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John Warner on Twitter: "I see defenses of the five-paragraph essay which describe the template as "training wheels" for developing writers. I unpack this in "Why They Can't Write" arguing that training wheels are not a help in developing essential skills
"I see defenses of the five-paragraph essay which describe the template as "training wheels" for developing writers. I unpack this in "Why They Can't Write" arguing that training wheels are not a help in developing essential skills, but a hack to prevent academic disaster.

This is true of training wheels on bikes. Research has shown that training wheels actually prevent the development of the most important skill for bike riding...balance. The training wheels function as a guard against children cracking their heads when supervision isn't available

Those bike training wheels may be a necessity so children can get around on a bike without being in physical danger, but experts now recommend children learning on "balance bikes" where their feet touch the ground from a young age. When it's time for a pedal bike, they're ready.

I believe one of the reasons we see the 5PE as a useful set of training wheels is because we fear (with justification) what happens if students have to practice the writing equivalent of balance (making choices) from the get go. None of this is the fault of teachers.

When students are being judged against standardized assessments from an early age, and teachers are judged on student performance, turning to the 5PE is a way of preventing potential disaster. It's sensible, rational, but I argue, it's not helping students learn to write.

IMO, writing is thinking, so anything that keeps students from developing their thinking and making choices ultimately delays or prevents their development. The 5PE is part of a system that punishes exploration, choice, freedom, because of an obsession with "assessment."

The 5PE has a long history that's always tied to assessment. It hasn't always been a part of schooling, however. I'm 48 and wasn't introduced to the 5PE until high school when it was introduced as a hack for AP exams. The saving grace is I'd already learned to think like a writer

When teachers say that students "need" the 5PE, I always want to know what they need it for, and it's almost always driven by a particular assessment, an assessment which may not be well-aligned with the experiences which help writers develop. This disconnect is at every level.

For a good chunk of my own teaching career, I enforced the disconnect by giving students more sophisticated versions of the 5PE in order to prevent disaster in "college" writing. Over time, came to believe I my prescriptions were hurting long term development more than helping.

My own big pedagogical shift came when I decided to look at my approach not as helping them do well on the assignment at hand, but looking more longterm, helping students develop their writing "practices" (knowledge, skills, attitudes, habits of mind of writers).

Taking that longer view often resulted in student writing artifacts that were not as accomplished as when I used more prescriptive methods. That was hard to swallow. But...I could see students engaged with a more challenging and ultimately rewarding struggle. That seemed worth it

As I became more familiar with the research on writing for transfer, I saw I'd stumbled on something lots of folks were already studying. Building a writing practice is just one framework for thinking about how experiences in writing transfer from one occasion to another.

Importantly, I had the freedom to make this shift. Even as a contingent college instructor, no one was breathing down my neck and I wasn't beholden to my students' performances on high stakes assessments. K-12 teachers are not allowed this same freedom.

Ultimately, this is why I decided that the front part of Why They Can't Write would have to examine the systemic problems underlying the teaching and learning of writing. Pedagogy is not a fix by itself. It isn't even the most important factor.

As long as we have a system which privileges compliance and conformity and constrains teacher and student freedom and agency, the 5PE will be useful. When it's a route to AP credit or college admission, it could be malpractice not to teach it.

But this is not the same as teaching students to write. It's training them to pass assessments, assessments which may be important, but which hold little meaning, particularly to students, which turns writing into something alienating, rather than liberating, a big problem IMO.

I do not criticize teachers who use the 5PE, but I will always question what's underneath that "need." Usually when we go looking, we see things that are actually not conducive to learning like standardization and surveillance, which inevitably lead to anxiety, or worse.

We must give K-12 teachers the freedom and power to work with the longterm development of their students in mind, rather than being beholden to these assessments which measure little that's meaningful. Without that freedom, we're stuck in this system.

To come full circle back to the training wheels theme, we have to make it so when students are developing their writing practices, they get to "fail" productively, rather than failure being something like flying over the handlebars and cracking a skull.

With writing, "mistakes" and error should always be occasions for learning, not punishment, and definitely not punishment of teachers. I spent years developing Why They Can't Write, and based on early readers, there's already stuff I'd change. That's exciting.

It's exciting because my ideas are being taken seriously by other people with similar concerns. My ideas matter to me, and them, and those ideas can be made better. Why wouldn't I want my students to have the same joy? It can be done, I believe.

Here is where I plug a forthcoming book which is my attempt to create the conditions under which students can experience similar pleasure with writing. Curriculum isn't going to save us by itself, but this is my best (current) attempt at living my values. https://www.amazon.com/Writers-Practice-Building-Confidence-Nonfiction/dp/0143133152/

And a coda. Here's a link to a dissertation by @jtdavisii which includes a deeply researched and fascinating history of the use of the 5PE. That part starts on P. 53 https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=english_diss "

[See also:

Just got this important book in the mail... only a few pages in and I want every teacher who teaches writing (in other words, all teachers across all content areas) to read it. https://twitter.com/biblioracle/status/1079043288596992001
@biblioracle: I see defenses of the five-paragraph essay which describe the template as "training wheels" for developing writers. I unpack this in "Why They Can't Write" arguing that training wheels are not a help in developing…

@triciaebarvia
Especially consider what @biblioracle says about the faulty 5PE=training wheels analogy. Training wheels don’t teach balance. 5PE doesn’t teach thinking. #DisruptWriting

@triciaebarvia
I’ve also heard Ts say that 5PE is a scaffold. But scaffolds are temporary. A scaffold’s purpose is literally to render itself unnecessary. Yet the 5PE is being perpetrated into the middle and upper grades. #DisruptWriting

@triciaebarvia
Not to mention the fact that the 5PE, as a tool of standardization, is ultimately a tool that oppresses individual human voices—& by not making space for linguistic diversity & freedom, the 5PE is not culturally relevant pedagogy. (Or, I should say, it teaches culture but whose?)

@DulceFlecha
is #disruptwriting gonna be a thing??? online writing groups? sharing favorite mentor texts???

