Choices: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly

Is personal choice inherent in everything that is taught and the manner in which it is taught? I am not a teacher; however, I believe that school districts require teachers to adhere to certain standards of instruction, even though they may be hampering to students and teachers alike (See Wiley’s “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist” at p. 66). Obviously, straightjacketing writing expectations is bad. Strict adherence to the choice of perpetuating formulaic writing can be harmful.

Wiley critically assesses Jessica Shaffer’s approach. Shaffer’s rigid method provides short-term gains without focusing on the student as a whole and what perspectives he or she wants to explore (in terms of themes, new ideas and interpretations) (64). Writing should be exploratory and allow for meaningful insight to emerge on the student’s part.

I do see the merit of providing a rubric to nascent writers, which is a decision that instructors would make. However, Shaffer’s approach is extremely limiting and does not provide for growth, which is necessary to becoming a skilled writer. When students “cling to the life raft” of formula, how will they ever achieve higher levels of conscious understanding as writers?

Peter Elbow provides brilliant insight in “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” Choosing this mode of teaching is expansive, yet it still makes concrete demands on students. Working through drafts is essential and I believe that teachers should not be hypercritical of these documents and they should always find some positive points so as to encourage their students. This builds confidence in writing. Low-stakes (i.e. ungraded) writing makes the final product much stronger. It is stimulating to the brain and can conjure many avenues a student would have never thought of otherwise.

Robert Connors provides insight on the choice to abandon traditional syntactical teaching in “The Erasure of the Sentence.” After 1980, a strong anti-formalism method of thinking emerged and exploded onto the education scene. Connors argues that the structure of a sentence is more than just based on the choice of grammar construction. Sentences are the fundamental building blocks of our written pieces. A single sentence can be highly impactful. This reminds me of the books that I cherish– All of them have one thing in common: they begin with provocative sentences that are emotive. My favorite authors are those who can evoke a sense of immediacy through their prose.

The sentence is a central building block of foundational learning. A writer can bring forth ideas that are truly insightful and ground-breaking, but he or she will not gain traction unless he or she choose words in a deliberate manner. While strict formulas in writing appear to be an anathema, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Great writing can only be achieved by going back to basics and ensuring that strong words and proper syntax are used. This was true both in ancient times and it is true now.

This brings me to the choice-driven “Syrian Journey.” I was one of the “lucky ones” and made it alive to Italy with my family. I put this in quotes because it is important to note that my fate was not sealed in safety. Who knows what dangers I could still face?

Along the path of “Syrian Journey”, the choices with which I was offered were never between good and bad. They both involved high risks of death or deportation (truly ugly choices). Is that really meaningful choice? The game places you in the very stressful position of being a refugee. Although this was a wonderful tool, I found Lina Mounzer’s article to be more impactful for me because her language injects a sense of immediacy in refugees’ lives. The language that she uses in her role as a witness to horror is emotionally provoking and her writing style mirrors the speed with which refugees must act in fleeing their homelands. They make their “choices” to escape but they do not reach immediate security. Bearing witness is an honorable choice that Mounzer has made.