Category Archives: grammar

Becoming a Good Writer: On Purpose and Authority

While watching (re-watching for me) Marvel’s The Punisher (Netflix), my partner noted, “He is a really good actor,” about Jon Bernthal who plays Frank Castle (The Punisher).

This is something we all do in our daily lives, declare “good” and “bad” as we navigate the world. In the so-called real world, we rarely interrogate those evaluations—what makes something “good” or “bad”?

However, in academia, not only do we bristle at the low terms themselves, but also we are in a nearly constant state of unpacking exactly what constitutes quality.

The comment about Bernthal (who is a captivating actor) came just after I had spent more time than I wanted addressing the Aaron Rodgers/Ayn Rand moment trending on social media. Any time Rand is mentioned, “Rand is a bad writer/philosopher” is not far behind.

For example, I found Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed the World, an analysis of Rand’s harmful influence on real-world politics in the U.S.

Also concurrent with people debating Rand’s quality as a novelist (since Rodger’s pointed to her Atlas Shrugged), I noticed Neil Gaiman (and Bill Sienkiewicz [1] in the comments) post the following on Facebook:

Gaiman’s comment: “The thing that makes me sad is that the incorrect apostrophe destroys the joke.”

So in those contexts, I want to consider exactly what we mean about whether or not a writer is “good” or “bad”—notably as a framing for students who are themselves trying to become good writers.

A first-level problem with considering the quality of writing is distinguishing whether we are focusing on the content of the writing or the actual composing itself. What does that mean?

When people blast Rand as a “bad” writer, they almost always are attacking the content of her novels, how she uses narrative to propagandize about her philosophical and ideological commitments.

If you look carefully, some who proclaim her a “bad” writer also concede that Rand crafted engaging stories and constructed those stories in purposeful ways (her craft as a writer).

By contrast, although Gaiman suffered some appropriate challenges, Gaiman is targeting how the credibility of any writer is inextricable from many elements of craft (diction, tone, grammar, syntax, sentence and paragraph formation, etc.).

While the field of rhetoric has a long history of debating medium versus message, for students learning to write better, I emphasize that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. To reach the Holy Grail of “good,” then, I think anyone learning to write must focus on purpose and authority (internal v. external authority).

All writers are seeking ways to establish and develop their authority (convincing readers of their credibility so that their writing is read and considered seriously). And that authority is impacted by the purposefulness of the writing (both in terms of content and craft).

Gaiman’s Facebook post represents how the credibility of a text (the humor of the eatery’s sidewalk advertisement ) is impacted by surface features (in this example, confusing the use of the apostrophe for possessive versus plural)—a seasonal debate often when people send out Christmas cards and can’t navigate how to pluralize their family names.

As a writing teacher, I would use Gaiman’s post to note that, first, we should resist shaming anyone for surface features, and, second, we can interrogate the text of the ad to note that “dogs” and “human’s” is not about correctness, but a sort of lack of purpose.

I would note that a student essay having these usages would be a signal of lack of control of language (and thus, an erosion of authority), and not about “correctness.”

Here, especially when working with students and developing writers, we must be very careful about how we explain the relationship between medium and message since Gaiman is triggering the urge toward correctness as an absolute marker of quality [2].

Since most students have come through formal education that uncritically fosters an unhealthy attitude about grammar and usage (correctness), teachers of writing are often confronted with how to unpack correctness and shift students toward purpose.

So-called standard English is problematic, often a veneer for racism, sexism, etc., so I invite students to consider, for example, James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and this wonderful unpacking of dialect quality, which in part notes:

The characteristics that distinguish African-American English from standard American English include the pronunciation of consonant clusters at the ends of words (“desks” and “tests” become “desses” and “tesses,” for example), the elimination of some third-person singular verb inflections (“He throw the ball.” “She write the book.” “He vote for the candidate.”), and certain distinctive uses of the verb “to be.” Among the latter, perhaps the most emblematic is the frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the “habitual be.” When speakers of standard American English hear the statement “He be reading,” they generally take it to mean “He is reading.” But that’s not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom “He is reading” refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. “He be reading” refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he’s doing it right now.

Ebonics

The marginalized dialect (often referred to as Black English, Ebonics, or AAVE) is in fact nuanced, complex, and powerful—as the unpacking concludes:

Only by moving beyond the deeply ingrained negative attitudes of the past, the speech researchers agree, is it possible to appreciate the multi-faceted subtleties of all human language. “Language is not just a matter of words and sounds and syntax,” says Seymour. “It’s an identity issue, it’s a social issue. It’s very complicated.”

Ebonics

Beyond fostering an unhealthy understanding of language, focusing on correctness often leads to students practicing an imbalance in the relationship between medium and message; many students have received high grades on writing that conforms to correctness but expresses very little, offers jumbled thinking, and/or simply misrepresents a topic.

Too often, as well, students have been rewarded for conforming to prescriptions that are neither good writing nor good thinking (five-paragraph essays that force all topic into 3 points).

Ironically, students spend so much energy confirming to scripts and correctness that they become bad writers.

Although there certainly is some wiggle room in spelling and punctuation, students must be aware that surface features in writing trigger assumptions about their credibility, the authority of the writer; in other words, purposeful writing and writer authority work together, are symbiotic.

Again, in the real world, there are far too many examples of public writing that shows how a writer’s established authority allows that writer to express some really careless and false ideas (let me note David Brooks, for example, who certainly can craft words and sentences in all the so-called correct ways while saying nothing or, more often, expressing simplistic thinking).

Students are in a very difficult position since they are almost always less authoritative on their topics than their professors/teachers as well as still on their journey to being “good” writers (in terms of having control of the language they craft).

We are left then with a journey, helping students develop their sense of purpose with composing that establishes their internal authority (the authority grounded in the essay itself) in order to create their external authority (the authority associated with them as people/students/scholars; again, see Brooks or Rand, who many recognize as people who think and write with some established authority).

Students must move away from correctness (the learned belief in rules such as “Don’t write fragments”) and toward purposefulness (crafting and choosing sentence forms, medium, that reinforce the message of their writing).

To be a good writer is a paradox, then. Good writers have a healthy understanding of writing (as Baldwin advocates for) while also being aware of the consequences of norms (see Gaiman’s somewhat petty lament).

When my partner praised Bernthal as a “good actor,” I agreed and noted several of the Marvel series on Netflix benefitted from many good actors, often allowing rather bad elements of superhero narratives to slip by (although several of the series also have good writing).

For students learning to write, we must do much more than say writing is “good” or “bad,” however, by helping students recognize and practice the elements of purpose and authority that lead to those evaluations.


[1] Sienkiewicz notes his own parody of misspellings on business signs from his run on Elektra: Assassin:

Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987) #6 (of 8) - Comics by comiXology
Elektra: Assassin 6

[2] See my poem parodying this phenomenon: grammar Nazis (post-apostrophe literature)

UPDATE: Possibly the best example of apostrophe confusion yet:

Correcting Course on Correctness in English/ELA

My granddaughter is six, in the first grade, and currently in the throes of learning to read—as commanded by formal schooling. Recently, she has shown some of those typical bursts of improvement I have witnessed in learning by young children; those moments give meaning to the word “marvelous.”