@edifiedlistener
Bring it. I'm ready. Still learning so much about process and potential. I still hold a lot of fear of experimenting which is why fiction writing stays out of bounds for me.

@DulceFlecha
I'm currently reading a book on trauma and memoir writing and its funny how many of these writers started off trying to write fiction instead. it's funny how desperately we cling to genre.

@DulceFlecha
and it's funny how desperately important the culture of a proofreader is. months ago I asked 5 (dope, wonderful) people to read a draft. only one caught the typo I made in the first sentence.

@TheJLV was the only Dominican. I forgot the A in tambora.

@DulceFlecha
it made me wonder how student writing changes when their primary reader-- the reader they give the most weight to-- is probably a white, middle class woman. what slips by? what changes does the teacher recommend that a cultural, racial peer wouldn't?

@DulceFlecha
when we prioritize the teacher as the most important reader-- the teacher grades, praises, deems finished or incomplete-- are we training kids to write for a white audience? and how can we disrupt that?

@triciaebarvia
Yes, yes we are. And I’d argue that most of what we’re doing in schools is teaching not just for a white audience but Whiteness itself. How to disrupt? Culturally relevant, responsive, sustaining pedagogy. I wonder how many Ts see their instruction as grounded in CSP, though...

@DulceFlecha
who gets to judge what is culturally sustaining? might be the next question. educators. families. students. communities. some combination of the four?

@triciaebarvia
Yes, definitely some combination. Too often it’s the culture of the teacher/school (Whiteness) that is perpetuated under guises like “college and career ready.”

@DulceFlecha
my new site yaught me that the only expert on a kid's culture is the kid. which I think I knew personally? my mother and I did not react the same way to the Poet X.

but I didn't know it professionally until immigration shelters.

@DulceFlecha
and now I'm always afraid, because the overwhelming majority of my kids are headed to U.S. schools. and there are so many aspects of culture we don't discuss in context of undocumented immigration."]
fiveparagraphessays  writing  howweteach  teaching  howwewrite  teachingwriting  eucation  johnarner  triciaebarvia  sherrispelic   
december 2018 by robertogreco
Blog—Jarrett Fuller — The Soul-Crushing Student Essay
"I taught a writing class for the first time this semester and it was easily the hardest course I’ve ever taught. My experience tracks pretty closely to Korb’s story. It was hard to get students to contribute, to discuss readings, to bring their own thoughts into the texts we’d read together. Even though I ranted against the five-paragraph essay on the first class, and presented on why we’d be dismantling that form to use for our own purposes, I referred to it only as a problem of structure, not of content. I hadn’t connected that only does that format inhibit new styles and structures of writing but also how much of yourself is brought into it. I wish I had read this at the beginning of the semester instead of the end. I have all sorts of ideas for the next time."
jarrettfuller  2018  fiveparagraphessays  structure  form  writing  teaching  howweteach  content  style  teachingwriting  education 
april 2018 by robertogreco
CURMUDGUCATION: Writing Junk
"First, we need to understand that the state of writing instruction has never been great.

If you are of a Certain Age (say, mine) you may recall a type of writing instruction that we could call the Lego Building Approach. In this method, students are first taught to construct sentences. Then they are taught how to arrange a certain number of sentences into a paragraph. Finally, they are taught to assemble those paragraphs into full essays.

This is junk. It assumes that the basic building block of a piece of writing is a sentence. No-- the basic building block of a piece of writing is an idea. To try to say something without having any idea what you want to say is a fool's errand.

Not that the Lego Building Approach should feel bad for being junk. The instructional writing landscape is littered with junk, clogged with junk, sometimes obscured by the broad shadow of towering junk. And on almost-weekly basis, folks try to sort out what the junk is and how best to clear it away.

Here's John Warner at Inside Higher Ed trying to answer the question, "Why can't my new employees write?" Warner reports that he hears that question often from employers. With a little probing he determines that what they mean by "can't write," is "They primarily observe a fundamental lack of clarity and perceive a gap between the purpose of the writing and the result of what’s been written, a lack of awareness of audience and occasion."

In other words, they don't seem to get the idea that they are supposed to be communicating real ideas and information in a real way to real people. It's not a question of rigor or expectations, Warner notes. It's that they were trained to do something else entirely.

I believe that in many cases, these young professionals have never encountered a genuine and meaningful rhetorical situation in an academic or professional context. They are highly skilled at a particular kind of academic writing performance that they have been doing from a very early age, but they are largely unpracticed at that what their employers expect them to do, clearly communicate ideas to specific audiences.

My students’ chief struggle tends to be rooted in years of schooling where what they have to say doesn’t really matter, and the primary focus is on “how” you say things.

This is the flip side of our current bad ideas about reading-- the notion that reading is a set of skills that exist independent of any actual content. Current writing standards and therefor instruction assume the same thing-- that a piece of writing involves deploying a set of skills, and the actual content and subject matter are not really important. This is not so much a pedagogical idea as a corporate one, somehow filtered down form the world where it's believed that a great corporate manager will be great whether the company makes lubricating oil, soup, soap, or fluffy children's toys.

Michelle Kenney at Rethinking Schools talks about how this skills-based writing turns to junk in "The Politics of the Paragraph." Innumerable schools have found ways (or borrowed or bought ways) to reduce writing to a simple set of steps, providing a checklist for students to follow when writing (and for teachers to use when scoring). Kenney writes about the inevitable outcome of this approach, even when using a procedure developed in house:

I also noted a decline in the overall quality of thought in these paragraphs. Students had more confidence in their writing, but they were also less invested in their ideas. Writing paragraphs and essays was now a set of hoops to jump through, a dry task only slightly more complex than a worksheet.

Mediocre writing starts with the wrong questions, and a focus on a set, proscribed structure and process encourages students to ask the wrong questions. Hammer them with writing templates, and students start to see an essay as a slightly more involved fill in the blank exercise. "I have to have five paragraphs-- what can I use to fill up the five paragraph-sized blanks?" "I need three sentences to make a paragraph-- what can I use to fill in the the three sentence-shaped empty spaces." This gets you junk.

