I can tell I’m missing teaching by my reaction to these tweets from my friend, Paula Patch, senior lecturer in English and College Writing program coordinator at Elon University.
I might’ve teared up a little, and not because it suddenly got dusty in my home office. Through my own work I’ve come to believe the most important thing we can do to help students develop as writers is to allow them to write on subjects of interest and write for audiences that matter. Prof. Patch practices a pedagogy I deeply admire and am influenced by and to run across this little bit of evidence showing that it has worked in this particular case felt like a real victory, even though I had nothing to do with it.
It also made me think of a tweet from earlier in the semester from Penn St. English professor Matt Tierney:
My students had never expressed it in quite this way, but I know they’d experienced something similar. When I asked them about the audiences they’d written for previously, the most common response was “the teacher.” In my book, that’s not good.
As it happened, I spent a chunk of my Saturday responding to a Gates Foundation/Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Request for Information regarding “Improving Writing: Developing the Requisite Habits, Skills and Strategies” perhaps a precursor to the next round of their investments in education.
As an institutionally unaffiliated writer, I don’t have high hopes for attracting the Gates Foundation/Chan Zuckberg Initative’s attention or their money, but I had some time on my hands and given that I’ve already spent plenty of pixels explaining what I think they’ve been doing wrong, what is there to lose in telling them directly?
Respectfully, of course, because I brought what I thought was good news, that despite claims to the contrary, we know quite a bit how to help students to learn to write. Drawing from my own forthcoming book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (now available for pre-order), I argued for an approach which puts student passions and student ideas central to the process, rather than dismissing them as irrelevant.
I argue this because I’m concerned about how far the pendulum has swung in the wrong direction.
In 2011, David Coleman, the “architect” of the Common Core State Standards, told a webinar audience that the standards were moving away from the “most popular” forms of student writing “the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal narrative.”
Coleman went on, “The only problem with those two forms of writing is that as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel and what you think.”
The standards themselves demonstrate a wider concern with various modes of written expression than one would think based on Coleman’s remarks, but the remarks reflect the dominant framework for education that existed well before the development of the CCSS, the job of students is to learn what the authority figure says is important, and parrot that back to them.
It’s not surprising this is de-motivating when it comes to writing. As I have said and will continue to say until everyone agrees with me, writing is thinking, and it is significantly more engaging to spend your time thinking about things you’re interested in.
This need not be incompatible with the goals of teaching argument, analysis, evidence, organization, and presentation. Why The Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities is a narrative argument rooted in my experience, one big argument with many smaller arguments nesting inside one another, bolstered by dozens of secondary and primary sources. By Coleman’s declaration, students should not be encouraged to pursue similar projects.
In fact, valuing what students think and feel is necessary to helping them become better writers because Coleman is indeed partially correct, no one cares about what you feel and what you think…unless you convince them.
Filling out the GF/CZI Request for Information was my attempt at convincing the most influential forces in education that they should care about what I think and what I feel.
There are some promising signs in the RFI that they may be receptive to my message. They cite the heavy student loads for teachers as an impediment to improving writing instruction, both implicitly and explicitly acknowledging the importance of teachers to the process.
They recognize the disconnect between the things we tend to value and measure in standardized writing assessments today and writing proficiency that transfers beyond those assessments. Peer-to-peer collaboration and feedback is a specific point of emphasis. My thumbs are up.
There are also worrisome parts. They say “auto-scoring of writing assignments holds promise,” but this is only true if we ignore some of the other things they say are important. Auto-Scoring of writing assignments should be abandoned if we are genuinely interested in students learning to write, rather than training them to pass assessments.
Even though I’m confident nothing will come of my response, it was nice to spend a couple hours on a Saturday morning tasked with thinking through my own beliefs and teaching philosophy, and figuring out the best way to communicate to this audience.
The doing was its own reward. It’s the same thing Paula Patch’s student experienced, and I think it’s something we should provide to students as much as humanly possible.