Teaching Writing in the Absence of Expertise

For about the last third of my two decades as a high school English teacher, I served as the varsity soccer coach, at first for both the girls and boys squads and then just the boys.

Soccer was new to the high school, and the athletic director/ head football coach was actively antagonistic about the sport; he basked in calling soccer a “communist” sport, in fact.

The coach before me had played college baseball. He typically arrived at practice in his softball cleats and prompted the team to scrimmage, virtually every practice.

The team’s success was built almost entirely on the expertise of the players, although there was little success.

The dirty open secret about my agreeing to become the coach was that, although I was an active athlete (cycling) at the time and had played team sports in high school and college, I had never once played any organized soccer. My experience with soccer was grounded entirely in having come to the sport through my daughter, who began playing at 4 and within a few years became an elite youth soccer player.

Despite my lack of expertise as a player, my teams soon became the dominant team in our conference, and we posted back-to-back years of 15-4 and 14-5 records at one point.

I often think of my own experiences as a coach when I am confronted with mainstream beliefs that anyone can teach or coach anything because these skills (teaching, coaching) have some sort of generic qualities independent of the thing being taught or coached.

As my stint as soccer coach showed, it can be done, even well—but I would argue that my experience was an outlier and ultimately does not make a valid case for teaching or coaching as professions that can be mastered without the context of content (for lack of a better word).

With a recent flurry of discussions on social media about teaching writing [1], I have returned to my own conflicted beliefs about the need for teachers of writing to be writers themselves.

Much of the public debate about student writing quality and how to teach writing well is, frankly, garbled—such as this:

Today, there is a growing consensus that students need strong writing skills to succeed in the workplace and to fully participate in society, but educators passionately disagree on the best ways to teach those skills. Some call for greater focus on the fundamentals of grammar: building vocabulary, identifying parts of speech, and mastering punctuation. Others believe that students need more opportunities to develop their writerly voice through creative expression and work that allows them to make connections between great literature and their personal lives.

Meanwhile, it appears that many of the methods seem to be falling short: Results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that only one in four 12th- and eighth-graders is meeting grade-level expectations in writing. In both tested grades, Latino and African American students scored lower than their peers in other racial and ethnic subgroups.

Historically and currently oversimplified as a debate and framed always by “kids today can’t write,” the teaching of writing remains stunted by some systemic constraints that seem never to be addressed because, well, its always a debate and “kids today” can never write well.

One of those systemic problems is, I think, that those charged with teaching writing are mostly teachers who have never written in any context except for formal schooling.

This traditional pattern means that mechanistic approaches such as templates (five-paragraph essay) and rubrics are somewhat necessary structures to support the lack of expertise and experiences by those teachers.

School writing, as Cindy O’Donnell-Allen explains, is in many ways the anti-thesis of writing:

In school, writing was a closed circuit. The teacher gave an assignment, I responded, then she passed it back with a letter grade at the top of the page. I was good at school, but none of it felt like writing. Writing was what I did on my own time. I composed poetry and song lyrics in secret and hid my journal in my sock drawer when I heard footsteps in the hall.

Teaching students to write as students—and currently that means a significant amount of time and energy spent on teaching students to write to prompts in standardized and high-stakes assessments (from state accountability tests to so-called more sophisticated exams such as those for Advanced Placement)—is a narrow and possibly necessary evil. Yet as O’Donnell-Allen muses about students learning to write as students:

But would she have had sufficient experience writing in varied genres beyond the academic argument that writing a feature for The Atlantic would someday seem possible? And would she have had gained enough satisfaction from preparing for the Regents Exam that she would have hoped for a writing life beyond it? (It’s hard to say.)

Templates and rubrics as the guiding structures of teaching writing are about formal education being a “closed circuit” and mostly not authentic.

How many art teachers are not artists themselves? How many music teachers play no instrument? How many chorus teachers are not singers?

The teaching of writing and then the writing that students do K-12 and throughout college are trapped in a misunderstanding about expertise—both the expertise needed by the teachers and the expertise that students should be developing for themselves.

To teach writing, teachers must themselves have some real and (possibly formal) experiences as writers. Teachers who have only been writing in school as students (typically conforming to templates and rubrics, probably to perform on an assessment) are mostly equipped to pass along that “closed circuit” to students.

In a culture that narrowly identifies student success by “closed circuit” assessments, however, this dynamic may be viewed as very successful. Non-writers as teachers of writing may be able to wrangle most of their students into performing proficiently—or even excelling—on formal high-stakes tests (ones that are not valid measures of real-world writing, by the way; see my Chapter 1 on the problems with NAEP writing assessment).

As a first-year writing professor at a selective university, I can attest that these students who excel at writing as students are not equipped for advanced disciplinary writing within their major or in graduate school; they are also not prepared to be writers who makes their own decisions in sophisticated ways—or to write “a feature for The Atlantic,” as it were.

Templates such as the five-paragraph essay and rubrics are practical crutches for an education system that has failed to recognize the importance of complex expertise in the art and act of teaching.

Yes, some broad skills and dispositions can be identified and even taught to those aspiring to be teachers, but we must never leave it at that. Teaching also requires expertise in the thing being taught.

The teaching of writing is the domain of those who write in authentic ways—not just as students—and have some formal guidance in the moves of teaching broadly and teaching writing specifically.

Being a writer is humbling and it defies simple formulas because it is an unpredictable series of questions, fits and starts, and a journey toward a finished product that cannot be explained well in its parts.

That sort of experience over many years is the ideal expertise one needs to guide students to become writers, and not just to corral them into writing as students.

[1] See John Warner’s new book, and the zombie-like persistence of the 5-paragraph essay as well as the debate about that temple here and here.

See Also on the Five-Paragraph Essay

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)