I have been getting fairly good at teaching writing lately. Maybe that’s not quite right. I have been getting better at being specific on where my students need improvement and addressing those issues. And one thing that keeps coming up, no matter the level of student, is that they consistently stick to the rules they learned in middle school, as if what their middle school language arts teacher was the end-all and be-all. They are immediately suspicious if I try to bring them up a level, and I am wondering why that is.
Perhaps it’s the lack of relevant reading material. Because the ELA curriculum is pretty strict and regimented in my district, I have very little time to expose my students to everyday writing. Topics in the newspaper and magazines. And since we have to focus so much on the standardized state exam (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test – or the FCAT), which is comprised of the most boring articles that have nothing to do with the kids lives and then force them to answer inane and confusing questions about them where the accepted answer is sometimes arguable or even downright wrong, my students revolt even when the topic is interesting anymore. They simply don’t get to see the good stuff.
So they aren’t reading. And how can they see the connections to what they write if they don’t know what makes something worth reading?
And then there’s the FCAT writing exam which, until this year, has accepted the most error-ridden responses as stellar. Additionally, in middle school, the teaching technique for writing is almost solely dedicated to passing this test and not for any kind of later academic or real-world application. For instance, instead of teaching students how to transition from one point to the next, they simply create a formula. In previous years, kids could just write first, second, and third at the beginning of their paragraphs. Now that numerical transitions are no longer accepted on the state exam, we have transitioned into TAFI (to begin with, additionally, finally, and in conclusion). Again, just words the students throw into their essay to try to fake transitions rather than actually learning how to work them.
I bring all this up because I was working with two boys that I regularly tutor on this skill, and was teaching them how to effectively plan an upper-level expository essay (the kind one might regularly have to write through high school and college explaining an assigned topic). We worked out, down to the last minute detail, what they were going to write about in each section, and when it came time to incorporate the statements into paragraphs, the boys said, “Oh! We get it! All these things relate to each other, so we weave them together, then we can say how this next point is kind of the same, but you want to use it in a different way!”
All I could say: “Yes.”
They finally understood. And so did I.
The issue with the way we teach writing is that we’ve separated the pieces from each other. In trying to show these boys how to plan, they learned how to transition, and proved it in their writing. We have failed to show them the purpose of a thesis statement – only how to do them. We haven’t shown them how it is the guiding star throughout the piece and that in providing examples to support the thesis, we are explaining it to the reader. And we haven’t given them enough practice or patience to allow them to see how natural writing works. To see how all these pieces work together – not as separate entities of intro, thesis, body, body, body, conclusion.
So I now know where my work shall focus.