But the way we teach writing is probably pretty different than how you were taught, and probably pretty different from the way it is being taught in your school right now. This process is an amalgamation of many of the ways we learned to write (1:1 conferences, intensive feedback) and methods we’ve found to help students along the Writing Path.
For most students, the Five Paragraph Essay (FPE) has loomed as the dominant force in their experience with writing. You can argue that is a bad thing or a good thing, but it is a thing; and for our students, it is a thing that we try to push beyond. Whether you love it or you hate it, students who rely on the formula for the FPE end up writing something that is 90% structure and 10% content. And often, that 10% content is parroted back from whatever the teacher has said about the issue or text in class. And yet, students leave high school believing they are good writers, only to have their first college professor or employer disabuse them of that notion pretty quickly.
Clearly, the way we teach writing has to change.
But the FPE exists and even thrives for one main reason: teaching writing is tremendously difficult. Students who are used to being spoon-fed see a writing task and panic because writing is the sum of thousands of parts - mechanics, creativity, voice, purpose, audience, spelling, idioms, academic vocabulary, sentence construction - and they have no idea where to begin.
So we give them training wheels - here are sentence frames for delivering your main ideas, and here are transition words to move between ideas, and here are sure-fire hooks and conclusion phrases that will get you through the awful task of writing.
That’s totally missing the point. Writing is difficult, yes. But it’s also freeing. How many great movies and stories revolve around the act of reflective daily writing? How many of us have read the words of someone else and seen in them reflections of experience we had never been able to articulate, but are laid bare in a way that makes it seem like those words have always been tied to that experience?
So why do so many students hate writing? Because school.
We have to blow up how school is done in order to help our students unlearn what it means to be a writer. Creation, which is at the heart of writing, is part of the very nature of what it means to be human. Creation is terrifying, because once we’ve created it, we no longer can control how other people will respond to it. We send it out and hope for the best.
That’s the experience our students have as well. They spend hours composing essays or projects, and in return, they get a letter. At best, they get some scribbled red comments that note all of the ways they have failed. This leads to Sparknoted essays or essays written in the last 20 minutes of math class right before English starts-- there’s no connection to their subject, to the process, to the words on the page.
And we wonder why they hate to write. If every time we made a video, we got a few comments that said “Your effort in the opening sequence was minimal, and the tone was unbalanced. C-” we would probably stop making videos. Or we would just delete all the comments.
When we started trying to teach writing in a flipped classroom, we did something we do for just about everything: we broke down our own process and tried to analyse what made it work.
We discovered that what we actually do is pretty different than how we were teaching our students to write. Our composition process for posts like this, ones mirrored on both our blogs, is pretty simple. We get in a Google Doc and start writing. Usually, it starts with a brain dump-- bullet points of the argument, etc. And then we just go at the subject for 5-10 minutes, free-ish-writing, whatever comes to mind, especially things that are semi-related to the topic at hand.
Then we start tearing it apart and piecing it back together. We have these chunks of thought that may or may not be connected, and we try to rearrange them so they end up semi-linear and mostly rational. This is not dissimilar to how we plan presentations as well, with sticky notes and torn index cards/envelopes. While we don’t necessarily recommend this method to students, it does allow for these tactile learners to get a better grip on what it is we’re trying to say.
So why don’t we teach our students in a way that allows them to discover their own system of torn up index cards spread out over a hotel room coffee table?
Because it’s messy. And it’s chaotic. And it’s really really difficult.
So we go back to the FPE and to our staff room complaints about how bad our students are at writing.
Over the next few blog posts, we are going to outline a series of strategies we have implemented in our classroom to change the way our students conceive of the writing process and their experience of writing in general. Unlearning is more challenging than learning, so we have made lots of mistakes as we’ve tried to figure out what a flipped writing class actually looks like.
But we want our students to have the same experience we do: when we share our writing with our professional learning network, we get some praise, some criticism, and some constructive comments that force us to rethink the topic or text. We don’t get a grade on our writing. Thank goodness.
We’d never publish another blog post if we knew the Big Red Letter was coming. Hopefully, we can show you some of the ways we’ve changed our thinking about writing instruction. And hopefully, what we write will be commented on and criticised so that we can take what we do and make it even better.