Writing: The Facts of Life

As the semester is passing, I am starting to really digest the idea that writing is not as simple and basic as most people think it is. It is quite a complex discipline, because it requires a lot from the writer in order for it to be considered successful or well-written. I usually focus on both articles assigned every week, but this time Bad Ideas About Writing was an article that I feel I have a lot to say about. To start with, the article itself was very interesting, considering that it was a compilation of multiple authors and their experiences and beliefs regarding various aspects of writing and the way its taught. The three sub-articles that were read had views that I strongly agree with. So now…let’s begin.

First Year Composition Prepares Students for Academic Writing was definitely a topic that focused on breaking stereotypical thinking in regards to first-year writing students and their instructors. They are though to be “writing teachers [who] consist primarily of error-correctors and behavior-modifiers armed with red pens and elbow patches.” Wow, they sound scary! I mean, imagine the danger of elbow patches, and the blood shed that can occur with one scratch of a red pen? It’s too gory to even think about. But, the discomfort at the sight of red marks all over essays and papers has instilled fear in students, preventing them from the being the best writer possible. The red pens were weapons used in the 1800s when good writing was measured by counting errors. It’s sad to think that’s the criteria by which writing was graded. It wasn’t content that mattered; it was the correct places of commas or missed capitalizations that were more important than anything else. Errors are unavoidable; “errors are a fact of life.” It’s not as easy as learning the alphabet song or as calling an apple “red.” It’s a “complex in-depth process that goes way beyond correctness.” The process matters: what the student thought, what they used to bring those words onto paper, etc. I would say I was one of the 80% of college freshman and 50% of college seniors who hadn’t written a paper more than 20 pages. Instead, from what I remember, my longest paper till college was about nine pages. My first long-paper assignment was my short story, which totaled 17 pages. Should I feel guilty that I fall into those statistics? NO, because writing should not be forced on a student. If the words should be genuine, let it flow out, not be sucked out of the writer. That’s the only way it will help in other disciplines. It should be enjoyable in order to be a successful skill. And for that to happen, rhetoric needs to accompany good writing hand-in-hand. It will allow for the classroom to become a “productive space for respectful argument.” A place for appropriate and healthy civic discourse to take charge.

Next, let’s move on to Reading Is Not Essential to Writing Instruction. This highlights the effects of widespread state-testing and its interruption in proper reading/writing instruction. Teachers became too focused on test preparation rather than making the students comprehend the skill of reading and writing itself. The ability to excel in these disciplines wasn’t the task at hand; it was getting good scores. This method failed to teacher students how to think. Instead, the pressure was put on what to think, preventing the students from becoming autonomous academically. And to teach students how to think? This cannot possibly be achieved in one or two semesters. It’s a never-ending process that takes roots in elementary school and stems out for the rest of your life. The process doesn’t only involve writing, it’s about reading too. It’s vital for a student to read like a writer; to not only see texts for their meaning, but rather for their writing style, format, and reasoning. And once the teacher emphasizes this in their classrooms, they will be able to target the idea of relatability and personal experiences in writing. It adds emotion, power and a sense of individuality to each writer’s story while universalizing their feelings and connecting to others. But all these aspects of writing can only be obtained if and when the instructors if flexible in their instruction and goals for their students.

Lastly, Failure Is Not An Option is the article that discusses the mentality behind failure and its impact as a defining moment for a student, teacher, etc. In life, especially today, advancing in life is considered progress. There’s no other way to look at it. But that can’t be. Failure is needed, it’s necessary in order to move ahead. You will only what you want when you get what you didn’t want. You will get back up when you fall down. You will only appreciate the break of dawn when the night slips away. And this way, success will only be tightly held close to your chest when failure has been experienced. Researcher Manu Kapur states that our brains are wired for failure. I didn’t think it would be, considering that my first reaction to failure is disappointment, sadness, discouragement, etc. But I guess that’s what makes us want to challenge ourselves and others later on. It’s that bitter taste of failure that sticks in the back of our minds that pushes us to do make better choices and produce better work. Human nature is to remember negative feelings more than positive. Because even though the positive might occur many times, one or two negative incidents will completely wash away the rest. And that will stick with us. Is it wrong? I don’t know, but that way of behaving is embedded in us, and it’s difficult to be otherwise.