In an effort to inject some joy into my granddaughter’s reading journey, I have given her some comic books (a medium that was central to my own journey to being a voracious reader and writer). I was concerned that the text and format of a comic book would be beyond her, but she loves to make her own books, which are heavily picture-oriented to tell stories, so I thought even if she couldn’t read comic books, they would be very appealing to her own hobby.

But what surprised me was when she picked up a graphic novel of Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, she immediately began reading quite well—until she hit very commonly used wording and words that aren’t served well by structured phonics; she stumbled over “gonna” and “wanna,” but was really thrown by “MJ” as the way characters refer to Mary Jane Watson.

Having been taught formally how to read in an environment grounded in correctness, my granddaughter stumbles over the far more prevalent language usage in the real world.

This tension is represented well by the fate of the pronoun “they” (and its forms); “they” for centuries has served in the real-world of speaking English as a gender-neutral singular pronoun even as so-called standard English has persisted in tossing that usage into the “incorrect” bin (although this nonsense is finally losing momentum in formal formats).

For more than a century, the field of English/ELA has resisted real-world language usage and awareness and preferred training children in language acquisition through systems of correctness (phonics rules and grammar rules). Teaching that is grounded in rules and correctness appears to be easier because that approach contributes to control and simplistic forms of assessment and grading, but approaching language through correctness is a dis-service to children and language.

Even though there are increasingly important calls for de-emphasizing correctness in English/ELA, such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)’s call for Black linguistic justice, those of us who teach reading, literature, or writing face an incredibly complex paradox—the challenge of fostering in students a healthy and valid view of language while also raising their awareness of the politics of language (that dialects such as so-called standard English, for example, do carry political weight in the real world even though it shouldn’t).

Boland and Queen address the tyranny of correctness in the real world in their Why grammar mistakes in a short email could make some people judge you. Here they investigate why “readers judged strangers harshly simply because of writing errors”—themselves using language of “correctness” (“errors”).

Every semester when I once again address issues surround formatting (citation styles, submitting assignments), I must confront the tyranny of correctness in terms of not wanting to perpetuate the unhealthy culture of correctness while also wanting my students to be aware of the power of correctness so that they have power over their language use instead of being victims of the “error hunt.”

Here, then, are some of the ever-evolving ways I am trying to navigate the tensions in teaching language against the tyranny of correctness:

  • De-grade correctness and formatting related to language. Removing grades and punishment allows a teacher still to address language use and shifts the focus to editing and away from correcting.
  • Change the language we use about language. I avoid “correct/incorrect,” “right/wrong,” and any reference to “fixing” or “correcting” when I mean “revising” or “editing.”
  • Use minimum expectations that move issues of correctness and formatting outside the more substantive elements of language usage. I often have students submit early drafts to address formatting (such as the working references list for a cited essay) well before submitting the essay for my feedback.
  • Examine all dialects and forms of language as powerful and complex language while also interrogating the politics of dialects, including that “standard English” exists and why it exists. Student awareness about the growing debate to de-center standard English is the least we can do in English/ELA on the path to actually de-centering it.
  • Foster a culture of purposefulness instead of a culture of rules. When we examine, for example, the arcane formatting guidelines involved in formal citation, I try to emphasize not that this or that format is “right,” but that formal writing needs to exhibit purposefulness by the writer as part of their credibility and authority. A submitted essay with two or three fonts and font sizes appears careless, for example, and diminishes the reader’s trust in the purposefulness of the writer.
  • Shift all explorations of language to discovery instead of complying with correctness. This, as I noted about my ploy with my granddaughter, is about the joy and wonder of language usage. Once we set aside corrupted and debasing beliefs about “good” or “bad” language (especially that one dialect is more or less rich than another), we allow students to engage with all language in healthy and complex ways.

I became a reader and writer vey heavily influenced by collecting and reading comic books, where the text is not simply formatted on the page and where artwork provides a substantial percentage of the textual meaning. My granddaughter has been zipping through reading aloud from children’s books or her homework worksheets (often designed to match the culture of correctness). But comic books and even signage have proven that correctness falters in the real world.

For far too long English/ELA classes and teachers have been associated with a hostility toward language (and students) because of a culture of correctness; our fields have also been too often disengaged with the real world, where WandaVision is more compelling than Shakespeare.

If we love language and our students, we must correct course on correctness in English/ELA.

“We did not have to stress about our grade but instead we were able to just work”: Student Evaluations of Learning

The evidence on student evaluations of teaching (SET) suggests that this sort of feedback is deeply biased in the U.S. against women educators, Black educators, and international educators; in other words, using SETs for evaluation in higher education is a misguided tradition that cannot be justified by the sort of scientific inquiry and research that the academy claims to embrace.

In both my levels of teaching—about two decades each as a high school teacher and now in higher education—I have always sought student voices and feedback. Those reflections, however, prompt students’ perceptions of their learning. And the validity and reliability of that feedback, of course, is best determined by me through the lens of what learning goals we were pursuing in any course.

Each fall, I teach two sections of my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, which culminates in a portfolio assessment for their final exam grounded in minimum requirements for receiving a grade in the course:

Exam/ Final Writing Portfolio

Resubmit all REFLECTIONS (1-15) on exam date noted above. You may include any other artifacts of work throughout the semester to support the grade you deserve in the course.

Submit the following through email attachments:

  • Final drafts of E.1, E.2, E.3, and E.4 as email attachments; be sure to submit CLEAN files (no track changes or comments visible).
  • Label files with your last name, essay number, “final,” and the date of submission, such as Thomas.E1final.121715.docx
  • Attach also a reflection (1-2 pages) on what you have learned as a writer and what you see as the key weaknesses you need to continue to address. Label the file your last name and final reflection, such as Thomas.finalreflection.docx
  • In the body of the email, RANK your four essays from the best to the weakest.

URGENT: Reminder

Minimum Requirements for course credit:

  • Submit all essays in MULTIPLE DRAFTS per schedule before the last day of the course; initial drafts and subsequent drafts should be submitted with great care, as if each is the final submission, but students are expected to participate in process writing throughout the entire semester as a minimum requirement of this course—including a minimum of ONE conference per major essay.
  • Demonstrate adequate understanding of proper documentation and citation of sources through a single well-cited essay or several well-cited essays. A cited essay MUST be included in your final portfolio.

Final Grade Sheet—FYW 1259 (Fall 2019)/Thomas

Some of the challenges students face in a first-year writing course as well as unique features of courses I teach include not receiving grades on assignments, submitting multiple drafts of essays (and engaging significantly in revising those essays), participating in peer reviewing, and moving beyond the “research paper” and “memorizing MLA” toward scholarly writing in which incorporating high-quality sources and a wide variety of citation styles are the norm of essay writing.

