The Popularity of Formulaic Writing by Mark Wiley addresses ideas that aren’t working for the writing curriculum and offers alternatives. Wiley begins by describing the school conditions, which are overcrowded and under-resourced, which is ridiculously accurate. This year I was told the school has no pencils or journals to offer for students.
Wiley focuses on teachers, who are poorly prepared to teach writing while others who may be prepared are overwhelmed by poor classroom conditions. These desperate situations then are perfect for teaching writing as a formula, which is easy to teach, learn, apply, and raise student test scores. Wiley focuses on one formula: The Jane Schaffer Approach to Teaching Writing. Schaffer advises the use of the four-paragraph essay that follows a specific format to achieve success.
Concrete detail #1
Each body paragraph must contain eight sentences. It must include a concrete detail (facts, evidence, examples, proof, quotation, plot reference). It must also include commentary, which is the writer’s analysis. Body paragraphs thus must be 100+ words; the introduction and conclusions must be 40+ words. The introduction consists of at least three sentences and a thesis, while the conclusion consists of all commentary providing a finished feeling. Schaffer claims this format replicates what is found in high scoring essays on district-wide tests and AP exams. Isn’t that ironic? Something that is not implemented in our curriculum, something we are never taught as students, is what they expect us to produce.
While the majority of teachers agree that Schaffer’s method is beneficial in that it provides an acceptable structure of writing, rapid improvement rates, clear frame for writing, and essay grading for teachers. A minority of teachers argue that it leaves no room for students to make their own judgment because the method is formulaic. Wiley also offers criticism on Schaffer’s process, stating that real writers must decide what they will compose, who they will compose it for, and what effect they want the readers to project. The formulaic writing approach limits the strategies students will use to achieve multiple rhetorical goals. The focus on format does not encourage or help students explore a literary work, stifling authenticity. Though, he says, it can be useful for struggling writers.
Wiley concludes by offering insight on how to use formats but moving away from formulas. Writing contexts vary; writing tasks vary so out students should be able to decipher strategies for each situation present. He mentions James Collins, who argues the difference between strategy and formula, in that students do not apply it mechanically but understand how to adapt a form to fit a particular writing situation. The most important aspect of teaching writing as a strategy is it offers multiple methods of writing, so students do indeed have choices.
Similarly, Peter Elbow, in his piece “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” deals with the aspect of teaching writing to students. Elbow demonstrates the importance of low stake and high stake writing. Low stake writing is basically informal writing and is essential in creating high stake writing, which is thoroughly critiqued. He says we should honor nonverbal knowing (low stakes), and if we assign a great deal of it, students are less likely to be held back by the fear of not knowing what to put what they know on paper when it comes time for high stakes writing. I agree with Elbow in the sense that low stakes writing does help produce solid high stakes writing. As an undergraduate, during my senior seminar, we did a lot of low stakes writing throughout the semester, which helped me inevitably create a larger, more accurate piece without all the anxiety. Which was nice, compared to the other classes where there was a paper due every other week with no sense of direction, or at least that’s how I felt.
Elbow once again covers the idea of comments and its effect on students. He gives multiple ways to comment on student’s papers without causing any harm or discouragement. Such as Zero response on low stakes writing, which encourages a sense of freedom. I assign a lot of low stakes writing in my class, where students write journals and open-ended responses where I check for content to make sure they understand the concepts we are learning. The supportive response is interesting, it suggests pinning out the good from the paper and leaving a positive comment, and that’s all. This one is, though, for me, if I leave a positive comment without any other suggestions, my students believe they did great and don’t want to improve. However, Elbow has a good point in noting that we should minimally use critical response, actively setting up powerful conditions for learning.
Empathy is hard to feel unless it directly relates to you. The Syrian Journey escape route, I think, helped me empathize more than the article itself. Because I was asked to make decisions as if I was in Syria, and the choices weren’t pleasant. The video was heavy; to see how people have to escape because they are no longer safe is scary. The other video of the man who traveled to Turkey by foot was insane. He did it because of the lack of medical attention, and he couldn’t provide even milk for his child. You don’t appreciate what you have until you hear real-life stories like this.