How did we get here with writing?

Before children learn to read, we introduce them to the alphabets.  Somehow we move into what words/pictures begin with that letter. From there we move into each letter sound. Some one year olds can recognize the letter and the picture to match, especially with Early Childhood toys geared towards academic standards. Can you remember when you learned the difference between upper and lower case? Majority of children learn to write his/her name using upper case letters. Why? Around the age of four and five, children learn to read. The adults introduce new letter sounds, syllables, digraphs, blends and sight words. They already have embedded in their minds the sounds each letter makes, however some children realize things are different because of his/her name. Ex. C makes the cuh sound. H makes the Huh sound. CH makes a new sound. After a time letters have a new identity because when put with other letters, new sounds form.  What about the different fonts they see in books or on worksheets. They learned to write the letter J with a top hat and then some fonts don’t use it. Possibly the letter I, a or number 4,2 and etc. This explanation may seem irrelevant, but is it?

We say we understand there are different learning styles, teaching styles and individual personalities. Are we actually processing this information? It is easier said than done.  This process is related in a multitude of ways to writing. We show them one way style of writing and they develop the notion that this is it. Oh no, here we come again introducing another style. Then another after another. It becomes stressful to their minds. Honestly, it is frustrating because you feel as if you may never quite grasp all of the information presented.

In Wiley’s article about formulaic writing, too many teachers are looking for quick fixes for students’ writing problems. If you don’t help children learn to think in an open ended manner, how will they use their imagination? If they cannot think, then they do not have a voice. If they do not have a voice then they obviously cannot write. Granted there are a lot put on teachers and they tend to have high expectations for their students in return. There’s a saying,” If you don’t put good/positivity/happiness into the world then how could you expect it in return.” I believe it’s called karma.  He introduces us to Jane Schaffer, a teacher who developed a strategic method for teaching secondary students how to write multiparagraph essays.

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Although it has worked and provided students with precious power of self-confidence and accountability in his/her writing; it was also seen a dependent technique. I like that Schaffer insists on teachers and students to have and use the same common vocabulary. At least three or more new words should be added in each grade. When senior year approaches, they should have a stronger vocabulary and comprehension.  Schaffer’s goal was to obviously teach writing but it also demystified and made it accessible to everyone. Although some students were too reliant on this formula, I think teachers also became mentally dependant, If you have a student  ready for a challenge then be ready to provide one. Wouldn’t that be a way to assess writing styles and comprehension of the expectations. If teachers believe this formula only works for nith and tenth grade then that’s fine but if they are being realistic then it might be an earlier grade.  No one wants a codependent student; however teachers need to stop thinking for students. Start including them in the process to prevent frustration and rebellion. Every student needs a challenge but within reasonable boundaries. You ease them out of comfort zone rather than presenting a shock.

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James Collins says Schaffer’s formula along with procedural and conditional knowledge should be used as gaining factual information. It allows students to apply the mechanics and understand how to adapt a form to fit a particular writing situation and,  more importantly when to use that form in a specific way.

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Good ole Mr. Elbow discusses how we will have an easier and more productive
time with student writing if we make a distinction between high stakes
and low stakes assignments and also between high stakes and low
stakes ways of responding to student writing.

Here are some beneficial tips of low stakes writing, I will will try to re-incorporate for my personal use:

• Low stakes writing helps students involve themselves more in the ideas or subject matter of a course. It helps them find their own language for the issues of the course; they stumble into their own analogies and metaphors for academic concepts.

• When students do high stakes writing they often struggle in nonproductive ways and produce terrible and tangled prose. When they do low stakes writing, their prose is usually livelier, clearer, and more natural—often more interesting—in spite of any carelessness and mistakes.

• Low stakes writing improves the quality of students’ high stakes writing. By assigning frequent low stakes pieces, we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we have to grade a high stakes piece—so that they are already warmed up and more fluent.

• Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to our teaching.

Probably the main practical benefit of frequent low stakes assignments is to force students to keep up with the assigned reading every week.

I do appreciate what Elbow shares. It makes me think about my own experiences with my past teachers. There were many things I wish I had said to them about their comments, definitely not obscene thoughts but I guess advice.

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  • Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it.
  • Sometimes it’s how you say what you say.
  • Talk to me rather than at me.
  • Please speak to me on the side rather than in front the class. It is my business.
  • To are to encourage me, not scold or degrade me.
  • What if I evaluated your teacher performance?
  • Help me to see where or what I need to work on
  • I am not you nor do I think like you.