The appeal of the template is easy to see-- teaching writing is hard and grading writing is even harder. Every prompt has an infinite number of correct answers instead of just one, and every piece of writing has to be considered on its own terms. The very best writing includes a unique and personal voice, and teaching a students to sound like him- or herself is tricky. Much easier to teach them all to sound like the same person.

The important questions for writing are what do I want to say, who do I want to say it to, and what's the best way I can think of to say it. But the results of those are really hard to scale up, if not impossible. So it comes as no surprise that the Age of Common Core College and Career Ready Standards has provided us just with more junk writing instruction."



"I know there are teachers who think they are swell. I've met some. Here's why some teachers like these writing standards:

1) They are teaching their own set of standards and pretending that their own standards have something to do with the Core standards.

2) They don't like to teach writing, and what they want someone to do is just reduce it to some simple rules so that they can just go through the motions and be able to say they're teaching writing without having to suffer through the hard work.

3) They don't know how to teach writing.

I'm sorry, but if you tell me that you think the standards are great for writing instruction, I will judge you. I'm not proud of it, but there it is (especially in Pennsylvania, where we have found ways to make the writing standards even worse). Will argues that teachers need more support, that there are "veteran teachers who had no practice in teaching the kind of writing, particularly argumentative writing, that the standards call for," and that's probably true, but I'm okay with that, because the standards call for junk. Teachers do need "support" in the teaching of writing (I do love how "needs support" is now our code word for "needs to be whacked upside the head and straightened the hell out"), but the standards are not the place to find it, and they're not the foundation on which to base it. I promise that I'll present my Writing Instruction Professional Development in a Can but this is already a long post, so we'll save that for another day.

But I will give you Step One, because summer is the perfect time to work on it.

Write. Write for a blog. Write letters to the editor of your newspaper. Write long thoughtful letters to friends. You can no more teach writing without actually doing writing than you can teach reading if you've never cracked open a book. So go do that. And don't consult any standards or templates when you do. Just ask yourself-- what do I want to say? That's the only thing you need to get started."
writing  education  teaching  teachingwriting  schools  2016  howweteach  howwewrite  commoncore  templates  fiveparagraphessays  sfsh  pedagogy  curriculum  practice 
july 2016 by robertogreco
The Politics of the Paragraph
"It wasn’t until I became an English teacher that I understood the relationship between silence and passion. My 12th graders were so quietly fired up over their persuasive essays on immigration that I had nothing to do but study the tops of their heads as they wrote and listen to raindrops ping against the classroom windows. Part of me was proud that my students had become such independent and motivated writers. The rest of me grappled with the teacher version of empty-nest syndrome: There were no hands desperately waving in the air, no side conversations, no one trying to make a 3-pointer into the garbage can across the room with a wadded-up criteria sheet.

Toward the end of class, Erica pushed her notebook aside and ran out of the room. I found her sitting in the hallway with her knees up to her chest and her face in her hands.

“What’s up, Erica?” Her alcoholic mother had recently kicked Erica and her 3-month-old baby out of the house. Life had become an incredible struggle for this young woman, who was currently living with her boyfriend’s family. I wasn’t surprised to see her check out of class.

“I’m such a crappy writer.”

“What?” It was the last thing I expected to hear. Erica was a star student and one of the best writers I had ever taught.

“You’re only supposed to have three ideas, right? How can I write a thesis statement with four or five? You’re only supposed to have three body paragraphs, so I’ll have to mush all of my ideas together, and then I won’t get a good grade because I’ll have too many sentences and too many ideas. I don’t know what to do.”

As we continued the conversation, I discovered that Erica had previously learned a five-paragraph essay structure that limited the writer to three big ideas, each of which the writer was supposed to develop in three corresponding body paragraphs of no more than five to six sentences, but only after providing a three-pronged thesis statement in the introduction to serve as a road map to the writer’s argument.

“Erica, it’s OK to add more paragraphs to the body of your essay. It’s important to develop a strong argument, no matter how many paragraphs or sentences it takes. You’re a bright girl. Trust your own ideas and your own judgment.”

“Really? I can do that?”

Seriously? How could one of the brightest and most talented kids I had ever met question her right to have more than three ideas about immigration?

Since then, countless paragraph and essay “formulas” have cropped up in my students’ work every year. In fact, the academic world teems with tricks for organizing expository paragraphs and essays, most of them conveniently packaged in the form of an easy-to-remember acronym such as TEETH (topic, example, explanation, tie to thesis, hook to the next paragraph) or TISAS (pronounced “T-sauce”—topic sentence, introduction to supporting evidence, supporting evidence, analysis, summary, transition sentence). There’s also the Jane Schaffer formula, which involves attaching two pieces of brief commentary to a concrete detail to produce a 2:1 ratio of opinions to facts, a generic recipe that reads like the literary equivalent of Bisquick. It’s a speedy and convenient “just add one or two quick thoughts and mix” approach that leaves you wondering how much better the piece could have been if the author had put in the time and effort to create the real thing.

Systems like these encourage students to produce shallow, fast-food versions of paragraphs that don’t allow much elbow room for creativity or critical thinking, yet lend themselves to speed grading by a standardized test scorer or an overworked instructor only 50 essays into a stack of 160 on a Sunday night.

I didn’t learn to write using an acronym and, perhaps for this reason, I avoided teaching formulaic writing for most of my career. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t teach essay and paragraph structure. My teachers had shown me that each paragraph of a narrative, expository, or persuasive essay exists to do a job: to provide evidence or commentary, to support a thesis, to help a reader see, hear, feel, and understand the writer’s message. Like my teachers, I gave students graphic organizers to gather their thoughts and evidence before they crafted thesis statements to provide a focus for their writing. I taught skill lessons to help them craft paragraphs that fit together to build their argument in a smooth and cohesive way.

Before they would begin writing, my students spent countless hours mining texts to “raise the bones,” as my current mentor, Linda Christensen, likes to say. Students examined articles, stories, and academic essays to figure out how they were organized, and what kinds of skills professional and excellent student writers brought to their craft. Together, students read, color-coded, and put together their own criteria for their essays, based on this examination of authentic models. As they wrote, I peppered class time with more lessons on skills that they could immediately apply to their writing. My students spent as much time discussing and sharing their writing as they did drafting their pieces; I spent as much time as I could meeting one-on-one with students for writing conferences.