When I read the students’ reflections, I focus on my two overarching goals for the course: Students thinking (and behaving) differently about writing and language (the two text books are designed to address these), and students developing their own agency as writers and students.

This fall, students were very enthusiastic about John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice (the first time I have assigned it) and often pleased with Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th Edition, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup (a text I have used for many years through many editions). I recommend them both highly.

Below, I want to offer some of the selected feedback, in my students’ own words (anonymously), that reflects the most important patterns from their learning this fall. Again, I want to emphasize these are reflections on learning, not intended to be any sort of proof about my teaching or the structure of my course. None the less, I am as pleased as I have ever been with this group of students and who they have become and are becoming—which is proof, I think, of how important the students themselves are to any claims we make about teacher or professor quality.

I am highlighting feedback about the nature of first-year writing courses, students navigating a course without grades, students coming to embrace feedback for revising their writing, the transition from high school to college writing, and student perceptions of writing and being writers along with many other significant comments by these students.

It is a powerful thing, to me, that these comments below are rich with the language and concepts found in the two text books, noting as well that students read and reflected on these texts throughout the semester with no graded form of assessment or accountability such as tests.

In their own words, below are excerpts of reflections about their learning:

Student 1: This semester has been hard. In high school, I was very weak in writing, and sadly, I never sought out the help I needed. Before college, I would tell myself that I could wait till college, and then, I will learn proper writing and receive the help I was in need of. Thankfully, I was able to take an FYW class that would aid in my college writing and teach me the skills to become a strong writer.

Student 2: The in-class conferences were very significant in my progression throughout the course as I got to see first-hand from my teacher on what I did wrong and what I could do to improve my writing. The Writer’s Practice and Style helped me a numerous amount with my writing, such as ways to approach certain types of essays and how to connect with your audience in the best possible ways. There were many different forms of writing that helped me improve my weaknesses, such as communication, concision, clarity, complexity, and many other forms.

Student 3: This semester, I have grown as a writer and as a student. Coming out of high school, one of my main concerns was my ability to write at a college level. I took AP classes in high school and those are supposed to simulate a college level course. However, now taken actual college courses, I see that AP is nothing but a different form of standardized testing. The First Year Writing course has greatly improved my ability as a writer and made me enjoy writing again….

Overall, I believe Furman provides a unique opportunity to students through the First Year Writing classes. Not many universities are concerned with every individual student’s ability to write. The class allows a student to explore their own writing in depth and properly address the issues they consistently make. If every college student was given a similar opportunity, their writing ability would improve greatly. I’ll admit, I was hesitant when I first saw that I would have to take a required writing class in college. However, I would now gladly recommend to other colleges and universities to implement a similar style of course in their institution.

Student 4: This ties into a larger area of focus for me: concision. I fall victim to large paragraphs and sentences at times. This can confuse the audience and make my arguments hard to follow. It took some training for me realize where I lose readers, but through the readings we have in class, I’ve seen it is not a bad thing to use short sentences. It used to come across as choppy to me, but it’s just direct. Short sentences don’t necessarily mean bad ones. Often, short sentences are more effective at conveying points I would want to make. I would definitely say my concision and clarity are areas I intend to improve upon….

All things considered, I think you gave us the best possible FYW experience. This isn’t meant as flattery, but rather, my true opinion. You gave us the tools necessary to succeed, and allowed us to work independently to reach our goals. You didn’t hold our hand through every process, and you didn’t leave us out to dry when help was needed. I look forward to writing, I look forward to improving my writing.

Student 5: Throughout the year, I have learned many different techniques and styles that have improved my writing. The most improvement I noticed in my actual writing was the improvement of clarity and focusing on the audience. The Writers Practice book helped my writing with focusing on the audience, and the Style book helped me with making my writing more concise.

Student 6: Having to submit multiple rewrites has been a very helpful tactic for me. In each rewrite I would notice similar patterns in my mistakes. It has even come to the point where when I am writing a paper, and something doesn’t sound write I can picture a sentence from a previous essay that Dr. Thomas highlighted in green and I am able to fix my mistake based on a previously made mistake.

I also appreciate the in-class conferences. I feel like many professors simply markup student papers and send them back with vague explanations. This leaves students curious on what they need to fix and how to fix it. Having the in-class conferences after receiving feedback helps to solidify the problems with my essay and learn from my mistakes. After I have my conference, I am confident that I have a clear understanding on how to fix my paper.

Student 7: After developing my first “vomit draft” to this essay, the ideas came flowing rapidly. This leads me into something else that I have learned as a writer, which is the importance of “vomit drafting” and the pre-writing stage. In high school, I always had to force the drafting stage. Yet in this class, I had the freedom to hold off on drafting until I was in the mood or I had an idea that made me want to start drafting right away. I also discovered ways to get into the writing mood, and the main strategy I used this semester was reading Bad Feminist (Roxane Gay). Reading good writing inspires me to attempt to do the same thing….

I am glad that I have founded a passion for writing and confidence in my ability to write effectively while conveying a purpose. To add on, [a] general notion that has been brought to my attention in this class was that my opinions matter, and writing is one of the best ways to demonstrate my thoughts to the world. Some of the discussions we have had allowed me to make initial opinions on them, and I have been able to control that energy through my writing. This class has had a variety of benefits to it, and I am excited to see where my new passion for writing takes me in the future.

Student 8: What I appreciated most about this course was our ability to choose our own topics for essays. It was because of this process that I realized my [excitement] towards writing when it was about topics that I actually cared about. Generally, in all of the writing I did in the past, it felt like such a chore. Preparing keyhole five paragraph essays was so formulaic and boring, I absolutely never enjoyed the writing process. Being able to experience the opposite and having the creative freedom to choose anything I wanted to write about made my experience that much more enjoyable. A new experience I hope to be able to carry with me on journey at Furman.

Student 9: I had also previously thought that fancy wording was more formal in writing, but reading Style taught me that simpler writing is actually better. Another important lesson Style taught me was that most grammar “rules” are not really rules but choices writers make for clearer writing. This way of thinking of grammar is a lot less intimidating, and I feel better knowing that sometimes my grammatical “mistakes” are really just someone’s personal preference.

The Writer’s Practice helped me to find a writing process that works for me, rather than forcing me to use one process, like in high school. It also taught me to consider the audience more in my writing and think about answering their questions. John Warner allowed me to think of writing as a never ending journey of improvement, rather than one with a final destination and made me realize that despite not feeling like I’m improving, I’m actually making a lot of progress in my writing.

Student 10: Over this semester, I have learned to address writing in a completely new way. The best thing I will take from this course is that my writing should not just be defined by the grade I receive, but by the amount I have improved each time I write. Additionally, I will never become a perfect writer because I can always learn more and improve.

