Teaching writing

When my reading in Bloglines doesn’t spark any ideas for a post, I have taken to clicking on the “writing” tag on the WordPress site.  Today, after a couple false starts, I came across a post by someone I was totally unfamiliar with, Patrick Higgins, at Chalkdust101.  In this post Higgins links to an article by Bradley Hammer about writing and thinking and thinking about writing.

Talking about high school students entering college, he says:

Often they’re shocked to discover that effective academic writing is more complex than adherence to grammatical rules.


…“standards-driven” high school writing is hindering student interest. Without real opportunities for students to publish their writing, they will assess that they write not for meaning, intellectual discovery, communication or understanding, but rather in obligatory, outdated, punitive and procedural ways to obtain grades. Consequently, as students spend their years of education consumed with standardized tests, they learn to write — and think — in ways that fail to offer rich and critical contexts for learning.


Writing courses that remain wedded to the genre and methods of the past merely limit students’ ability to imagine their work as real. The traditional argumentative essay does not force students to engage critically with complex reasoning “about” an issue, but rather merely instructs them on how to argue “for” or “against” it.

The article was filled with a lot that I need to go back and read again.  I know it got me thinking about how I am teaching writing.  And it feeds into my concern about how I would use blogs with my students.  No, actually, that isn’t true.  It helps me see possibilities for using blogs that I hadn’t really seen before.

And back to Higgins’ post, he invited Hammer to talk to the English department where he is about writing.  He reports on Hammer’s comments:

Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with.  For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing.  Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.”  Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format.  His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.

His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on.  For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you.

As someone who cares about writing and teaches writing, there is a lot for me to think about there. I will write about it more after I have had more time to think about my own situation in light of those words.

I’ve added Chalkdust101 to my Bloglines account, so you can expect to read more from Higgins here in the future.


3 thoughts on “Teaching writing

  1. Hi Nancy,

    Thanks for the mention. It’s true–blogging is a different animal, especially in a standards-driven environment. Do you assess it? Do you allow it to grow on it’s own and let the students just write? It’s a double-edged sword much of the time. It has to be assessed, but how you do that often determines the role it plays. One of the best examples of using blogging to create community and foster learning and individual growth that I have seen was done by Konrad Glogowski in Toronto. His blog, The Blog of Proximal Development, is rife with references to how he created the learning environment in his classroom through effectively connecting the students to one another through thoughtful commenting. Your answer might lie somewhere in there.

    For me, writing remains the one giant snafu. How do we get students to do more of it and do it thoughtfully, while still allowing the teachers who read it to have some semblance of a life outside of school? When I figure it out, I will be sure to post it.

    Thanks again.

  2. I haven’t seen my college students able to “do the essay” or much else.

    However, I would say students typically don’t care about academic essays because they are allowed to choose their own writing topics.

    When allowed free rein, students pick a topic about which they feel strongly but on which they know almost nothing They don’t attempt to fill in the gaps in their knowledge: they don’t know they have gaps.

    All the palaver about finding one’s voice and finding one’s passion are irrelevant to 98% of the writing students will have to do in college and on the job. Caitlin’s chemistry professor won’t care how she feels about isotopes.

    Similarly, when Josh’s boss tells him to write a recommendation for a new point-of-purchase system, the writing is an assignment, not an expression of Josh’s passion for POP systems. The boss will expect Josh to write in “obligatory, outdated, punitive and procedural ways” not to obtain a grade, but to obtain a paycheck.

    A more useful and realistic approach to teaching writing is to have students write on authentic topics. In English class, authentic topics for writing would be
    **changes in word meanings over time
    **the difference between writing and speaking
    **writing conventions in specific writing genres.

    For more on this topic, and some downloadable writing prompts, see http://www.you-can-teach-writing.com/writing-prompts.html

    Linda Aragoni

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