The Specter of High-Stakes Writing Tests
Those times didn’t last. A few years ago, I went to a conference partly funded by the Broad Foundation in Washington, D.C., where I attended a session on the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC) that we would soon be using to assess students’ progress toward the Common Core standards. The tests were still in development but already seemed bewilderingly difficult, especially the writing test. Students would be expected to examine various texts on a preselected topic and then write an analytical essay that took a position and supported it using evidence from the models. The writing task was not unlike those my students were already used to; however, in order to graduate, students had to complete the essays with no help or scaffolding from the teacher.

At the diverse, high-poverty high school where I teach, we were worried. Many of our students arrived in 9th grade with minimal literacy skills. We had kids coping with poverty, parental job loss, successive moves, and fractured families, as well as kids who grew up in refugee camps in Kenya or Tanzania and came to us with no formal education or literacy in any of the languages they spoke. Nevertheless, they were hardworking students who, in the hands of a talented and inspired staff, made impressive progress by the time they graduated.

Like most high school staff members across the state, we expected the majority of our students to fail the SBAC. We knew that student scores would be reported to a public that was being increasingly turned against the public education system, teacher unions, and teachers themselves by conservative political voices in the media. Each one of us was aware that our students’ scores on an assessment developed by a private for-profit business were going to be reflected in our evaluations and perhaps our salaries. There was pressure on everyone to come up with a fix, to find a shared method that would get our students through the mad scramble that had become the path to graduation for all students across the state.

We Invent Our Own Acronym Formula
It wasn’t surprising when teachers at my school proposed developing shared language for writing analytical paragraphs that we could use across grade levels and content areas. It sounded like a great idea to me. Little by little, the shared language morphed into an acronym that went through several iterations before it wound up as PEAS (point, evidence, analysis, so what?). It was short, it was cute. Kids joked about “peeing” on their papers. Our literacy coach had posters made with a color code for each element of PEAS. They hung in almost every classroom at the school. It made things easier for teachers outside of English and social studies to teach writing. Some teachers went a step further and added sentence frames to the PEAS formula, hoping to help struggling writers show more evidence of deep analytical thought in the body paragraphs of their essays.

Even though I certainly believed that argumentative essays should contain points, evidence, and commentary, I was suspicious of mandating all of those elements in each body paragraph of an essay in the way that some teachers were doing. Nevertheless, I went along with it because I was worried—worried about test results, worried that my students might never graduate, worried about what the media would say when our writing test scores tanked, worried that my colleagues would complain that my 9th graders were the only students who arrived in 10th grade unable to produce tidy paragraphs. So I taught PEAS.

The first difficulty I ran into was finding authentic PEAS models for my students to read. I was used to giving my students the best nonfiction writing I could find from newspapers or magazines like The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. The problem was that not many writers in these publications applied the PEAS formula to their paragraphs. A lot of the pros wrote entire paragraphs with nothing but analysis; some adopted a narrative approach to develop their arguments; very few had classic topic sentences at the beginning of a paragraph. Some paragraphs were only a few words long. With few authentic examples of PEAS available, I ended up writing my own model essays for my students and then switched over to models written by students who had mastered the format.

Formulaic Writing Is Not Engaged Writing
There were undeniable benefits to adopting PEAS as a schoolwide writing approach, especially at the 9th-grade level. Many teachers across subject areas—English, social studies, math, biology, and special education—embraced PEAS. Many students appreciated the shared language and expectations for their writing assignments, especially those working on basic literacy skills. … [more]
writing  schools  testing  standardizedtesting  howwewrite  teaching  teachinwriting  michellekenney  2016  howeteach  fiveparagraphessays 
june 2016 by robertogreco
2 × 4: Essay: Ways of Seeing
"Everyone is talking about the way in which digital media is destabilizing print. I thought it was interesting to choose the reverse scenario: something that started digital but found its real audience in print. Ways of Seeing started as a four-part television series on the BBC in England conceived of and written by art critic John Berger. Berger was reacting specifically to the traditional connoisseurship of Kenneth Clark in the Civilisation series, another famous television program, which inscribed the canonical march of Western culture in heroic terms. As a critique of Clark, Berger created a popular reading of the icons of western art not as aesthetic objects, but deeply cultural artifacts that reveal, upon close “reading”, the limitation, prejudice, bias, and obsession of the culture from which they sprang.

This form of cultural criticism was established in the Universities, especially Marxist leaning polytechnics, but had never before had such a popular airing. The idea that classic paintings could be decoded to reveal social facts — and in fact Berger compared them to modern advertising — was heretical and his work was met with incredulity and anger in the hallowed halls of University Art History departments around the country, But Berger’s position, especially his proto-feminist critique of female nudes, would grow to become the dominant form of art criticism in the years ahead.

The television program had moderate success but shortly after it aired Berger joined with producer Mike Dibb and graphic designer Richard Hollis to produce a printed version of the televised series. Clark had also produced a book to accompany Civilisation: a huge, lavish, full-color coffee table monster that must have weighted 10 kilos. In contrast Berger, Dibb and Hollis produced a slim paperback, 127 x 203mm, of only 166 pages. Even more radical, the book was produced in black + white, reducing the famous art to mere notations on standard, uncoated paper of a trade book. It was published by the BBC Books under the Pelican Books imprint, a division of the venerable Penguin Press organized to publish books to educate rather than entertain the reading public.

Even more striking was the book’s design. Hollis starts the text of the first essay on the cover: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” This simple typographic trick gives the book both a certain modesty (saves on pages) and an urgency (no time to waste). Starting on the outside also suggests a digital quality, the content is broadcast to the reader even as they pass the shelf.