Moreover, I have learned the importance of rewriting essays. In my high school classes, as well as my other classes at Furman thus far, I was not given the opportunity to rewrite essays as many times as I want, so I was never able to see how much they could improve each time. In the future, I plan to write early assigned essays as soon as possible so that I can have them reviewed by my classmates and complete rewrites to make the essay the best it can be.

Student 11: There are no rules in writing, but there are consequences. This idea has nagged at me since it was planted in my mind at the beginning of the semester. The best writers can artfully break or bend the “rules” of writing, but they also are fully prepared to handle the consequences.

Student 12: This class has helped me pay closer attention to how I am writing, as I used to mostly pay attention only to what I was writing. I have learned more things from this semester-long course than I learned in all four years of high school. It is shocking how much I have learned from this class….

Writing essays and then receiving them with comments, not a grade, was very helpful. This is a class solely focused on teaching freshman college students how to write academically, so to grade students without any feedback or opportunities to fix their essays would be pointless and not beneficial.

Student 13: I first notice my style. Back then I was fairly confident I could just write things as they were in my head and that would be enough. That quickly turned out to be false. Apparently not everyone thinks the same way I do and writing in that stream of consciousness sort of way does not work. I have to write to my audience and my audience is not just the voices in my head. Doing this is complex and has multiple aspects but perhaps the most important is writing clearly. I think learning this was one of the most game changing things for me.

Student 14: At the beginning of this course, I was nervous and unsure of my writing abilities.  At orientation, I remember someone saying, “You may think you know how to write, but you really don’t.”  This terrified me, so I was determined to do my absolute best in this course.  In high school, I was very self-conscious about my writing and would become defensive when someone would give me feedback.  The main thing this course taught me was to accept feedback with open arms, since that is the only way your writing will improve.

Student 15: Over the course of the semester I have been pushed in my writing skills through practicing different styles, and continually writing pieces that were much longer than the average of what I used to consistently write. I have enjoyed being able to write about topics that I am passionate about, and I think that it made the transition to college level writing easier, because I had more to say and was not opposed to doing research to learn more about the topic….

I know that I will have to continue writing with citations, so one way that I plan on improving my weakness in them is to go to the writing lab for help and clarification. Going into a science field it is crucial that I master this skill before I graduate. My midterm interview with Dr. Anderson gave me insight as to how important it is in sustainability science. I’ve learned that I can write much more that I thought I could, and the readings helped me to consider my audience much more than I used to.

Student 16: One thing in particular that I think I learned that will be very helpful in the future was through Essay 3. Before this essay, I had never written an APA style research paper. Going into this essay, I had only written one cited paper in the past but did not give much thought into picking specific sources and evaluating their validity. Learning the style of an APA paper will be very helpful in the future, as one subject that I am interested in majoring in is economics. One factor in writing a research paper I still need to work on is synthesizing multiple sources.

I have learned how to organize information well and concisely through Essay 2 and 4. This was my first time writing a hyperlink paper so the idea of writing in short paragraphs was a new to me. Writing these papers taught me how to write in this different style. This was definitely my favorite type of essay to write. It gave me the opportunity to write about something that I was passionate about and also to learn in detail about a specific subject matter.

Student 17: Overall, the main lesson I learned is to give more attention to detail. Every part of an essay should be intentional. The introduction should connect to the conclusion without summarizing the essay completely. Similarly, word choice, sentence structure, and paragraphing can play a major role in the meaning of the essay. Dr. Thomas’ feedback made me realize how important every decision is. It’s also important to maintain the balance between caution and overthinking every decision. In The Writer’s Practice, the author explained that being afraid to write is one of the main inhibitors of good writing. I am still working on finding that balance myself.

Student 18: The structure of this class forced independent learning and I believe that is the best type of learning for me specifically. My first essay exposed my overuse of some sayings and structures. In addition, I wrote in a vague high school-like way. By the end of this course, I tried to shy away from my common tendencies and in my opinion, it ended in success. At the end of the last essay, I felt more confident and ready to move on in my writing career.

In addition, the variety in types of papers written helped me explore the types of writing and made me a more versatile writer. Although I found the APA format annoying and tedious, it made me think in a different, yet still creative, way when compared to the personal narrative. Overall, I learned how to write from these specific perspectives and what the goal of each of these types of writings were.

Student 19: Through this First Year Writing class, I have learned the importance of rewriting and continuing to go back and reflect on what I have written. Reflection is important as no matter how good I think a paper might be, there is always room for improvement. Even the greats have to go back and revise. I really liked what Dr. Thomas said, “if Baldwin had another day, he would’ve gone back and changed some things in even his greatest works.”

Student 20: I have enjoyed this course and it has helped me develop in my writing skills. I enjoyed the class discussions that we had, and I really liked the laid-back feel of it. This feel gave me, and my classmates the feeling that we could truly work on developing our writing skills. We did not have to stress about our grade but instead we were able to just work….

One of the first things I learned to do in this class was to create my own writing process. I have my own process now where I plan a paper and the direction that I want to go in by the end of the paper. I have used this process all semester long and in my other classes as well. There have been areas that I have been challenged in this class as well.

Student 21: Throughout the semester, I believe that my writing improved tremendously. The combination of reflecting on the books that teach writing and writing my own works alongside this. I was trying to actively use my learnings from the reflections and apply them to my papers while writing them.

Something specific that I have learned as as writer is considering audience. This may seem fairly straightforward, but deciding whether or not your audience has prior information on the topic is key. For example, in my paper about Pokémon Go, I should have assumed that none of my readers would have much previous Pokémon Go knowledge besides the fact that it was once very popular. Though, in my paper about Amazon, that was probably not the case. Amazon is one of the biggest companies in the world and is commonplace on the Furman campus.

Student 22: The most influential and beneficial skill that I have improved on is my ability to take criticism. When you returned our first essay, I was absolutely mortified because I had expectations that I would not have much to change resulting from the praise that I received throughout high school for my writing. It honestly took until essay 3 for me to get over the feeling of embarrassment I felt due to the critiques on my essays, but it was an incredibly beneficial realization. I now understand that I should not take academic criticism to heart as much as I did in the beginning of the year because being so sensitive just hinders my ability to improve. The thicker skin that I have developed throughout this class has translated into my other classes as well and has allowed me to be more satisfied with my best effort despite criticism.

Student 23: When writing my first reflection I stated, “I have never been a fan of anything I have written.” I was not well informed in the process of writing and never felt fully prepared by any English teacher to write. That statement is no longer true after finishing my FYW with Dr. Thomas. I enjoy writing, I enjoy my peers work, and for once I am proud of what I have written. John Warner’s, The Writers Practice, was instrumental in the development of my writing. I learned that I will never become a perfect writer, and neither will anyone else. A quote in The Writers Practice by Jeff O’Neal stated, “You are going to spend your whole life learning to write, and then you are going to die.” Although the two books in class we have read have provided me with an incredible amount of guidance when it comes to my writing, I will be continuously learning to write throughout my life. I will never reach a peak perfection in my writing and I am okay with that….