In the end of it all, writing can be said to be an ongoing process which does have a birth but never an end. It’s infinite and its possibilities are endless. It’s a discipline that requires the writer to take a risk and experiment, to wonder and ask questions. It’s a discipline in which the destination doesn’t hold as much value, as the journey to get there…

Photo by Sebastian Palomino on Pexels.com

On Feedback in Writing…

Feedback on Student Writing

Sun & Ryan really kicked-off the presentations on a high note.  Last night was a thorough and insightful consideration on Feedback for Writing inspired by last week’s readings by Bean & Elbow.  We spoke about the shifting perspective involved in being a student and receiving a paper back, verses being a teacher who faces a voluminous stack of papers to evaluate.  Somewhere in between these two experiences lies a real need to develop an effective practice – which honors both the developing writer, while still keeping in mind the reality of a teacher’s time constraints.  We also understanding the looming backdrop of the overall educational system and the real constraints that teachers face in terms of meeting specific assessments and district administrative expectations.  From the beginning, our bridge from writing theory to real life (on-the-ground) practice reveals the challenges (to say the least).

Bean articulates how easy it is, as a teacher, to forget that there is a person behind each essay that is being read (sometimes ripped apart for errors) and graded. It’s also easy to forget that strong feeling of vulnerability which accompanies allowing someone to read your work—especially if that person is in a position to judge you.  We considered how much room there is for misunderstanding and misinterpretation between the writer and the writing instructor during feedback.  Bean advises teachers to be more mindful of the comments that they write on students’ papers because the worst comments can insult and even dehumanize a student.  Thanks for your focused lens on mitigated criticism Ryan.

In our classroom discussion, we drew closer to the student writer’s viewpoint (Kelsey and Bailey’s blogs this week are “stand out” regarding these issues).  It is critical to apprehend that foundational vulnerability that lies at the heart of learning how to write.  And I also think it is important for all of us to tap into our own memories of teacher feedback in order to gain that empathetic perspective.  The key consideration that emerged was the subtle issue of power that informs teaching and learning contexts.  (Thanks to Sun for sharing Kohn’s writings on re-thinking grading as a lens into this fundamental issue in education).  When one has a position of authority/power, it is important to recognize the significant responsibility in that position.  Unfortunately in the haste to do one’s job as teacher, sometimes these truths are forgotten or disregarded.  But the responsibility that comes with authority should remain front and center in order to maintain a mindful approach to designing an effective learning environment.  This is a lot for a teacher to navigate (when there is little supporting them in terms of systemic expectation).

By reviewing thesearticles carefully, it seems we have covered the well-trodden ground of the challenge in responding to student writing, and yet, there isn’t a crystal clear pathway to ensure an overall improved strategy.  One thing is clear though – that a lack of professional development or training in this area is widespread, and it is certainly an area in which teachers need further focused support (at all levels of education – from elementary school to higher education).  When more and more teachers are given the chance to consider (and workshop) new strategies for responding to student writing, I believe we will also see a shift in the way students respond to writing instruction in general.  The response from a teacher is a key determinant of how many students develop their overall disposition regarding writing.

Our agenda slides

The Danger of A Single Story

The class discussion was lively (excellent!), and I had to interrupt the flow in order to save just enough time for our Equity Unbound activity.  We ended our class time together by watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk entitled The danger of a single story.

Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.  This week we will all participate in the #unboundeq “slow chat” activity responding to 3 critical questions.  Since we wrapped up class with no time to spare (overtime!), I would like you to jump into the #unboundeq twitter backchannel and share your Danger of A Single Story reflections there.  Also, I encourage you to reply to other people’s reflections by retweeting with comments!! ** Please remember to answer each of the three questions with “A1” (for answer #1) “A2”, or “A3”,  and always include the #unboundeq hashtag in your tweet!

For Next Week:

Next week we turn to a new theme – Writing Problems & Processes.  Amber has selected three short essays from the collection entitled Bad Ideas About Writing edited by Cheryl Ball and Drew Lowe.  

FIRST-YEAR COMPOSITION PREPARES STUDENTS FOR ACADEMIC WRITING by Tyler Branson

READING IS NOT ESSENTIAL TO WRITING INSTRUCTION by Julie Myatt Barger

FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION by Allison D. Carr

Hugo has selected the article entitled Envisioning possibilities: Visualizing as Inquiry in Literacy Studies.

Your “to-do” list:
  1. Please finish “The Danger of A Single Story” Twitter “Slow Chat” (answer the 3 questions on twitter and also “retweet with comment” a few other peoples responses to grow our interactivity and connections in the network);
  2. Read the above the selections from Amber’s text, as well as Hugo’s article.
  3. Post your Blog #4 which should be a synthetic reflection on Amber & Hugo’s readings in light of “Writing Problems & Processes”.  **Please remember to tweet your blog post after publishing it!

Next week in class we will start with Amber & Hugo’s presentations and the second part of the class will include a return to our online network with another Equity Unbound activity!

Have a great week…

Dr. Zamora