The Writing Models Dilemma: On Authentic Writing and Avoiding the Tyranny of Rubrics

While my journey to the fields of English and teaching started with science fiction and comic books, a love of reading that was steered to so-called “literature” by my high school English teacher, Lynn Harrill, I walked into my first high school classroom as a teacher of English primarily committed to teaching young people to write.

My goal was not simply to have my students write well, but to write authentically, to write in ways that existed outside traditional classroom essay writing.

Teacher preparation for teaching high school English was for me (and remains mostly so) grounded significantly in teaching literature. As a result, I spent the first 5-10 years as a teacher teaching myself how to be a writing instructor.

Far too many of my practices were quite bad, even harmful. However, one thing kept my writing curriculum afloat—volume. I somehow recognized very early that people learn to write by writing (see LaBrant, 1953).

But I also began my career as a teacher of writing by embracing two contradictory commitments: (1) I was always anti-five-paragraph essay; however, (2) I tended to remain grounded in a (ridiculous) commitment to using an authentic-template approach.

It took me several years to recognize that teaching writing wasn’t about finding the right template, but about rejecting the tyranny of the rubric/template approach.

Without rubrics/templates, however, teaching writing to a relatively large number of students, most of whom are not genuinely motivated to become writers, is incredibly challenging. None the less, rubrics/templates are conducive to managing the teaching of writing, but they are essentially the enemy of authentic writing.

A watershed moment for me in teaching writing came with helping writers who wanted to write poetry. Writing poetry and teaching people to write poetry are very similar to writing and teaching students to write essays in that both can be accomplished in some superficial way with rubrics/templates, but that those outcomes are only pale imitations of the forms being attempted.

Most of us have participated in the clunky 5-7-5 approach to writing a haiku poem for class just as most of us have performed the five-paragraph essay.

The watershed moment in understanding how to approach the teaching of poetry included a direct move away from templates and mechanical structures (haiku, sonnets, etc.) and toward the conceptual elements that define a form or genre.

While prose is driven by the formation of sentences and paragraphs (both concepts that are not as easily defined as many think), poetry is most often characterized by lines and stanzas (even prose poetry is anchored to the norms it resists).

Without using syllable count, then, line formation and line breaks are something many poets intuit or feel—stanza formation as well.

When I work one-on-one with an emerging poet, I attack lination (line formation and breaks) and stanzas by asking the poet to be aware of the “why” in those formations and whether or not there is any pattern guiding that “why.”

It is about having a purpose, not that one purpose is correct.

This work is very complex, but it is at a conceptual level, not the mechanical framing of rubrics/templates.

Teaching writing at the conceptual level, however, can seem abstract to students (who lack the rich experiences with text as writers for those concepts to be concrete); therefore, I soon began seeking ways to merge concepts to the concrete.

Here I also began to blend more intentionally my responsibility for literature and reading instruction with my writing curriculum by presenting our text readings as models for our journey as writers.

To be authentic in our pursuit as writers, I eventually realized, ours was not to reject rubrics but to reimagine our paths to rubrics. I knew that handing students stilted rubrics/templates was mostly about compliance and did not foster the sort of conceptual understanding my students needed.

The teacher-created rubric makes most of the writer decisions for students that they need experiences with in order to be authentic and autonomous writers.

However, I needed to help students develop their own toolbox of rubrics drawn from a wide and rich reading of texts that model the many ways that writers produce any form or genre.

Poets create poetry always in conversation with forming lines and stanzas just as essayists are aware of beginnings, middles, and ends as they navigate sentences and paragraphs.

For at least thirty years, then, I have been providing my students compelling models of the sorts of essays they are invited to write and walking them through reading-like-a-writer activities (see here and here).

And for the past two decades, where I teach undergraduate and graduate students, I have worked diligently to provide my students detailed models with my comments embedded to walk them through some of the more mundane elements of writing in formal situations (college essays, scholarly writing, public commentary)—citation, document formatting, etc.

Two of those models (linked above) are for cited scholarly essays using APA and public commentaries. Periodically, I create new models and revise my embedded comments, seeking always to refine the effectiveness of using models for teaching writing.

Now here is the dilemma.

Many years ago I had to accept the sobering fact that research shows that teaching writing by models is only modestly effective, far less so than something as clunky and inauthentic as sentence combining (sigh).

But I also live the reality that models often fall short of why I use them and how they should support students writing authentically.

This spring, in fact, I have implemented two new models with embedded notes, and I have been increasingly frustrated by the jumbled efforts at public commentary in my upper-level writing/research course.

That frustration, however, has led to a new understanding, coming 36+ years into teaching writing.

My models with notes are primarily generic examples to walk students through some of the structures and formatting expected in formal cited essays or when submitting a public work for publication. While I am frustrated always with students failing to format as required with these models right there in front of them, I have resolved myself to this process taking several rounds for students to “get” these (trivial) elements of submitting original writing.

My ah-ha! moment this semester has been to recognize that students have repeatedly ignored the public commentary assignment and have clung instead too directly to the model by creating a backward rubric/template for their public commentary submissions.

I soon realized that many of the students simply mimicked exactly my number of and types of paragraphs provided in the model (much of which wasn’t appropriate for this specific assignment).

Of the two major writing assignments, of course, writing a public commentary is the one more foreign to my students, the one about which they have the least expertise. In desperation, they have reverted to the inauthentic process most of them have experienced as writing instruction—prescriptive prompts and conforming to rubrics.

I have been long aware that my writing instruction is mostly unlike what students have experienced. What I ask students to do is extremely hard, often frustrating, but something they genuinely can just suffer through briefly and return to the normal ways of writing essays in college.

There is little I can do about this outlier aspect of my classes and practices, but I am now better equipped to have the rubric/template urge conversation earlier and more directly with students.

Using models and models with embedded notes can be more effective with greater intentionality and my diligence in responding to students who resist working toward conceptual levels of understanding by defaulting to rubric/template mode.

The dilemma with using models to teach writing is a subset of the larger problem with nudging students away from performing as students and toward performing as writers (or whatever role we are trying to achieve—pianist, scientist, historian, etc,).

This newest round of better understanding how to teach writing is yet another adventure in teacher humility—confirming that I must always be diligent about what I am doing and how they guides (or misleads) my students in pursuits we share.

Teaching and learning are different sides of the same complicated coin.