This college level writing class has removed most of my preconceived notions about writing that were drilled into my head in high school. Writing is much different than my high school classes were, I was taught a very structured style of writing to obtain all points on a standardized exam. Writing can be more expressional, it does not always to conform to a certain set of standards and isn’t mathematical.

Student Agency, Authority, and Credibility as Writers

Each semester I teach, I become even more convinced that teaching writing is a journey, not a destination. And this semester has once again pushed me in that direction.

While it was just the second time I have taught the new upper-level writing/research course now part of our general education requirements (GER), it was in my 100-level GER course that struck me hardest, notably when a senior student sent the following message with a revised submission of the course major cited essay:

Attached is an updated copy. I don’t know if I have already said this, but thank you for being so helpful in all of these drafts! Also please let me know if it is going in the right direction or if I need to consider larger changes as opposed to these smaller edits.

This was the fifth submission of the essay, and the student has also met with me to conference about needed revisions.

What stands out here is the not-so-subtle message I have been receiving from this student and others—the “smaller edits” comment. Another student, exasperated, came very close to stating directly that I am being arbitrary and nit-picky.

My 100-level students are perfect examples of the problems associated with how a culture of grades degrades learning—and especially inhibits students from writing with agency, authority, and credibility.

Often, I am the first—and only—teacher who holds students accountable for foundational obligations related to formatting submissions and applying essential aspects of citation and scholarship.

Students have either had points deducted for formatting and citation or have simply been told they have “mistakes,” but that these are mere surface elements and thus not really important. Here, I think, is the seed of the student quoted above seeing my feedback as mostly addressing “smaller edits” even though my feedback was, in fact, substantive.

First, teaching any student to write, for me, is grounded in fostering some important foundational concepts about them as student-writers and developing scholars—how to represent themselves as purposeful writers and thinkers while establishing their authority and credibility.

Purposefulness is a difficult transition for students who have mostly been inculcated into a culture of rules about language and writing.

For example, I want students to set aside seeing their work as either correct or mistakes so that they focus on revision and editing their work—not merely correcting what I mark.

Instead of thinking “fragments are mistakes writers must avoid,” students are encouraged to think “what sentence formation am I using and what purposes do these purposeful sentence-level decisions serve in conveying meaning to my readers.” (The problem in student writing is not that fragments are “wrong,” but whether or not the student is aware of using a fragment and then if that use has effective purpose.)

Purposefulness in sentence and paragraph formation as well as choosing either to conform to conventions of grammar and mechanics or not is an essential element in establishing authority and credibility for student-writers and developing scholars.

This is key, I think, because the culture of grades creates a false dynamic in which some aspects of student performances of learning (writing) are deemed trivial and thus the holistic nature of demonstrating learning, or of expression, is corrupted for an analytic view of student behavior—the separate parts matter more than the whole while simultaneously some parts are rendered irrelevant since they simply cost the student a few points.

My approach to minimum requirements while requiring and allowing students to revise their work guided by feedback and conferencing seeks to honor the holistic nature of writers establishing their authority and credibility.

Especially in my 100-level courses and first-year writing, here is the structure I implement that helps students (ideally) move away from seeing some of their revision and editing being about “smaller edits” and toward viewing their work as a student-writer and developing scholar as a coherent whole:

  • Document formatting matters. I both teach and then require students to submit Word documents that show purposefulness and control over fonts (consistent throughout the document, including the header/footer) and font size, word processor formatting (margins, justification, hanging indents, spacing, page breaks, etc.), and file management (naming files with purpose and labeling subsequent drafts during the process). I explain to students that while these elements of submitting writing may seem “small” (and even trivial), these formatting elements establish in the reader’s (professor’s) mind an initial message about purposefulness and control—thus the student-writer’s authority and credibility.
  • Citation matters. I both teach and then require students to submit cited writing that meets basic expectations for citation format. Since I am in education, students in my courses primarily use APA so I focus on header format, title page, reference page, parenthetical citation, and subheads. These mechanical elements of citation, combined with document formatting above, are strictly addressed in the first submission, often meaning I do not accept the first or first few attempts made by students to submit work. I explain that these are all very easy to do, and failing to address these mechanical elements suggests, again, a lack of purpose, authority, and credibility. (Students are provided direct instruction in class and samples with notes along with being required or encouraged to conference with me.)
  • Sources matter. Despite detailed university guidelines about teaching first-year writing students how to search for high-quality sources, my students routinely demonstrate that they continue not to understand source quality (peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be more highly regarded in academia than books, for example; print sources, more than online; newer, more than older, etc.). Students also seem to lack the skills to search for those sources, relying on Google Scholar instead of searching through the library system that allows them to target searches. I work hard to scaffold experiences for students so that source quality and variety are addressed before they begin their writing; this still doesn’t work across the board, however. Students, for example, in the 100-level course mentioned above do a group project requiring high-quality sources, which can serve as a foundation for their individual essays. Yet, students will submit their essays without any of those sources and only online newspapers and magazines cited.
  • Using what seems “small” to foster substantive revision. When I focus on titles, subheads, and the need to synthesize sources, these tend to be elements of revision that students such as the one quoted above views as “smaller edits.” Yet, titles and subheads are about whether or not the student understands the primary and supporting focus of the essay (titles) as well as demonstrating a purposeful and compelling structure and organizational pattern (subheads) to the discussion or argument. Probably even more stressful for students is my emphasis on synthesizing sources. Typically, students paraphrase and quote extensively from one source at a time, plowing through their list of sources without regard for patterns found in the research or creating any sort of hierarchy for the importance of ideas related to their topic. Here, I am fostering disciplinary awareness by exposing them to the disciplinary differences between writing literary analysis and using MLA in high school and then transitioning to a social science course in college.
  • Openings and closings matter. Students have mechanical and not very compelling approaches to introductions (and clunky thesis sentences) and conclusions. They are drawn to making grand overstatements without offering any evidence for those claims—as The Onion brilliantly demonstrated: “For as far back as historians can go, summer vacations have been celebrated by people everywhere as a time for rest and relaxation.” And they mostly feel compelled to open with vague statements that they then repeat in a final paragraph. Therefore, I work on students creating multi-paragraph openings and closings that depend on framing (establishing something concrete, such as a narrative, in the opening that the student returns to in the end) and that introduce and then extend a focus (broader and more complex than a clunky thesis statement, allowing questions as well as allowing the essays to work toward an idea or call to action).

In 1957, Lou LaBrant wrote:

But I hope that I have hit upon enough of the important factors which go into writing to make it clear that it is not taught by considering the subject-predicate nature of modern English, the rules for punctuation, the parts of speech, or the placement of modifiers. Nor is writing taught when the formal outline with its A’s and B’s, its l’s, 2’s, and 3’s has been considered….Writing remains the final, most difficult of the language arts….Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house.