The interior is equally unusual. Hollis set the entire book in a bold sans serif font, a very unlikely choice and aggressively un-civilized. There is no nod to classicism, the book is an entirely modern form. The text is broken down into short bursts, usually no more than a paragraph coupled with a visual example. Again reflecting its origin as a televisual experience the text and images work simultaneously, one form leveraging the other. There are five such text-and-image essays on everything from renaissance nudes to modern advertising. But Berger also adds for entirely visual essays. He assembles a series of examples that by the power of his selection and through their aggressive juxtaposition, he makes his thesis without any words at all. In so doing he presages the development of the curated playlist as a predominant contemporary form and creates the first pre-digital book."
johnberger  michaelrock  waysofseeing  books  2011  bookdesign  richardhollis  fiveparagraphessays 
march 2016 by robertogreco
How Diverse Literature Can Make Middle School Easier - The Atlantic
"I remember walking into my classroom for the first time, bare walls and all, and spending hours poring over the existing curriculum with my new team. I remember a smile spreading across my coworker’s face as I pushed Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese to become one of our new texts. This was the kind of material we wanted students to know about early on.

We’ve continued to add more texts to each year’s plan that better reflect the myriad identities that file into our classrooms every September.

We choose writing from all over the world, stories that speak about gender and sexual orientation, and texts that touch on race and socioeconomic status. We can’t always cover every cultural identifier during the semester, but we try our best. And we make it a point to include our students in that process.

At the end of the year, students rate the three major texts and various short pieces they’ve read on a scale from one to five; when our department meets at the end of a semester, we try to change at least one text for the next year. Though we’ve consistently kept American Born Chinese on our syllabus, no text is sacred to us, regardless of prestige. Two years ago, we chopped To Kill a Mockingbird from our reading list in response to negative feedback from students of color.

During the annual survey, we also ask students for books they’ve enjoyed reading in their free time. As a result, we’ve added things like Every Day by David Levithan to our syllabus. The goal is for students to understand reading as an opportunity for enjoyment, not merely an obligation.

That enjoyment—seeing themselves and becoming familiar with identities deemed Other—is more than an escape. Students of color live in an especially reactionary world, one that is frequently unreceptive to their attempts to push back against injustice. Students who are gender-fluid or non-conforming still have to gel with a cissexist society. For an hour and 20 minutes a day, my fellow teachers and I have a chance to help them sort through the static and find a sense of place.

In a typical year, eighth-graders read several pieces about identity, both fiction and nonfiction. For the past two years, the fall curriculum has started with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, moved to excerpts from Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and lands on a short personal essay by Alice Walker titled “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self.”

Then we take a deep dive into what we call the “identity unit.”

On Day 1, students answer two questions in a writing exercise: When someone meets you, what is the first thing that you think they notice about you? What are some things you wish someone knew about you when they first met you? The students break into pairs, sharing some or all of the bullet-point lists they’ve created with each other.

Next, I have students read a modified version of anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s article, “Iceberg Theory of Culture.” In 1976, Hall theorized we all have two significant layers: how we present to others—racial and gender presentation, etc.— and what’s “below the surface”—learning differences, morals, ethics, etc.

Students are asked to process these topics in different ways, sometimes physically. I’ll pose statements like “I think about my race on a daily basis,” or “I have been judged based on perceived socio-economic status,” and students will then move around the room to show where they fall on a spectrum, “agree” on one end, “disagree” on the other. We’ll usually have some class discussion afterward, and I’ll ask them to free-write a paragraph based on the topic.

I recently reached out to one of my former students, Darcy, who now attends Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She told me by email she still remembered the activity, a full three years later.

“Discussing our identities for the first time felt foreign, strange, and perhaps awkward,” she wrote to me. “However, the conversation about identity became more fluid with each new discussion. I appreciate that the iceberg concept was introduced to me at a young age because the activity forced me to communicate with myself in-depth, something that I know is hard even for adults.”

Once the class has discussed the iceberg and various identifiers, the students turn the lens inward. They spend some time brainstorming all the aspects of their identities, mulling over how much these elements contribute to their self-perception and how the rest of the world sees them.

To drive home these concepts, I have them visually create their own interpretation of the iceberg to depict their identity. In the last few years, I’ve seen students create models to speak for them—an advent calendar, for example, that featured “white” under a box labeled “race,” revealing “multiracial” once a tab was lifted. The student sought to show how important his multiracial Asian ethnicity was to his sense of self, though everyone else perceived him as white. Another student drew a cross-section of an apple, listing her presentational identifiers on the outside and her morals and ethics in deeper layers inside.

Most of the work we do around identity is geared toward beginning the long process of understanding these shifting concepts in society. These are issues my students will grapple with for as long as they live around other people. But already, I can see the impact of this work as students move on from my class. Again, I turned to Darcy to get a read on whether this material resonates.

“In middle school, I think many aspects of what I thought my identity to be were subconsciously influenced by my family. I wouldn’t say that pieces of my identity are necessarily easier to process now, but as I’ve matured I can identify independently,” she wrote. “I understand and appreciate that there is much more to a person’s character than what appears at the tip of the iceberg—a lesson produced by the discussions in my middle school English classroom.”"
noahcho  education  middleschool  cv  teaching  howweteach  literature  identity  2015  teachingenglish  english  pedagogy  preteens  adolescence  fiveparagraphessays 
november 2015 by robertogreco
Writing, Unteachable or Mistaught? | the becoming radical
"This experience has highlighted for me two important points:

1. Most people (students and academics/teachers included) are not writers, but people who occasionally write (and then, that occasion is often under some compelling requirement and not the “choice” of the person writing).
2. Especially people who occasionally write, and then most often under that compelling reason or situation, suffer from an inordinate sense of paralysis (I am going to argue further below) because they have been mistaught how to write (predominantly by template and prompt).

Since most teachers of English/ELA and any discipline in which the teacher must teach writing are themselves not writers, the default approach to writing is at least informed by if not couched in Mike’s view of writing—one that has been fostered by template and prompted writing instruction (the authoritarian nod in Vonnegut invoking God above).

And this is my big picture philosophical and pedagogical problem with depending on the five-paragraph essay as the primary way in which we teach students to write: Visual art classes that aim to teach students to paint do not use paint-by-numbers to prepare novices to be artists, and I would argue, that is because those teachers are themselves artists (not teachers who occasionally paint).