 

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Between building sentences, formulas, comments and styles, writing is ever evolving. I believe there is no right answer. You learn to think, to read and to write. Who has the real answer on how to be a better writer or to improve your skills. In life, we learn and experience multiple things which leads us to strategize new habits. What works for some may not work for others. Writing presents many challenges for all. Well, is my wacky understanding, you cannot dance the flamenco without both feet. Meaning you cannot fix one problem with working on the other. They go hand in hand. Crazy example, right?

Then you try the dance.

 

The Pros and Cons of Formulaic Writing & The Erasure of the Sentence.

The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (And Why We Need To Resist). The opening paragraph gives a very realistic view of what teachers face today. Times have changed and our education system has felt the effects. Teaching is ever evolving and sometimes not for the better. Burnout and dissatisfaction is at a all time high. Politics, money and power struggles are key components to the education systems we see today. Across our country I’m sure these trends persist. When your dealing with low income and inner city school systems things get even more tricky. I know from first hand experience because I work in a inner city pre school in Elizabeth. I hear the horror stories from teachers even working with these small children at the elementary school level, talking about the strict curriculum they must follow and the observations that they are a slave to and all the business that teaching seems to be about when really it should be all about the children learning and growing so they become successful students and productive human beings in the future. When I think of these small children who are just starting out in school I do worry for their future progress and how prepared they will be to enter middle school and then high school and possibly even college. Which sadly nowadays seems to NOT be the main objective. Get them to high school and pray they make it and don’t drop out seems to be the new way of thinking. Or if they even make it to college, how many will be prepared? Will most of them even know how to write a decent, structured college essay? I’m scared of the answer.

In the article Wiley explains how formulaic writing is easy to teach to students, its simple and fast. For a frazzled and underpaid teacher this seems ideal. He then introduces us to Jane Schaffer and her approach to teaching writing. She created her method in 1995 which seems like ions ago, in California. In addition to her workshops, she gives out several packets on teaching various works of literature, Shaffer has developed a nine week step-by-step method for teaching secondary students how to write multi paragraph essays. In her method she promises positive results in a short time. When I started reading about her approaches and ideas I can easily say I’m a fan!! Sign me up!! I think her methods are very straight forward, clear and concise. It’s not muddied up and there are no confusing grey areas. I really like this idea of students and teachers being on the same page when it come to language and the words we use. Its crucial for the student to thoroughly understand what their teacher wants from their writing and various assignments. If their speaking the same language and using the same terms then the sky’s the limit and I believe the students will excel. We have all been there before when we think our teachers are speaking a different language and we look down at the syllabus and assignments and we freeze, what are they talking about?! Huh!? That’s an awful and unnerving feeling for a student. Especially when your in high school and you have so many other things to worry about. Hormones, peer pressure, cliques, grades, social life etc. I believe her method helps to demystify the writing process for anxious students and makes it accessible to everyone regardless of their level of writing experience. Of course with pros in anything there has to be the cons. Bruce Pirie is a critic of Shaffer’s method. He believes that her method sends mixed messages to students. In the Shaffer method he believes that students can and will stuff any idea into the structure and form she has them following. He goes on to say its too rigid, and n unchanging container. Other critics agree and say that students will become too dependent on the format. That simply filling out a form and inputting certain information doesn’t work for all essays. Critics believe it stifles creativity and the ability for students to work on things on their own and deters them from using their own creative ideas and approaches. I have to say from my personal experience I totally disagree.

As I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs I worked at Kean as a instructor for a writing course this past summer. I had twenty five incoming freshman between the ages of 17 and 19. They came from lower income school districts mostly in the inner city. When I first handed out the syllabus they were not happy campers to say the least. They asked me a million and one questions and had even more concerns. I was just following the syllabus that was created by the head of the EEOF summer program. I thought it was a excellent syllabus, the students were expected to write 5 different types of college essays while in my six week class. It was very daunting I know, but I felt that my students could do it. But the question is did they think they could? The majority of the class hated and loathed writing. Most have never been taught a structured way to write a decent essay, let alone a college level essay. So after collaborating with the two other instructors I worked with, we decided to hand out specific outlines based on the type of essay they were assigned. So if it was an argument essay we distributed outlines on how to structure and format a argument essay and so on. The moment I handed out the outlines a rush of calmness came across the entire classroom. I swear you could feel it! Like someone let the stuffy air out of the room. My students had fewer questions and seemed more confident in conquering the essays! They were determined to get a good grade and write a decent college essay! For most this would be the very first time they learned how to do this. Of course throughout the week leading to the day their essays were due we would discuss any concerns they had or any confusion about the outline. But like I mentioned above, the questions and concerns were less and less. I remember once I began to grade their essays, there was a huge improvement once they had a outline to follow as opposed to the two essays I graded without a outline provided. The essays they wrote before the outline were scattered, confusing, no structure or form, hard to follow which resulted in a poor grade. I felt awful because the students trusted me and confided in me and I knew that this was their best efforts. So for me personally when I read what the critics have to say for example things like: it takes the mystery out of writing, I have to strongly disagree. Not every student will become a great author or famous writer one day. Just like not every student will become a scientist or mathematician. Its important to remember that each student is a individual person with unique and varying strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes this gets lost in the hustle and bustle of teaching today. But it is important for teachers to remember this fact! Lastly I’ll say this. After seeing the progress my students made after they used the outlines, I made sure to save the outlines on my own computer and I find myself now, a writing student in graduate school using the outlines as MY GUIDE and its made a huge difference!! Xo