I have been guided by this metaphor—building a house versus the blueprint—for many years, and I have also extended that into how houses are built from the rough work leading to the finishing work.

Above, I have made a case that the rough work (“smaller edits” often to students) and the finishing work (“larger changes,” or the substance, I think, to students) are impossible to separate from each other because it is a holistic venture to craft an essay from a blank page.


Related

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

Helping Students Navigate Disciplinary Writing: The Quote Problem

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

LaBrant, L. (1957). Writing is more than structureEnglish Journal, 46(5), 252–256, 293.

Thomas, P.L. (2011, September). Revisiting LaBrant’s “Writing is more than structure” (English Journal, May 1957). English Journal, 101(1), 103-104.

Thomas, P.L. (2000, January). Blueprints or houses?—Looking back at Lou LaBrant and the writing debate. English Journal, 89(3), pp. 85-89.

Thomas, P.L. (2019). Teaching writing as journey, not destination: Essays exploring what “teaching writing” means. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Teaching and Learning: The Dysfunctional Celebrity Couple

I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.

When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.

There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.

I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.

Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.

But something else bothered me as well.

Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.

Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.

I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.

Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.

First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.

More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.

That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.

I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.

Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.

Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.

A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!

This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.

Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.

Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”

When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.

When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.

In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.

I also have a heaping helping of humility.

I am a teacher.

However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.

Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.

We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.

And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.

They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.

You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.

 

The Dancing Comma, and Other Punctuation High Jinx

Social media are filled with bad political takes and far too much sexism and racism passed off as “It was a joke!”

Often in the same post.

But none of that can stand in the way of some good ol’ grammar, mechanics, and usage snark. Let’s take for example Benjamin Dreyer‘s interactions over Rob Lowe making a multi-level fool of himself on Twitter:

This Twitter discussion fits well into Dreyer’s recent release of Dreyer’s English and the perennial grammar wars (a bit of a misnomer since these wars between prescriptivists and descriptivists span across grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As Dreyer explains, punctuation placement in relationship to quote marks has different conventions in American and British usage:

  • I recommend that students avoid making adverbs into adverbs, such as using “secondly” instead of “second.” (American convention of period inside the closing quote mark.)
  • I recommend that students avoid making adverbs into adverbs, such as using “secondly” instead of “second”. (British convention of period outside the closing quote mark.)

These differences, I think, are excellent entry points into helping students copyedit their own work better, but also into fostering conventional awareness of language use (instead of a rules-based approach).

Image result for punctuation

I typically discuss the American/British difference before moving to the placement of punctuation in the context of quote marks as an issue of meaning, for example:

  • Standard English includes puzzling constructions such as, “I am being clear, aren’t I?”
  • Did you say, “My preferred name is Stephen”?

The question mark should remain, as in the first example, inside the closing quote mark to reflect that the quote itself is the question. In the second example, the entire sentence is the question, and the quote a statement; thus the question mark remains outside the closing quote mark.

All in all, these adventures in prescriptive versus descriptive approaches to language conventions may still feel like much ado about nothing to students, who often write because they are required to write and who simply don’t find the distinctions all that important.

The general public communicates moment by moment aloud and in text littered with so-called mistakes while also having almost no loss of communication.

And to be blunt, Rob Lowe’s problems in his Tweets are far less about his lack of understanding punctuation placement—and trying to show off about the Oxford comma but falling flat—and far more about his glib racism.

We descriptivists tend to argue that language conventions are a secondary issue to expression, although, as I explain below, it is nearly impossible to separate expression from conventions.

And so, this Twitter flurry over punctuation and quote marks provides another excellent entry point into helping students understand the role of conventional and purposeful language in establishing your credibility and authority as a writer.

As I have expressed before, some of the best lessons I ever learned about responding to student writing have been grounded in understanding how Advanced Placement graders are trained when scoring written responses.

One convention of writing about the action of fiction is to use present tense verbs—a contrast to using past tense verbs in detailing history.

However, at an AP training session, we were encouraged not to focus on the convention but to look for students being consistent. In other words, verb tense shift (dancing around from present to past without purpose or control) was a reason to lower a score, to identify the writing as less sophisticated.

I thought about this when I read Dreyer’s responses on Twitter because I still stress to my students that understanding punctuation placement in relationship to quote marks is mostly a problem for their credibility and authority as writers when the final punctuation dances around throughout the essay—some times inside, some times outside, with no rhyme or reason.

As a writing teacher who seeks ways to foster my students as autonomous and eager writers who also have a healthy attitude about language (an inclusive and historical awareness of conventions), I seek opportunities like Dreyer’s chastising Lowe as entry points into exploring conventional awareness and how language use cannot be disentangled from writer credibility and authority.

I often come back to again and again to making the case that credibility and authority are driven by writer control and purpose.

The dancing comma implies a lack of control, or purpose.

My argument, then, is not to browbeat students into being correct, but to encourage them to find ways to make their voices heard and appreciated.

And maybe to avoid being called out on social media, and to avoid stepping in the original mess again over and over.

The King’s English, Social Media, and the Digital Era

Jeff Somers poses about Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

Collective cultural memory suggests Fahrenheit 451 is about censoring books…. But dig deeper into Bradbury’s own discussions about his novel (and carefully reread the text) and you’ll see the author was really obsessed with the encroachment of technology, especially television, on the tradition of the written word. Bradbury positions the burning of books as a symptom of what’s happened to society, not the cause—he’s much more interested in the erosion of critical thought and imagination caused by society’s consumption of media.

This argument frames the dystopian novel as a powerful and prescient commentary on the nature and status of language in our current era of social media (Twitter, etc.) and digital text (from Kindle to the Internet).

Bradbury explained that his novel is about “”being turned into morons by TV.”

Even as some wring their hands about the death of print, we mostly in 2019 take that print for granted, rarely, I think, considering the importance of the printing press to the development of humanity, and even thought itself.

The importance of fixed language, or the possibility of fixed language, began with the printing press, and then Bradbury imagined a logical conclusion well past his lifetime—one in which other forms of technology dwarfed communication as print did.

At the end of the novel, readers discover that people have memorized books, becoming organic, living Kindles, of sorts, to preserve the fixed nature of language. Before print, narratives flourished in oral forms, the tellings and retellings perpetuating and changing those narratives along the way.

I suspect the sky is not falling in terms of print text now because I recall while teaching high school English that the same sort of doom’s day warnings sprang up in the era of MTV and music videos. Videos, some warned, would not just kill the radio star, but were going to kill print.

English teachers were urged to pivot away from so much focus on print text, writing, and toward video communication; watching was the new literacy. Unlike Bradbury, these fear merchants failed to anticipate messaging over computers, the growth of email, and the advent of text messaging on smart phones and social media—all of which reshaped and propelled the importance of keyboarding and text (even as much of that is virtual).

The world shifted rather quickly away from music videos (MTV morphed into reality TV), toward cell phones with miniature keyboards (think BlackBerry), and then touchscreen cell phones with integrated keyboards (even the iPad has bowed to the market popularity of having a keyboard).