However, most teachers of writing in all disciplines are themselves not writers, but teachers who occasionally (or in the past occasionally) write (wrote).

Why Scripts, Templates, and Prompts Fail Students and Writing

In a graduate summer course for English/ELA teachers, I had the students read a commentary by Mike Royko (syndicated columnist) on flag burning. I asked them to mark the parts of the essay and underline the thesis as they read.

And these students who were also teachers dutifully did so.

Royko’s piece in most ways does not conform to the five-paragraph essay, but the teachers marked and labeled an introduction, body, and conclusion—underlining a sentence as the thesis. They immediately imposed onto the essay the script they taught their students (the script they were taught).

When we shared, they noticed differences in their labeling and marking. Most notable was the thesis: Royko’s piece is a snarky, sarcastic commentary that directly states support for flag burning laws but in fact rejects flag burning laws by sarcastic implication.

As a consequence, no direct thesis exists—although we can fairly paraphrase one.

I continue to use examples such as this with first-year students to investigate and challenge templates for essays they have been taught (for example, essays by Barbara Kingsolver) in order to work toward what Johns calls “genre awareness” instead of “genre acquisition.”

Yes, essays have openings that tend to focus the reader, but most openings are primarily concerned with grabbing and maintaining the reader’s interest. And openings are typically far more than one paragraph (essays have paragraphs of many different lengths as well, some as brief as one word or sentence).

Essays then proceed in many different ways—although guided by concepts such as cohesion and purpose.

And then, essays end some way, a way I would argue that is not “restate your introduction in different words” (the Kingsolver essay linked above frames the essay on attitudes toward children with an opening and then closing personal narrative about Spain).

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Scripts, templates, and prompts do most of the work for student—leaving them almost no opportunities to experiment with the writer’s craft, whether that be in the service of history, science, or any other discipline. Without purposeful practice in the business of writing (making purposeful decisions while implementing the writer’s genre awareness against the constraints of the writing expectations), students (and even academics) are often left in some degree of paralysis when asked to perform authentically as writers.

As Zach Weiner’s comic succinctly illustrates, the five-paragraph template/script and writing prompt serve greater ease in assigning and grading writing (absolving the writing teacher of having expertise and experience as a writer, in fact), but as the student in the comic declares: “Suddenly I hate writing.”

And as Jennifer Gray details:
[M]any of [the students] checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.



As much as I love Vonnegut, I disagree about writing being unteachable. And his own role as mainly a writer who occasionally taught writing presents another lesson:
Nothing is known about helping real writers to write better. I have discovered almost nothing about it during the past two years. I now make to my successor at Iowa a gift of the one rule that seemed to work for me: Leave real writers alone.

Well, yes, we do know quite a great deal about teaching writing—and we have for many decades. So if “leave them alone” means do not use artificial scripts, I am all in, but certainly developing writers of all ages can be fostered directly by the teacher.

I am left to worry, then, that the main problem we have with teaching writing is that for too long, we have mistaught it as people who occasionally write, and not as writers and as teachers.

This is a herculean ask, of course, that we be writers and teachers.

But for the many who do not now consider themselves writers but must teach writing, it is the opportunity to begin the journey to being a writer with students by committing to genre awareness instead of genre acquisition.

Awareness comes from investigating the form you wish to produce (not imposing a template onto a form or genre). Investigate poetry in order to write poetry; investigate essays in order to write essays.

But set artificial and simplistic templates and scripts aside so that you and your students can see the form you wish to write.

Kingsolver’s warning about child rearing also serves us well as teachers lured by the Siren’s song of the five-paragraph essay: “Be careful what you give children, or don’t, for sooner or later you will always get it back.”"
teaching  writing  teachingwriting  education  2015  plthomas  fiveparagraphessays  vonnegut  jennifergray  zachweiner  mikeroyko  kurtvonnegut  paulthomas 
june 2015 by robertogreco
CURMUDGUCATION: Writing: Not Unteachable, Often Mistaught
"I am not a five paragraph snob. I have used it my entire career and will continue to do so, primarily because many students come to me as fans of the Uniblob-- a giant mass of verbage and almost-sentences that have fallen out onto the page like toothpaste squeezed out a tube by a spasming fist. If we can get thoughts organized into paragraphs and some sort of simple progression, I absolutely call that a win.

But, as I'm not the first to observe, the FPE can be like training wheels-- useful when you're getting started, but an obstacle once you're really ready to ride.

The FPE ultimately becomes a Fill In The Blank question with five large paragraph-shaped blanks. The FPE encourages students to start by asking the wrong question. They ask "What can I use to fill in each of these blanks" or "What can I write to satisfy the assignment." These questions are most likely to produce inauthentic, lifeless, pointless pieces of writing-- but inauthentic, lifeless, pointless writing that meets the requirements of the teacher's (or standardized test scorer's) checklist.

The correct question to start with is, "What do I think about this?" A good follow-up question is "What's the best way for me to say it?"

The answers to those questions are absolutely personal. In his piece, Thomas compares himself to a colleague-- one puts words down as a first step, and one as a final step. That broad variety is, of course, normal. Some writers must be still to think, and some must be active. Some must be silent and some must be vocal.

There is no One Right Way to write. This is maddening for some teachers and some students. Where the hell is our list of rules? Unfortunately, the real list is short and only sort of helpful:

1) Figure out what you want to say.
2) Figure out a good way to say it.
3) Say it.

Most writing problems are really thinking problems, and the traditional way to solve them is to take thinking out of the equation. This is solving the problem by substituting a different problem. This is having trouble deciding what to order in a restaurant, so you go watch a movie about food instead. Templates and FPE are just a way to say, "Never mind thinking. Just fill in the blanks with what you believe the authorities will find acceptable."

There is nothing less open to standardization than writing, and yet for generations, long before the advent of Truly Terrible Tests, teachers and textbook publishers have tried to make it so. But you cannot standardize, templatize, or rulify writing without turning it into something else entirely.

