on teaching writing

By ed_needs_a_bicycle: http://www.flickr.com/photos/omcoc/3050378171/
My approach to writing has been evolving over the past 20 years. I started teaching writing as a peer tutor in a university writing center, working with students on specific assignments. I was teaching a highly prescriptive style, but one that worked for the type of writing they were doing, and one that served my 'clients:' people who needed to write rather than those who wrote for the joy of putting words together. That experience of sitting with students and going through their essays carefully has served me extremely well over the years.

I find that I want to talk about principles of writing as much as as I want to talk about rules of writing. However, most of my students need a firm handle on the practical matters before they are ready to talk theory (if they ever are, for many of them). So, like so much of teaching, I am balancing between the concrete and the conceptual, and helping students find the bridges between the two.

In no particular order, here are some of the principles I use as a composition teacher:
  • Students need a basic boilerplate which from they can start, but it is only a start. I've never liked calling it the 5 paragraph essay, as if the number of paragraphs matters in the slightest, but the thesis-driven essay with topic sentences and specific elements of support transitioned together is a good starting point for most students. However, it is only a starting point. If a student can explain why they are doing something else, then by all means they should do something else if it serves their purpose and audience. The scaffold is not the building: once they are ready to do their own thing, then I let them go.
  • I have been emphasizing two-part essays as one way to work with ideas. As I've pushed tension as a literary and cultural idea, the two-part essay allows them to explore that tension in on way or another. That does not mean that they will have only 2 body paragraphs, however: they can have any number of body paragraphs with the effective use of transitions.
  • Process really, really matters. Good writing happens through a meaningful process, and again some guidance is usually needed for new or less confident writers. But at some point they need to adapt the process to their own learning style and time commitments. And the process can only be measured by the effect on the final product. In other words, following a carefully outlined process is meaningless if the published text is not effective.
  • Students need clear and specific rubrics. The MYP criteria work very well for this as long as I make specific annotations to make the application to the specific writing assignment clear. Students should be able to define the specific questions they need to ask themselves about their work.
  • Students also need models of solid, accesible essay writing, and I need the experience of writing them. I need to be involved in the writing process now, not recalling it from 20 years ago. Some teachers feel like the models limit student creativity, but in my experience the models give students a guide to how to work with mundane details so they can focus on being creative. 
  • I have been pushing audacity as a quality of writing, even the most basic literary essay. I find that many of my best students can write correctly, but they have little to say. It is the old problem of getting them to develop an idea that goes beyond stating the obvious or repeating class discussions back to me. I try to write prompts that allow for a level of audacious thinking, and I encourage them to give me their reading, their understanding. We talk more about making an argument than writing an essay.
  • Technology makes it possible for me to be more involved in the process. In the olden days, I set essays and they worked on them at home, bringing in (maybe) one draft. Now we schedule 2-3 blocks of computer use during class time to work on written (and oral) tasks, and I can go around and check on the process as often as I or they want. It has completely changed the way I interact with student writers, and class time becomes a workshop. I've returned to my role as writing center tutoring. Peer assessment and appropriate collaboration (running ideas past each other) are also a much bigger part of the writing process as we work together in class.
  • I encourage students to use feedback from written tasks to formulate their own goal setting and process assessment. When starting a task, I usually have them go back and look at the last written task to see what went well and what they might want to adjust, compensate for or focus on.