The Erasure of The Sentence. I have to admit dissecting or analyzing the importance of a single sentence was not something I ever thought of doing. I think instinctively we tend to look at the entire paragraph and try to gain meaning and insight into the writing in that way. This article opened my eyes to new ways of seeing a sentence and its form and new ways of thinking about the importance and structure of sentences and what they mean to the entire piece of writing. In the 1960’s English professor Francis Christensen came up with a method to teach students how to write longer, more varied sentences. He didn’t believe that the techniques used in the classroom over the last few decades were effective enough in teaching students how to write. Christensen believed that you could be a good writer if you could learn to write a good sentence. Being that a sentence is the building block of composition and writing, teaching students how to make sentences more sophisticated while in the process of writing, will help make for a stronger paper and help them to develop into better writers. He encourages to them to take simple, short sentences and lengthen them by adding on modifying phrases before and after. This idea of sentence combining he believed would lead to improved writing and more quality within a sentence. In the article Conner’s introduces us to Edward P.J. Corbett. Another scholar who has a different view point then Christensen. He encouraged imitation exercises, literally copying word for word prose by famous authors. He believed this would help students to follow a proven form that works and to observe the sentence patterns and structures within the notable writings of experienced and published authors. I found both methods interesting and I find myself agreeing more with Christensen. However I do believe that form does not generate content. Some students may write longer sentences but are not really saying much, there isn’t much substance. While another student may write a shorter sentence that really packs a punch and conveys a important message, just in a shorter way. So there are once again pros and cons within every method of teaching writing. But when it comes to Corbett’s approach of imitation I have to disagree. I believe that the way we teach our students today that wouldn’t be a good choice. Copying isn’t really learning. If you compare that to math here’s an analogy: you can just copy a formula from another student and copy the answer but are you really learning it? I think its dangerous and tricky to have impressionable students who are already uneasy about writing to copy or imitate anyone’s work, famous or not. Learning should be a individual and unique experience for each student. We should encourage them to look deep within and find their strong skill sets and expand on them, while trying to work on their weaknesses. Its important for educators to encourage self confidence and make students feel empowered as special and unique individuals! I feel if that becomes the focus then like I said earlier in my blog, the sky is the limit!! Xo

Formulaic Writing and High/Low Stakes Writing and Responding

Formulaic Writing and High Stakes and Low Stakes Assigning and Responding

            Mark Wiley is not a fan of formulaic writing, but he understands the need for it. In his essay, The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist), he describes the conditions that give rise to a structured format for writing: overcrowded classrooms, inadequate resources, poor training, pressure to raise scores. With all of these obstacles to learning, he doesn’t blame teachers for looking for “quick fixes” to teach writing. Although formulaic writing has proven to be “successful” and generally well liked by teachers and students, Wiley finds it problematic in many areas. He examines the Jane Schaffer Method to delineate the strengths and weaknesses of formulaic writing.

            After studying numerous essays written for standardized tests and formulating ratios to judge the quality of each, Schaffer developed a simple and reliable method, complete with step-by-step instructions and visual diagrams, to teach students how to write a four-paragraph essay. Each paragraph is designed to contain a certain number of words, sentences, details, and commentary. For example, “body paragraphs must have at least two chunks and be a minimum of 100 words” (Wiley 62).  She claims this structured method requires little training and can be taught to high school students in nine weeks.

            The program also includes prewriting tasks that help students find main ideas, topic sentences, and concrete details. In addition, rubrics are provided as a guide to insure that all requirements have been met. Overall, the Jane Schaffer method lessens the burden of grading for teachers as they can “simply refer to this rubric in responding to student writing, making the task of evaluation much simpler and uniform and less time consuming” (Wiley 62).

