Sunday, January 6, 2013
English and English Education in the Tower of Babel, Part 2: The Dread Five Paragraph Essay and Teaching Expository Writing
They are bad words: Five. Paragraph. Essay.
Last year, I assigned three full-length expository or persuasive essays to my honors students per semester, and two to my regular-level students per semester. That was about all I thought we could do in a year, and the grading still nearly crushed my spirit. I began to discover that my students almost routinely wrote one very good "body" paragraph, along with several less-good ones--something of a waste, it seemed. But then I figured that even these "summative" assessments could have a "formative" component: in other words, I could assess my students on their ability to write an organized and thoughtfully argued paragraph, while still having them practice writing an organized and thoughtfully argued essay, a skill to be mastered next year, or even further down the line. People learn how to write slowly by emulation, feedback, repetition, and coaching, and when you have between 28 and 35 students in each of 5 classes, that kind of work turns into formulas all too easily. If all a student is expected to do on, for example, the Illinois State Acheivement Test, or the ISAT, is to write a "three-part response," then that is what we will teach. And we have terrific formulas, and mnemonics, as I noted above. Here are some more:
For an introduction:
A. Attention Grabber
B. Background information
For a body paragraph:
But here's the kicker: when I was teaching my first class of AP literature students a couple of years ago, and I wanted to prove to them that these formulas were Useful to Know in the Real World, I was able to point to any number of editorials in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times that look exactly like this. I was also able to point to one of the chapters of my dissertation, which as a five-page introduction, but still follows the ABC formula:
A: intriguing Anecdote, followed by a "close reading" of the anecdote.
B: Background of what other scholars have thought about the problem presented by the close reading of the anecdote, and why they're wrong about the problem (in the "Little Red Schoolhouse" style of the University of Chicago, this is called "stasis/destabilization").
C: Claim: my "take" on the problem.
In the two pedagogy courses I took for my English PhD, I was told again and again how silly the writing instruction in high school is. When I took the University of Chicago's course called Pedagogies of Writing, they were very intent on insisting that the "stasis/destabilization" introduction was extremely different from the "inverted paragraph" introduction. Likewise, they hated the words "topic sentence" like they were the work of the devil, but they used the words "paragraph-level claim" or even "point sentence" as if these were new inventions.
In Pedagogies of Writing, the instructors were really brutal toward high school English teachers, which, as a Once and Future high school English teacher, I found insulting. They actually showed us a graphic organizer from a Nebraska high school and everyone had a huge chuckle about it! They also showed us a sample essay from a student who had been taught the inverted-pyramid formula for an introduction. The essay was about Beloved. The introduction started with a generalization: Life is full of choices. It then went on to explain that in the novel Beloved, Sethe has a choice about whether to murder her baby or not murder her baby.
I certainly hope that this student never knows that his or her essay is used in this way to teach this course, year after year after year. So little teaching of writing goes on, even in freshman intro courses, that students are more often than not left to their own devices (in this case, literally: the rhetorical device of the inverted pyramid, general-to-specific, which, in this one case, turns out to be quite bathetic). By the time they get to some colleges, students are expected to show up already knowing how to write the way their professors want, or else they are given just one writing course, taught by an exasperated English professor, in which they are told that everything they learned in high school is hopelessly, worthlessly, wrong. It's deflating to the students, to say the least.
The worst part is, high school teachers combat the superiority complex of English professors by giving their students arbitrary rules: "don't use 'I.'" Use "transition words" like however, moreover, thus, and--be still my soul--in conclusion. I have taught my students, more than once, to begin an essay of literary analysis with the phrase "In [author]'s [novel/play/poem] [name of novel/play/poem]...."e.g., "In Richard Wright's novel Native Son..." Gag me with a chainsaw! But it sure is better than seeing something like "In the book Native Son by the author Richard Wright he says..." Where we could be teaching rhetoric, we teach formulas that look like rhetoric.