Print—fixed language—is an enduring aspect of human communication, and humanity itself, it seems. But the printing press and making language somewhat permanent resulted in another often ignored development—the rise of prescriptive rules for language (grammar, mechanics, spelling, and even style).

The rise of what many call simply “grammar books” because of their use in formal schooling reveals more about power than language itself. Proper use of language in English once carried the term “the King’s English.” It is there we should pause for a moment.

Linguistics professor John McWhorter has leveled a critique of Donald Trump, not so much for his presidential politics as for his language, notably on Twitter.

“The president of the United States has many faults, but let’s not ignore this one: He cannot write sentences,” McWhorter begins before cataloguing a pretty hefty list of Trump’s unusual uses of language on social media—odd capitalization, garbled spelling (apparently not copyedited by anyone), and typos.

From that evidence, McWhorter proclaims: “Trump’s serial misuse of public language is one of many shortcomings that betray his lack of fitness for the presidency.”

While some may find—as I do—McWhorter’s critique linguistically prudish, the stale prescriptivist rant, he makes two important, although complex, points: “Trump’s writing suggests not just inadequate manners or polish—not all of us need be dainty—but inadequate thought” and “One must not automatically equate sloppy spelling with sloppy thinking.”

I fear many people will not read McWhorter’s analysis as carefully as he intended, so I want to emphasize his use of “suggests” and “not automatically.”

Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings played thoughtfully with capitalization and lower case letters. William Shakespeare manufactured quite a few words.

While there certainly is a case to be made for standardizing language to aid communication, the automatic and abrupt association of so-called nonstandard language in print form with “inadequate thought” is very dangerous.

If we return to the rise of “the King’s English,” we must be reminded that prescribing rules was far more often about power than the linguistic integrity of any language. Early grammar texts for English imposed (without any real linguistic justification) mathematical concepts onto language (no double negatives!) and wrestled English into Latin constructs (do not split infinitives!) because English was viewed as inferior as a language.

But even more important in that process is that “the King’s English” was mostly an effort to fix, make permanent, the ruling class’s language, one honed through formal education and in the privileged context of access to print text (which was incredibly expensive). Literacy was a wedge among the so-called classes, notably a mechanism used to leverage power in the balance of those already in power.

There is more to the politics of “the King’s English” also; the direct connection between the so-called use of proper English and moral character. The earliest cases for correct use of language was an argument that proper language reflected a person of high moral character as well as the inverse. Of course, this was gross propaganda to portray the ruling class as deserving their privilege and the poor as deserving their poverty.

So I am left with a predicament in terms of McWhorter’s analysis of Trump’s use of language, especially as Trump represents the state of language in an era of social media and digital text.

I am not buying McWhorter’s prescriptivist bent even as I recognize we must critique and then reject “Trump’s serial misuse of public language” as an issue of dishonesty and “inadequate thought.”

If Trump himself or someone on his staff suddenly found the impetus to copyedit Trump’s public rants on Twitter and elsewhere, that would in no way abdicate Trump’s lies and abuse of status and power.

To nitpick about Trump’s so-called correctness in matters of mechanics, grammar, and style is too much like those concerned with Trump’s ill-fitting suits and his god-awful hair and orange skin-glow.

Trump ascended to the highest office in a free country, mainly as a careless business man and reality TV star—more bravado than anything else.

There’s too much of substance we must be confronting instead of the surface where he has flourished.

Playing grammar Nazi with Trump’s Tweets is a simplistic distraction from the very real threat of Nazis in 2019 America.

Nero fiddled, Trump (more reality TV star than business man) Tweets (badly). But, you know, the fires.

On Common Terminology and Teaching Writing: Once Again, the Grammar Debate

In 1971, after years of scrounging and clawing, my parents were able to build their dream home on the largest lot at the new golf course in my home town. This was a redneck working-class vision of what it meant to achieve the American Dream.

As a consequence, I lived on and worked at this golf course (called a “country club” without a speck of irony) throughout my adolescence. Some of my formative moments, then, occurred on the golf course while I was working—including discovering that when a teen has been covertly drinking mini-bottles of liquor for hours virtually every adult can see that in about 2 seconds.

The grass on the course itself was over-seeded a couple times a year, and this required the work of all the employees and many of the club members simply volunteering, including my father.

One fall, I believe, I was told to drive around the old pickup truck used exclusively on the course. I was likely a year or so away from driving legally.

The truck was a 3-speed manual shift on the column and a transmission that worked about as well as you’d imagine for a work truck that never left the fairways of a redneck golf course.

My father hopped in the passenger seat and told me what to do, throwing around terms such as “clutch” as well as all the intricacies of column shifting. I was overwhelmed and terrified.

Within moments, he had me start the truck, and lurch forward, coaching me along the way about using the three pedals and finding the sweat spot for engaging and releasing the clutch (I would drive manual transmission cars with glee well into my late twenties when a broken ankle proved to me the practicality of automatic transmissions).

Soon I was left alone with this beast of a truck to shuttle whatever was needed all over the golf course. Within hours, I was pretty damn proficient despite the rolling berms of the fairways, the steep hills, and the idiosyncratic transmission in this truck well past its prime.

Once again on NCTE’s Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning Forum questions about teaching grammar surfaced, and as I often do, I thought about how we learn to drive cars.

Driving a car and composing are quite similar since they are holistic behaviors that require many seemingly simultaneous decisions performed in some type of “rules” environment (driving within laws and writing within conventions, what people commonly call “grammar” to encompass grammar, mechanics, and usage).

As well, I am convinced that both are best learned by actually doing the whole thing, preferably with an experienced mentor guiding the learning process.

And thus we come to a recurring and powerful question whenever the grammar debate claws its way zombie-like out of the dirt: Do teachers and students need common terminology for the teaching of writing to be effective?

This is a very practical retort to those who caution about isolated direct grammar instruction and a rules-based approach to how language works. It is a very common complaint I hear from teachers of second languages as well.

Let me return for a moment to my adventure in a 3-speed pickup truck. My hearing the term “clutch” did me no good at all in terms of engaging and releasing the clutch and actually maneuvering the truck around the golf course.

In fact, my dad immediately added “the pedal on the left.”

So my first response to the question about the importance of common (grammar) terminology in teaching writing is that we must all step back and critically examine if this is really essential.

My sense gained from teaching writing for over 30 years is that students do not need the technical language that teachers must have and that the terms students should acquire are incredibly few.

None the less, my professional concern as a teacher and a writer is not if students will acquire common terminology (they will and they should), but how and to what extent.

The grammar debate has one aspect in common with the phonics debate: too many see the argument as a yes/no dichotomy (and it isn’t).

So a foundational guiding principle for the role of grammar and common terminology in the teaching of writing is to provide students with the least direct instruction and acquisition of terminology needed for the students to be fully engaged in the whole behavior. And then during that whole behavior, students continue to build their grammatical awareness and technical terminology storehouse.