            While many teachers favor this approach, other educators are highly critical of this mechanical process. They claim that it’s too restrictive, not allowing students to “judge for themselves how to shape their essay” (Wiley 63). Another argument is that writing is about self-discovery and developing strategies for addressing different tasks, not plugging in answers to arrive at some pre-determined length. Shouldn’t students be allowed some flexibility to explore new insights? This method judges students on how well they can follow instructions, not how effectively they develop ideas or make insightful observations. 

            I also have mixed feelings about this approach. As a more mature and experienced writer, I can see how formulaic writing hinders creativity and doesn’t allow for self-expression. However, as a child whose first language was not English, formulaic writing helped tremendously. Every writing assignment all throughout elementary and junior high school gave me anxiety. It was hard enough just trying to understand the prompt let alone write something coherent to address it. I was never given any instruction on how to formulate a written response. This led to years of bad grades in Language Arts and low grades on standardized tests. Finally, in high school I was introduced to the 5-paragraph essay. What it did for me was transform writing, which was completely abstract and amorphous, into something concrete. I am a visual learner, so having a structure before me to help organize my ideas made essay writing very attainable. It also took the confusion and guesswork out of figuring out what my teachers expected. But the most important aspect of this formulaic method is that it gave me the confidence to write freely and eventually take more risks. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if it wasn’t for the 5-paragraph essay, and I believe that a majority of students struggle with  writing and would also benefit from a structured approach, initially anyway.

            Is there room for improvement though? Yes, and can it be tailored to accommodate the changing needs in modern classrooms? Absolutely. I agree that writing should be a collaboration between student and teacher. Why not have both work together to create a framework that accommodates the goals of each. In addition, I think formulaic writing should be introduced in middle school or even earlier, and by the time students reach high school, the support structure should be optional or removed entirely.

High stakes and low stakes writing

            Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of structure in high stakes writing. In fact, Jane Schaffer devised her formulaic model based on high scoring essays on district-wide exams and AP tests. These tests are referred to as high stakes because so much depends on their outcome. In his essay, High Stakes and Low Stakes In Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Peter Elbow recognizes the importance of high stakes writing claiming “We can’t give trustworthy final grades that reflect whether students actually understand what we want them to understand unless we get them to articulate in writing what they have learned” (5). This is particularly true on the college level. But should this standard be imposed on younger students as well? Elbow doesn’t think high stakes assignments necessarily lead to better writing.

            He argues that we often know things that we are unable to write or even articulate and offers low stakes writing as a way for students to “fumble and fish for words for what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say” (6). This informal kind of writing allows students to use their “own lingo” in exploring what they learn from discussions and readings. Low stakes pieces are often more coherent and interesting, and in the long run lead to better high stakes writing. It is also helpful for teachers too because it lets them know beforehand just how much students understand even if they can’t convey it perfectly in the final draft.

High stakes and low stakes responding

            As discussed in previous classes, teachers’ comments on student papers are not always constructive. Even when they are clear and written with the best intentions, students still react negatively.  In response to this problem, Peter Elbow points out that the high stakes and low stakes distinction also applies when responding to student assignments. He offers a series of responses ranging from “zero response (low stakes)” to “critical response, diagnosis, advice (highest stakes),” with situation appropriate responses in between. 

            By matching up the right response for a particular assignment, you can get optimal results. For example, for Minimal, nonverbal noncritical response, straight lines are placed underneath words or phrases to show the strength of a passage. He emphasizes highlighting strong points as a way to encourage and to show that “even in poor pieces of writing, certain parts are always better than others”(9). Similarly, for Minimal, nonverbal critical response, wiggly lines can be used to indicate problems in passages. Elbow claims these low stakes methods are easy and very effective. Just by studying where straight and wiggly lines are placed, students can discern their own strengths and weaknesses. 

            Elbow also gives advice for high stakes assignments. Naturally, the most critical responses should be saved for the highest stakes writing, but these responses need to be fully explained because final grades depend on it. Not only do teachers need to worry about what they should say, but they also need to consider how it will be received. These situations often require some soul searching. Teachers should ask themselves “How much criticism will be useful? Is this comment worth it? What is the likelihood of my effort doing good or harm?”(Elbow10). Elbow is not against the use of high stakes responses, he just says to use less of it. Whereas high stakes responses are fraught with risk and uncertainty, low stakes responses require little training, less time and effort, and are less likely to pit students against teachers.