I kiss my wife because I have a particular feeling, and I follow the impulse born of that feeling at that time. If I kiss my wife because I am concerned about satisfying some Higher Authority's Rules about how I should behave toward my wife, the action I take may bear a superficial resemblance to a kiss, but as I stand there carefully arranging my lips and checking for the approved level of moisture, angle of approach, degree of impact pressure, duration of contact, and any other rules I've been told I must follow for such interactions, the resulting action is something else entirely.

So, can writing be taught at all?

God, I hope so, or I don't know what the hell I've been doing for the past thirty-some years.

Here are some things that I believe work.

Tools. We teach students a variety of tools and techniques. This includes technical tricks like Ways To Make Transitions Happen and analytical tricks like Count All the Forms of Be in Your Paper and See If You Can Make Some Go Away. This also includes sharing and discussing process, so that students can learn a variety of ways that they could, for example, pre-write.

Permission. Particularly if they have wandered down the path of One True Way. I cannot even begin to guess how many students I have dealt with who insist on using approaches to writing that do not work for them at all, simply because they are convinced that's what they are Supposed To Do. Give students permission and encouragement to experiment and wander and try other things.

Write. Write write write write WRITE write write. I am pretty sure that if I simply had students write all the time and I never gave them a lick of feedback, but just kept them writing, they would get better. Feedback, reflection, discussion, sharing and assessment all speed up the process, but the activity central to improving writing is to write. Frequently, regularly, in a variety of modes and purposes, but write.

Individualization. I start with the premise that there are no child prodigy writers, which has to mean that everybody starts in the same place-- Downtown Suckville. Every writer is on a journey from Suckville to Awesome Town, but there is no bus or train that runs there, so every writer has to make the journey in her own way at her own speed. In fact, the trip metaphor only works if we allow for black holes and secret tunnels, because travelers don't even hit checkpoints in the same order. This week Chris may be ready to figure out conclusions but Pat is still wrestling with using less passive voice. Alphonse may be trying to work out writing tools that Fiona doesn't even care about. Every teacher of writing must make her own compromises, because you won't have time to handle the individual nature of learning instruction perfectly. Only you can figure out how you'll deal with that. But there is no tool more important to a writer than individual voice and that is, of course, individual.

So I believe that writing can be taught and fostered and mentored. The tricky part is that there are sooooooo many ways that a teacher can mess things up and get in the way. Templates and the FPE are prime examples of how that can go wrong. Thomas is right; Vonnegut is wrong. Writing is often mistaught, but it is not unteachable."
writing  teaching  education  teachingwriting  howwewrite  fiveparagraphessays  2015  petergreene  thinking 
june 2015 by robertogreco
McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: A Generic College Paper.
"Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

Utterly contrived topic sentence revealing pretty much every flaw of structured essay writing. Therefore, supporting sentence invoking source that exists only in the bibliographies of other cited material (pp. arbitrary to arbitrary + 5). Contemplative question? Definitive refutation paraphrased from a blog found at 2AM:
“Massive block text to lend legitimacy to this sorry endeavor.”
— Legitimate-sounding Anglo Saxon name (year between 1859 and 1967)

Obviously, non-sequitur segue. Utter misinterpretation of the only other author researched for this paper. Blind search for evidence reflecting increasing desperation (authors 4, 5, and 6). Moreover, loose observation to try to force coherence. Indeed, an attempt at humor!

Hence, statement violating every principle of syllogism followed by unnecessary semi-colon; forgettable punch line. Open-ended question undoing what little intellectual progress has been made? Filler sentence, which breaks entire flow of argument, specifically designed with maximum complexity in mind so as to solve lingering word minimum concerns.

Unconvincing conclusion statement. Empty belief that prompt has been answered sufficiently and requires no further investigation by anyone, ever. Last sentence, which consumed approximately 95% of the total mental effort dedicated—still reads clunky."
writing  education  essays  academics  howwewrite  howweteach  schooliness  fiveparagraphessays 
october 2014 by robertogreco
Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction? | the becoming radical
"We have two recent commentaries that detail how schools and teachers fail students in the teaching of writing—one comes from a college student and the other, from a former teacher. While both reach the same conclusion about the teaching of writing, the reasons for those failures are in conflict, suggesting that we must consider whether schools and teachers are fumbling the teaching of writing, and then why.

Posted at Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue, a former Massachusetts student and current college student, Joan Brunetta, confronts the negative consequences of high-stakes accountability driven by standards and testing:
I am currently a student at Williams College, but I grew up in the public school system in Cambridge, MA and was among the first cohort of kids to have every single MCAS test administered, 3rd grade through 10th. Over the course of my years in the Cambridge public school system, I saw the scope of my education narrowed with increased testing, from a curriculum that valued student growth, experiences, and emotions, to one that was often cold and hard and moved on whether or not we were ready.

Brunetta’s experience should not be discounted as anecdotal since an analysis of twenty years of reform in her home state tends to reinforce her claim. As well, her message about how writing instruction distorted by standards and testing failed her is equally compelling:
In the years I attended high school, in which more focus was centered on testing, much more of our learning was directed toward tests. I wrote hardly anything but five-paragraph essays in high school English and history classes before 11th grade….