And that begins to address the how.

I learned to drive the 3-speed truck by driving the truck very badly for an extended amount of time and among a group of experienced drivers who were also incredibly patient and encouraging.

There was no pass/fail, and I never took a test on the parts of the truck or how to drive a 3-speed manual transmission.

Our students need low-stakes and extended opportunities to write by choice while receiving ample feedback from their teacher, who models the writing process and the technical terminology that helps those students learn and improve.

Ultimately, then, when our goal is to foster students as writers, let’s critically interrogate our own assumptions about what students must have to learn to write, and then let’s be vigilant about protecting that goal; in other words, prioritize the time students have to practice the full writing process in low-stakes and supportive environments over time spent on isolated and direct instruction that detracts from that foundational commitment.

I will set aside driving a truck for a final example from my teaching writing. In a first-year writing seminar, I use a text that frames effective writing in broad concepts such as cohesion and clarity.

I assign the text; students read weekly and submit response journals on key points and questions. In class and during writing conferences, I use these terms—cohesion, clarity—but we have no test and I never explicitly say they need these terms that I typically use along with some concept or analogy building on their existing schema (my father adding “pedal on the left” after “clutch”).

Regularly and often throughout the semester, students begin to say “I was trying to work on cohesion like Williams says in our book.”

Teaching writing is not well served by either/or debates, especially when warranted practice is about not if but how.

My students throughout my 18 years teaching high school (in the same redneck town when I grew up) and then at the college level have almost all acquired common terminology in context of what they do without a doubt learn—my writing classroom is about composing, and everything we do is in service to that one essential goal.

Just as the recalcitrant grammar debate spurs in me nostalgia for my formative years gaining the All-American rite of passage, driving, it also pulls me once again to my (abrasive) muse, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant, who confronted in 1953: “It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need.”

In 2017, we stand on the same worn path, and I conclude here by urging us all who teach writing to keep our bearings: “writing is learned by writing,” and anything else we do must not detract from that truism.

Suggested Reading

LaBrant, L. (1953). Writing is learned by writingElementary English, 30(7), 417-420. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41384113

LaBrant, L. (1955). Inducing students to writeEnglish Journal, 44(2), 70-74, 116. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/808778

Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy

Reclaiming “Direct Instruction”

After I posted two blogs on authentic literacy instruction (see here and here), several readers tripped over my use of the term “direct instruction.”

Before examining the value in that term (and what it means), let me offer a couple of anecdotes.

While I was teaching high school English, a colleague teaching math had a classroom directly across from my room, separated by a court yard. With, I think, equal parts joking and judgment, that teacher used to say often, “I wish I could teach while sitting at my desk.”

Not unimportant here is the distinct pedagogical differences among math and English teachers—one that I believe we can fairly say is a tension between math teachers being teacher-centered and sequential while English teachers can lean more often toward student-centered and workshop approaches (although my caveat here is that English teachers can be some of the most traditional teachers I have ever met).

In my story above, the math teacher’s comment is an excellent example of the confusion over “direct instruction.” Yes, many people see direct instruction as lecture—thus, mostly if not exclusively teacher-centered with students relatively passive.

For this colleague, my students working in a writing workshop with me responding to drafts, conferencing, and the other purposeful elements of workshopping did not meet her definition of “teaching.”

Another illustrative story involves my daughter.

Her second grade teacher was a colleague of my wife, who teaches PE at the primary school. One day in passing my daughter’s second grade teacher told my wife that my daughter had been doing extremely well on her spelling tests until she began intensive and direct phonics instruction. Since then, she noted, my daughter’s spelling grades had suffered significantly.

This second example represents the ultimate failure of a narrow view of teaching having to be a certain limited type of direct instruction.

Now, when I use the term “direct instruction,” as one person perfectly commented about my blog post, I am addressing purposeful and structured or organized instruction, but I am not using the term as only teacher-centered practices.

To be direct, or purposeful, then, I see teaching as an act with several goals: curricular (including standards and high-stakes tests addressing those standards), disciplinary, and student-centered.

In any given class, teachers must address all three, but pedagogically, teachers often have some degree of autonomy over how to address these goals.

As I champion “direct instruction,” I am cautioning against placing curriculum and discipline above student, but I am also calling for building all instruction on some evidence of need.

Curriculum guides and standards justify a need; the discipline (ELA as literacy, literature, and composition) justifies a need; and students come to all courses with needs.

“Direct instruction,” then, is purposeful and organized teaching targeting one or all of these needs.

As a critical constructivist, I maintain that we must start with allowing students to produce artifacts demonstrating what they know, what they don’t know, and what they are confused about in the context of our curricular and disciplinary obligations.

Direct instruction is simply teaching with purpose to address those needs.

A failed view of direct instruction is grounded in covering the curriculum or the obligations of the discipline regardless of the students in the course.

Teaching algebra sequentially, likely with the textbook determining the structure, in order to document that you taught algebra; teaching a phonics program, again, in order to document that you taught reading—this is the failure of a narrow view of “direct instruction” that supplants the needs of the students with the needs of curriculum and the discipline.

If and when a child is spelling and decoding well, to go over phonics is a waste of time, but also very likely harmful—just as many studies of isolated grammar instruction show students becoming more apt to make “errors” after the instruction.

So here we can begin to unpack that the problem is not with “direct,” but with “isolated.”

The problem is with teaching the discipline, teaching a program, teaching to the standards and/or high-stakes tests instead of teaching students.

I am advocating for direct instruction built primarily on student needs—purposeful and structured lessons designed after gathering evidence of student strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.

And I must stress that my argument here is wonderfully confronted and unpacked by Lisa Delpit, who came to this debate because she recognized the other side of the coin I haven’t addressed yet: so-called student-centered practices that cheat students (mostly our vulnerable populations of students) by misunderstanding the role of direct instruction, by misreading progressive and critical practices as “naturalistic” or unstructured.

Writing and reading workshop are not about giving students free time to read and write; workshops are about time, ownership, and response that is purposeful and structured.

Student-centered practices are not about letting children do whatever the hell they want.

As Delpit has addressed, that isn’t teaching, and it certainly cheats students in similar ways that bullheaded and narrow uses of teacher-centered practices harm students.

If a teacher isn’t guided by needs and grounding class time in purpose, that teacher isn’t teaching.

But until you have a real breathing student in front of you, you cannot predict what that direct (purposeful) instruction will (should) look like.

Ultimately, I believe narrow uses of the term “direct instruction” are designed to shame student-centered and critical educators.

I refuse to play that game because I am directly (purposefully) teaching when I place the needs of my students before but not exclusive of the needs of the curriculum and the discipline.

And, yes, while I also hope someday more teachers can teach while sitting at their desks, I am more concerned about how we can come to embrace teaching as purposeful and structured without reducing it to a technocratic nightmare for both teachers and students.