Sunday, January 6, 2013

English and Education in the Tower of Babel, Part 1: Hand-wringing about writing

I work with another teacher who always gets annoyed when this happens: a student who is writing as fast as he can, in class, stops and dramatically shakes out the cramp he has developed in his hand.

Since I now work in a land where essays are often written by hand, even out of class, and revision is known as "corrections," and malapropisms are the order of the day, I always find dramas about "how students write now" pretty amusing, and also frustrating.

So, with that spirit in mind, let's wring our hands, and then shake them out:

Many prophets are now telling us that writing is one of the most important skills for students to learn to be competitive in the 21st century global economy. Throughout the short history of American universal public education, the teaching of writing has fallen largely on the shoulders of English language arts teachers, both in K-12 and in higher education. The thing is, when it comes to best practices in the teaching of writing, many of us are flying blind, on both sides of the high school graduation milestone. This is, in part, because English educators in K-12 are mostly listening to and reading books and articles by English and Reading specialists in the Education field, while English professors and graduate students in higher ed--the ones who inevitably teach freshman composition--mostly come from the English Language and Literature field or, in increasingly rare cases, the field of English Language and Rhetoric. As I have written before, these two fields--English Language Arts/Reading, as taught in Education departments, and English Language and Literature/Rhetoric, as taught in English departments, are like twins separated at birth (though born hundreds of years apart), or soul mates--sisters from a different mother--who can't recognize each other.

As the title of this post suggests, the two fields have become so alien to each other that they use different languages. For example, in English education, citations are formatted according the style used by most sociologists--the style of the American Psychological Association (APA style). In English lang & lit, citations are formatted according to one of the styles used by most humanists--the style of the Modern Language Association (MLA style), or of the University of Chicago Press ("Chicago style").

My professor of English methods at National-Louis, Katie McKnight, pointed out to our class that English teachers in K-12 (I will, for the remainder of this post, call these people "English teachers" and the college people "English professors") have to be "bilingual" in these two citation styles, which have, at least in my personal experience, somewhat annoying and pedantic differences. When writing one's teaching philosophy for an English department--a teaching philosophy that was first drafted for an Ed class--there is a lot of minute copy editing to be done. It's a pain.

It is with some bittersweet triumph that I can note that the style taught to most high school students, even in history classes, is a quasi-MLA style, which is so hegemonic that most people don't even know that they're using it. MLA style teaches us to underline or italicize titles, to capitalize each letter of the title, to put poem and article titles in quotation marks instead of underlining or italicizing.

But enough about citation styles. All of this is to say that, when it comes to writing, English teachers and English professors are definitely not on the same page. They're not even looking at the same book.

Either this fall or last spring, there was circulated, at the school where I work, an article that informed me that the most important skill for high school graduates to learn before college is to write an expository essay of 3-5 pages. Immediately, the pressure was on to assign such essays, and as much as possible, in order to prepare students for college.

Since I started teaching in 2002, however, I discovered that it is often much easier for students to learn, and for me to assess their learning of, the skill of expressing a clear point and supporting it with evidence in a much shorter assignment, such as a single paragraph, rather than in a whole essay, which takes longer for me to grade and return to them, and much longer for them to write.

I also discovered that students are much more motivated to write about themselves than they are to write about books or other people. And, from what I've seen and heard, when students get to write about what they want, which is, often, themselves, their writing style, mechanics, and voice improve. That is, after all, partly how I learned to write, and, I think, partly how most Americans I know (who, important caveat, like to write) learned how to write.

But teaching students to write personal narrative is obviously not enough. In 9th and 10th grades, which were the grades I taught last year, we were still very much working on the most basic skill of expository or persuasive writing--showing and explaining your evidence, in a single paragraph. In English Language Arts, this is known as a "three part response" or a "PIE" paragraph (Point, Information, Explanation) or a "PEE" (Point, Evidence, Explanation) or, to the chagrin of many a college professor, a hamburger (bread, meat, bread). Even many of a language arts teacher bristles at teaching such a rote form, but I view it as an important step to get pretty good at before going on to write an essay with a more complex point and multiple paragraphs with multiple pieces of evidence to support that point--what is also known, with some notoriety, as a "five-paragraph essay" or, for history teachers, a "DBQ" (Document-Based Question [Response]). Most hilariously, it has become common in my corner of the teaching world to call the point sentence in a DBQ response a "baby thesis," which I find a little too precious, but also apt--hey, at least that means that the main argument is a mother, right?

Incidentally, I have been told on multiple occasions not to call expository/persuasive essays "five-paragraph essays" anymore, because that term bears the taint of rote learning, and word of the genre's notoriety in higher ed has gotten back to secondary ed. We don't want to mess up in preparing our students for college (and, often, we worry about messing up because we will look bad, rather than because we want our students  to succeed in college). But, guess what? Although we changed the name and the number of paragraphs, I'm here to tell you that high school teachers still teach students how to write five-paragraph essays, and that this is because, barring that the student has developed into an exquisite writer before his or her junior year in college, the five-paragraph format is what's most likely to earn a good score on the writing section of the ACT, SAT, or AP tests. Mind you: a good score, but not a great score. The English Language Arts teachers who assess these essays have learned to treat the five paragraphs with suspicion.

But, to tell you the truth? I have written a five-paragraph essay on every standardized test that ever required one, and I have always gotten a very good score. And not only that: the traditional Anglo-American expository style, institutionalized by William Strunk and E.B. White (who, like me, loved George Orwell), has turned out, for me as an academic writer, to be a pretty great one to have in my pocket. So, for what it's worth, my empirical experience as a writer, reader, and teacher of academic writing shows me that the five-paragraph prejudice is not the fault of the expository organization, per se. In fact, traditional expository organization (charged with being "masculine" by none other than Virginia Woolf) is very useful for learning to write fast under time pressure, like in grad school or law school, or on a timed test. So I still teach students how to write point-example-explanation paragraphs, and to assemble them into very straightforward, traditionally-organized essays. But I don't call them "five paragraph essays." Instead, I call them "essays with an introduction, two or three or four body paragraphs, and a conclusion."

Click here to read part 2: The Dread Five Paragraph Essay and Teaching Expository Writing

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