[upcoming paragraph!!!!!!]
Some students said that they actually remember more of what they learned in elementary school than of the material they had learned just the last semester in high school, because those pieces of history or literature were taught in a context and were talked about, not glossed over and memorized quickly. Others noted that they had actually read and written more in elementary school than high school….
Here’s a rubric that my 7th and 8th grade teachers used for evaluating our essays. This is what real rigor looks like to me. Our papers were looked at as true pieces of writing, with respect to our ideas, our structure, and our use of language. If you compare this to the rubric for an MCAS essay or an AP essay (both of which apparently test for a “higher” level of critical thinking), the juxtaposition is truly laughable. I would particularly like to point out the 7/8th grade criteria for good organization: “The paper has a thoughtful structure that surfaces from the ideas, more than the ideas feeling constrained by the structure. Paragraphs and examples connect with fluid transitions when necessary to make the relationships between ideas clear. The organization is not predictable but artful and interesting in the way it supports the ideas.” (emphasis my own)
To do this in writing is hard. It is a challenge. It is what real writers do when they write engaging essays, books, and articles. In MCAS essays and all the essays we wrote to prepare for MCAS essays, using an unpredictable structure was wrong. To do anything but constrain your ideas by the structure was very wrong. When we learned essay writing in high school, we were often handed a worksheet, already set up in five paragraphs, telling you exactly where to put the thesis, the topic sentences, and the “hook.” In my freshman history class, I was told that each paragraph should have 5-9 sentences, regardless of the ideas presented in the paragraph. The ideas didn’t matter–structure reigned supreme. There is nothing wrong with learning how to write in a structured and clear way–for many students, having certain structures to rely on or start with is very helpful. But when testing was involved, all of our writing was reduced to a single, simple, and restrictive structure–simply because that structure is simpler (and therefore cheaper) to grade. It is important to note here that I have heard multiple college professors specifically tell all their well-trained, test-ready students never to use this structure in their writing.
Furthermore, in elementary school, we were taught to edit our writing (a skill totally missing from any MCAS standards and tests and generally lacking from high school); we wrote at least 2 or 3 drafts each time. At the end of the year, we created a portfolio presentation, which we gave to parents, teachers, and community members about how we had grown over the year, what we still needed to work on, and what our goals were for next year. Almost all of my writing practices and skills that I use each day in college –and even more so, the ability to evaluate my own work and see what I need to do in the next draft or on the next paper–come from my middle school years in a school that was not following the guidelines and was refusing to prep us for tests.

Again, Brunetta’s experience is one student’s story that is typical of how high school instruction in the U.S. has been decimated by accountability, standards, and testing. Applebee and Langer, in fact, have compiled a powerful examination of the exact experiences Brunetta details: Despite teachers being aware of a growing body of research on how best to teach writing (in ways Brunetta experienced in elementary and middle school), there remains a “considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (LaBrant, 1947, p. 87), notably in writing instruction in schools today."

[Post goes on. The passages above and the rest of the post are both rich with links to additional references.]
writing  teaching  teachingwriting  learning  education  standardization  howwewrite  schools  policy  paulthomas  2013  howweteach  plthomas  fiveparagraphessays 
february 2014 by robertogreco
SpeEdChange: Why do we read? Why do we write?
"Why do we read? Why do we write? How do we bring reading to children? How do we encourage children to write?

Will we accept a true democracy of voices? Or do we continue to pursue the colonialism of conversion, the colonialism of standardization?"

"And so I wonder, (a) where does my communication fit into your school? your Common Core? your library? your classroom? and (b) where does that democracy of voice fit in? How do we embrace that and not squash it?

The world is a place of constant reinvention. If we all follow the rules, the paths, nothing changes. There is a reason the books of the colonials so often fill the Booker Prize shortlists, there is a reason Irish fiction and poetry are prized so much more highly than that of the English or Americans. The rules have never fully taken root away from "the Queen's English," and the paths begin in very different places, and it is the uncommon, not the common, which has extraordinary value."
fiveparagraphessays  curriculum  why  howweread  howwewrite  schools  deschooling  unschooling  rules  sequence  time  memory  rebeccanewbergergoldstein  jamesjoyce  ulysses  umbertoeco  literature  standardization  commoncore  colonialism  democracy  linearity  learning  teaching  2012  communication  writing  reading  irasocol  linear 
november 2012 by robertogreco
5by5 | Back to Work #93: 67 Points of Articulation
"This week, Dan and Merlin continue their purging personal odyssey through the state of Florida. Isolation, education, and a parting admonition not to throw your cap in the air."

[See also: "Vocational Wheel" http://5by5.tv/b2w/7 ]
growingup  peakingearly  graduation  florida  children  adolescence  knowitalls  middleschool  highschool  vocationaltraining  teaching  schools  obedience  moving  isolation  learning  writing  fiveparagraphessays  2012  education  danbenjamin  merlnmann 
november 2012 by robertogreco
Minneapolis: Inside the multimillion-dollar essay-scoring business: Behind the scenes of standardized testing
"Then came the question from hell out of Louisiana: “What are the qualities of a good leader?”

One student wrote, “Martin Luther King Jr. was a good leader.” With artfulness far beyond the student’s age, the essay delved into King’s history with the civil rights movement, pointing out the key moments that had shown his leadership.

There was just one problem: It didn’t fit the rubric. The rubric liked a longer essay, with multiple sentences lauding key qualities of leadership such as “honesty” and “inspires people.” This essay was incredibly concise, but got its point across. Nevertheless, the rubric said it was a 2. Puthoff knew it was a 2.

He hesitated the way he had been specifically trained not to. Then he hit, "3."

It didn't take long before a supervisor was in his face. He leaned down with a printout of the King essay.

"This really isn't a 3-style paper," the supervisor said."

[Also here: http://www.citypages.com/2011-02-23/news/inside-the-multimillion-dollar-essay-scoring-business/ ]
tcsnmy  writing  essays  standardizedtesting  standardization  mediocrity  rewardingmediocrity  fiveparagraphessays  rubrics  grading  organization  assemblylinewriting  sausagemaking  pearson  cv  questar  testgrading  dandimaggio 
february 2011 by robertogreco
News: The New SAT: Longer, but No Better? - Inside Higher Ed
"the College Board has already admitted that the new writing test is in fact coachable. ... While some writing instructors have praised the College Board for adding writing, saying that the move sent a strong message, many think that the test encourages the worst kind of writing. ... The College Board favors the traditional "five paragraph essay" format taught to high school freshmen, and those who are going to succeed in college have generally mastered the format and picked up the various tricks that earn good scores on the essay. (One of Perelman's students, to show how the scoring favors quotations from famous people, accurate or not, took the test using various quotes that happened to be visible in the testing room, and attributed all of them to Lee Iacocca -- and she earned great scores.)
testing  sat  standardizedtesting  assessment  colleges  universities  admissions  writing  education  fiveparagraphessays 
june 2009 by robertogreco

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