            I agree with Elbow’s views about low stakes writing. The more students write in a non-threatening, unrestrictive environment, the more authentic their work has the opportunity to become. Knowing that your writing is not going to be graded or even read is very liberating, and being able to write in your own voice and have your life experiences show in your work makes for much more interesting reading. I am of the opinion that all and any kind of free writing is good writing and excellent preparation for real high stakes writing or any form of future writing. I also believe that the more confident you become in your own voice, the more you will want to showcase that voice and find ways of incorporating it into all kinds of writing including formulaic, high stakes pieces.

            I am not as supportive of Elbow’s views on high and low stakes responses. While I agree in general that teachers need to be more reflective and conscious of their tone when commenting on student papers, I find his low stakes methods vague. For example, he claims that using straight lines and wiggly lines to indicate strong and weak points will lead students to figure out their own problems, but I don’t think this will always be the case. I actually think many students will be left wondering exactly what is meant by all the markings, which would lead to questions and a desire for more specifics. This would in turn lead to more work for teachers. Furthermore, I don’t think high stakes responses are as harmful as Elbow thinks they are. He is quite confident that they will do more harm than good and that they don’t necessarily produce better writing. If this is true, how does anyone ever become a better writer based on predominantly low stakes writing and low stakes responding? I truly believe that if  teachers see real potential for improvement then they are obligated to use more encouraging language (even critical) to accomplish this.  The kinds of revisions and final drafts that result from low stakes assignments and low stakes responses may not yield the highest quality work that students have the ability to produce. Elbow also doesn’t take into account that not everyone responds to comments negatively. Many people thrive in high stakes atmospheres and do some of their best writing under pressure, while others won’t put any effort into assignments if they know they are not getting graded on it. I admit the red pen of death always terrified me as a little kid, but in high school I appreciated all the feedback (the more specific the better) from my teachers. It helped guide me to writing more successful papers and it felt good to know that my teachers cared.

Questions:

Should formulaic writing still be taught in the age of digital media where writers are encouraged to use their own voice?

How do students become better writers based on predominantly low stakes writing and low stakes responding?

Does critical response (high stakes) at a young age teach children to be more resilient and thus better able to handle setbacks later in life?

                                                             Works Cited

Wiley, Mark. “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We need to Resist).”  The English Journal. 90.1 (2000), 61-67.

Elbow, Peter. “High Stakes and Low Stakes In Assigning and Responding to Writing.” New Directions For Teaching And Learning. 69 (1997), 5-13.

The Erasure of the Sentence

The Erasure of the Sentence

In the 1960s, English professor Francis Christensen came up with a method to teach students how to write longer, more varied sentences. He didn’t believe that the techniques used in classrooms over the last 6 decades were effective enough in teaching students how to write.  According to Christensen, you could be a good writer if you could learn to write a good sentence (99). Since the sentence was the basic building block of composition, learning to make them more sophisticated would surely make you a better writer. He proposed taking simple, short sentences and lengthening them by adding on modifying phrases before and after to form cumulative sentences. This “sentence combining” would lead to better writing, or so he thought. 

And while Christensen’s theory of sentence modification was gaining popularity, another scholar Edward P.J. Corbett, was recommending imitation exercises, literally copying word for word prose by famous authors. This was to learn good form and observe patterns in the sentence structure of professional works. People who supported imitation exercises argued that it spared the awkwardness that beginner writers often faced and that becoming more familiar with other authors’ works would eventually help them produce their own original works.

It’s amazing the great lengths teachers went to in order to get students to write better. Both methods are very interesting because the problems these educators were trying to solve are still a concern today.  I agree with Christensen (and so does the College Board) that longer sentences are more interesting to read and being able to produce one with several clauses shows a higher level of writing proficiency. My fourth grade teacher told me that a sentence was more sophisticated if it had at least 1 dependent clause. However, the practice of learning how to string clauses together to merely arrive at a longer sentence is formulaic and doesn’t prove that you are a good writer.  For this reason, I agree with Christensen’s critics that “form does not generate content.” A brief sentence can have just as much meaning and impact as a long one. However, a composition full of short sentences can be very distracting, so I try to vary the lengths. But this is not contrived, I don’t consciously look for clauses to add to purposely make my sentences longer. 

The practice of imitation would never work in today’s classrooms where individuality and finding your own voice is constantly emphasized, however, it’s an interesting concept. I would like to see a recent study done using this method. If reading the works of others helps you find your own voice, then why not writing the works of others? I would like to know whether you can actually produce a masterpiece by imitating the style of a famous author.