But formulas are a useful teaching tool. Teachers call it scaffolding. A scaffold is a temporary structure that is used when another structure is being built or repaired. What has to come next is the dismantling of the scaffold, to be sure, but it's the old you-have-to-learn-the-rules-before-you-can-break-them argument. I sort of believe this argument. When I taught theory, I found Audre Lorde's formulation "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" extraordinarily useful for teaching the various Marxist/subaltern--postcolonial, feminist, and African American--versions of poststructuralism. But I also always pointed out that word "dismantle" to my students--Lorde's claim is a fallacy. If you want to dismantle the master's house, you must either use the master's tools, or move at a frustratingly slow and careful pace with more rudimentary tools--for example, you can remove a screw with pliers, but it is much easier and faster to remove it with a screwdriver. But Lorde, herself an academic as well as a poet, didn't want to destroy the master's house. She wanted to live in it on her own terms. She had to learn to write like them before she could claim to write like herself.
I am also a firm believer that the relentless teaching of expository writing kills the love of writing in students, much like the relentless teaching of explication kills the love of reading--a Writicide to go alongside Kelly Gallagher's Readicide, if you will. The great majority of the high school students I have taught love to do things with words--they freestyle, they rap, they text, they chat, they gossip. The key is to harness this energy and creativity to the pursuit of improving their writing. It's a bare, biologically verifiable fact that teenagers are going to be obsessed with themselves. So we let them write about themselves endlessly. And I would rather read 150 mediocre personal essays than 150 mediocre poetry explications any day. But that's because I love teens and their problems don't bore me.
I see so many articles and Facebook comments from my friends who teach in other environments that go along the lines of this one, with the attendant hand-wringing on both sides about how high school students aren't giving high school teachers what they want, and high school teachers are not giving college freshmen what they need, so the freshmen aren't giving the comp teachers what they want. I used to feel this way, and I still go nuts, in my own way, about the your/you'res and the their/there/they'res and the "In my honest opinion I think thats" of this world. (I borrow a tool from my senior high school teacher's box, thanks to whom I learned what a comma splice was. I draw a little spiral in these sorts of mistakes. If the student doesn't learn the error, the spiral gets bigger the next time. I don't remember what my former teacher called it, but I call it Ms. Barton's vortex of despair--my despair at your not having learned this simple rule or redundancy.)
Of course it's fun to laugh when a student misspells a word and, in so doing, creates an irony that is hilarious. Doesn't everyone do this all the time? When we publish the mistakes of those students, and get a good chuckle out of them, why are we laughing? At the incongruity of the error, for sure. But isn't some of the laughter also designed to mask our own anxiety for not teaching them how to spell a key vocabulary word? Or to congratulate ourselves on our own superior knowledge?
When I first started teaching high school, with absolutely no training, I would spend hours writing and revising elaborately written essay questions--usually multiple options for a single assignment--only to receive essays that were all plot summary. The first time this happened, the disappointment was devastating, and the tedium of grading only made the devastation worse. Eventually, I figured out better ways to teach writing in order to get my students to write the way I hoped they would, which was, of course, more like me. When I taught college students at U of C, I went to their Center for Teaching and Learning and found out more about what teachers call "alignment" of assessment and teaching.
But it was only when I took some real courses in education, when I got my M.A.T. a couple of years ago, that I discovered a whole other world of literature and habits of mind that could make me into a better teacher of writing. Most of the writers of my favorite books about teaching have been around for awhile--since the late 80s, in some cases, when I was learning to write as an elementary school student.
The new Common Core State Standards still, like the old standards, emphasize and expect expository writing with clear claims and supporting evidence and so on. But the shortcuts will stay the same. And CPS's new "Performance-Based Assessments" also expect the same, as well as a graphic organizer that must be completed in order to earn full credit.
I just wish that K-12 ed and English ed would actually sit down and talk to each other about the kind of writing they want to see, and how to get there, because I think we do a lot of un-teaching when we could actually be doing re-teaching or scaffolding, also known as "spiraling." I think we laugh because we feel out of control. But maybe, with a little bit more communication, we could spiral writing instruction into control.
Maybe, but no promises, I will write future posts on how English teachers teach writing and grammar. I think my friends who are English professors or trained as English PhDs might have something to gain from knowing about things like the 6 +1 Traits of Writing....just like one of my friends told me that "I do, we do, you do" (aka gradual release of responsibility) is very useful for teaching college students.