Saturday, January 12, 2013

Follow up about Writing and Some Blogger Love

Recently I was talking to a friend, who also teaches in an urban high school, about writing, and my friend (we'll call my friend "Sam") was making a joke about how a writer doesn't have to be aware of his or her audience. Sam said:
"I just answer whatever questions are on the graphic organizer assuming that whoever the reader is will know what the questions were."
What makes this joke hilarious is that Sam knows that this is not a "good" way to write, but that being aware of your audience is extremely important to good writing. Sam also told me that s/he was always taught not to assume that the teacher is your audience, but rather that you're writing for a general audience with less background knowledge than you. When my students write about literature, I always tell them to write as if their reader has read the book, but not recently, and that the writer can't expect the reader to have the primary text open right next to them. (This usually helps to cut down on the phrase "On page 21....") And yes, I'm teaching my students to write the way I write. Most of the literature I write about is unfamiliar to most people. Where I get in trouble is when I try to write about something that everyone has read before. That's when it's the hardest to tell how much you need to show the reader to get your point across.

I've decided to start calling this approach "writing with empathy," even though empathy is a loaded word in some circles. The idea is to understand what your audience already knows, so that you don't insult them. This often gets confused with "trying to sound smart," which is not the same thing. Often, in an effort to help, high school English teachers teach their students how to posture, because posturing is an important component of writing well in any genre. That is why personal narrative is the most authentic-sounding kind of writing for most non-experienced writers: they are following that old rule: write about what you know.

Sam went on to explain that graphic organizers can be great, but often lead to these sorts of simplistic, bathetic (for a teacher) answers: "Yes, and..." or "No, because..." When Sam was in high school, at a well-resourced school, s/he didn't have "graphic organizers," because they are a relatively new invention.

For more on this matter, see the conversation I had with Ray Salazar in the comments on my post about the 5-paragraph essay. Writing is Power, people. We have to remember that "good writers" are often (though not always) people with a lot of cultural and economic capital--people who either were taught how to write very well by experts, or taught themselves how to write very well by reading a lot, and reading widely. Now, I hesitate to make a broad generalization without backing it up. So, if my description doesn't sound like it describes you, I will just say this: I am an English teacher and I learned how to write in school and from my family. My friend Sam is not an English teacher and Sam learned how to write in school and from Sam's family, both of which are different from mine.

Now for a piece of happy news: I was linked to (no idea how one should say that, but it seems like it must be rendered in the passive voice. An ed blogger linked to me? An ed blogger wrote about me?)--anyway, I was linked to by a great ed blogger, Alex Russo. Russo is not very popular in some of the circles I run in, because he doesn't like ed reform rhetoric very much, and he also doesn't like union rhetoric very much. He likes to be in the middle. But I've been reading his blog for years, since my days as a full-time grad student. His blog about CPS is already on the blog roll, but I thought it only right to give him a shout-out here. If you're less interested in issues in CPS and more into nation-wide coverage, check out his blog This Week in Education.

Lastly, my parents have complained that my posts have been very long of late. So I will try to write more like a blogger (which, between us, I think of as writing more like a man). Anyway, I read a lot of blogs, so I just try to write like I'm writing a blog--which is to be a little bit personal, but not too personal, and to talk about the things that interest me in a semi-organized fashion, without going through 10 drafts before posting something.

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