5 paragraph model to my middle-school students because I believe, as others here do, that one must "learn the rules in order to break them" (Picasso).  But recently I read an essay that argues that the empiricism upon which the 5 paragraph model is based is utterly foreign to many from other countries.  They just don't understand our insistence upon 3-point analysis.  And to tell the truth...I don't write that way.

But when I'm coaching debaters and public speakers, we almost always default to a 3-point analysis.  Of course, this is because the audience expects such organization; it makes it easier to pay attention to what is said because the judge doesn't need to discern how it is said.

All that, however, means little.  In the end, I don't write that way.  I'm a freewriter.  I believe in the messy, sweaty pouring out of ideas...the production of chaos...I need to see my thoughts before I can organize them. Nothing I've ever done in learning the pedagogy of writing can compare to even one trip (I've gone 8 times) to Bard College's Institute for Writing and Thinking.  If, as many of us here claim, writing is inextricably linked to thinking, if it writing itself is thinking, then this place is heaven and to any teachers who have not yet been there...you ought to go.

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/6/2011 5:36 PM EDT on EdWeek

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E Rozycki
Posts: 2
First: 9/6/2011
Last: 10/6/2011

In Response to Who Killed Writing Instruction?:
As someone who worked for 17 years with graduate students writing research papers and dissertations I would have been very happy if the majority of my students had had the basic skills for communicating ideas via text. The concern for creativity is overwrought when it is allowed to override basic skills. 

Here is a simple test which many, many adults cannot pass: 

1. Think about something you do very well.
2. Tell us about it: explain what your are trying to accomplish; and, how you go about it.
3. Now, sit down and write what you just told us.

Cordially, in sorrow,
Edward G. Rozycki

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/8/2011 12:52 PM EDT on EdWeek

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Paula Stacey
Posts: 1
First: 10/8/2011
Last: 10/8/2011

Hi,

This is Paula Stacey, author of the commentary (First Do No Harm: Let's Stop Teaching Writing) that sparked this discussion.  I've been reading the comments with interest and have also been corresponding with teachers thoughtout the country who wrote me in response to the commentary.

I've noticed that many view structures like the "hamburger paragraph/essay" or the five paragraph essay as stepping stones to structure.  In other words, students who need them, who can't figure out how to create structure, can rely on these formats, then develop confidence, internalize them, and ultimatley move on to more "creative" or complex structures.  I too had viewed these structures this way, thinking they were temporary, training wheels.  

But over time experience in teaching these structures let me to a different conclusion.  I found it was the most naturally adept writers who used the structures this way.  The students who weren't natural writers, who had problems developing ideas or even crafting sentences often found these structures to be, not a help, but an added burden. They get really, really stuck in this place of "Am I doing it right now?  Is this what you wanted?"  Then, "I can't do this.  I just don't get it."  

The problem is that when we introduce writing as "something to get or not to get" students' confidence plummets and they shut down.  The issue isn't necessarily how can we free up students to be creative and expressive, which is a romantic notion, I think.  The issue is, how can we help students feel comfortable and confident expressing what they need to express in school and in life.  It's not that i don't think we should promote expressiveness and give students the freedom to be creative in their experssions, but that by holding up creativity as a objective we also risk undermining students' confidence.  It has a paradoxical effect.

But many of you seem to think that struggling students do respond to these structures.  I really would like to hear more about your experiences with this.  Thanks!  Paula

 

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Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?
posted at 10/9/2011 7:09 PM EDT on EdWeek

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lillysmom10
Posts: 1
First: 10/9/2011
Last: 10/9/2011

In Response to Re: Who Killed Writing Instruction?:

I am studying teaching now and I hope taht I will be able to give my studetns confidence in their writing. I wonder if the crux of the issue is one of grading. We are taught to use rubric's to discern if something is A through F work. I dont think this should be the true tell of the merit of a student's writing but rather the tell should be from our knowledge of the student's individual process.

Hi, This is Paula Stacey, author of the commentary (First Do No Harm: Let's Stop Teaching Writing) that sparked this discussion.  I've been reading the comments with interest and have also been corresponding with teachers thoughtout the country who wrote me in response to the commentary. I've noticed that many view structures like the "hamburger paragraph/essay" or the five paragraph essay as stepping stones to structure.  In other words, students who need them, who can't figure out how to create structure, can rely on these formats, then develop confidence, internalize them, and ultimatley move on to more "creative" or complex structures.  I too had viewed these structures this way, thinking they were temporary, training wheels.  But over time experience in teaching these structures let me to a different conclusion.  I found it was the most naturally adept writers who used the structures this way.  The students who weren't natural writers, who had problems developing ideas or even crafting sentences often found these structures to be, not a help, but an added burden. They get really, really stuck in this place of "Am I doing it right now?  Is this what you wanted?"  Then, "I can't do this.  I just don't get it."  The problem is that when we introduce writing as "something to get or not to get" students' confidence plummets and they shut down.  The issue isn't necessarily how can we free up students to be creative and expressive, which is a romantic notion, I think.  The issue is, how can we help students feel comfortable and confident expressing what they need to express in school and in life.  It's not that i don't think we should promote expressiveness and give students the freedom to be creative in their experssions, but that by holding up creativity as a objective we also risk undermining students' confidence.  It has a paradoxical effect. But many of you seem to think that struggling students do respond to these structures.  I really would like to hear more about your experiences with this.  Thanks!  Paula  
Posted by Paula Stacey

 

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