All posts by Susan Wong

Thank you, Blog

I’m so sad that this class is coming to an end. I have enjoyed getting to know each and every one of you and will miss our Monday evening sessions together.  I haven’t been a student in many years and I have very little computer knowledge, so I was hesitant about taking this class. Many of you are my children’s age, so I was also nervous about whether my views on education and teaching writing would clash with some of your perspectives, as we are from different generations. But I’m relieved and happy to know that we all share the same concerns about education and want to learn skills and techniques that will make all children better writers and happier students. 

I can tell from your blogs that you do a great deal of reading and research beyond what is required from class assignments. This is wonderful that you all have such an interest not only in literature, but politics, music, movies, etc., and have taken the initiative in furthering your knowledge of what is going on in the world. If knowledge is power, I can’t wait to see and read about the wonderful things you will accomplish. I will continue to follow you on twitter so I’ll know what projects you are working on, and also to keep my newfound social media skills from getting rusty. Thanks to the help of many of you, I’m a lot more tech savvy than I used to be. 

It’s very appropriate that our final project is centered around voice. After reading your first few blogs, I began to recognize your unique voices. Now I don’t even need to see your names at the top of your blogs. I can read a few sentences and know the writer. This realization thrills me because this is the real life presentation of what we have been learning about in this course and striving for as emerging writers. 

I have gotten so much out of this class. The articles we read and the ideas you put forth in your presentations will most definitely make me a more thoughtful, compassionate teacher, and human being. I feel so honored to know all of you, and hearing your stories and opinions has given me a more positive outlook on life. Each one of you will change this world for the better. I’m sure of it, and thanks in advance!

I wish you the best of luck in your writing careers and teaching endeavors, and I hope to continue learning from you and hearing your voices in the future.

Finding Voice

Script for audio interview

Topic: Classroom practices that help emerging writers find voice.

Q-What aspect of voice would you like to discuss? 

A- That was very interesting Dana. I will also be focusing on practices that help emerging writers find their voice, but first I would like to define voice, or at least attempt to.

Throughout this semester, we examined the theories behind many practices used in teaching writing, and for most of the topics we covered I was able to make a strong connection between theory and practice. But how do you teach something as elusive as voice? It’s hard to define and even experts like Peter Elbow say there isn’t much recent scholarly discourse on the subject. One thing is certain though, that it is very much alive in our classrooms. 

Years ago, teachers discouraged the use of language that revealed anything about the writer. Voice had no place in academic writing. But in more recent times, teachers are encouraging students to be more introspective, especially when responding to literature. I used to think that voice was a god given gift, something you were blessed with at birth. You either had it or you didn’t. This mentality can actually be an obstacle to better writing and higher learning. By changing it, writers will be able to see that finding voice is teachable, learnable, and can flourish with practice.

Q-What is voice?

A- The concept of voice may be difficult to grasp, but it is essential for understanding and appreciating literary works. Voice is an author’s distinct style. Your writing voice is unique and gives your readers a glimpse of who you are. The feelings you want to elicit from your readers are influenced by your voice. 

Q-What are some elements of voice?

A- Some elements of voice are:

Personality – This refers to the qualities that are unique to each of us. It’s what makes you you. What do you feel? What do you believe? What moves you?

Tone- Tone is about attitude.  It’s not so much what you say, but  how you say it. It’s how you express yourself to influence the way your message comes across to others.

Word choice – Words are the writer’s basic tools. They create color and texture of the written work and help shape the reader’s perceptions. They bring about the writer’s vision.

Imagery – is using descriptive language to help readers visualize the author’s writing by involving any or all of the 5 senses. It’s painting a picture with words.

Syntax – refers to the way words are arranged within a sentence. It includes word order, sentence length, sentence focus, and punctuation.

Q -How do students find voice in their writing?

A-The process of developing voice in writing happens in stages. In elementary school, students learn foundational skills such as spelling, grammar, sentence fluency, and vocabulary. In middle school, students write to express, record, discover, reflect on ideas, and to address problems. They are expected to produce coherent, multi-paragraph essays. Teachers begin to build the framework to master structure. In high school, teachers support and encourage students to go beyond the framework to explore and present their personality on the page. Students begin to capitalize on what they have learned in order to create compositions that are uniquely theirs. Each of these stages is instrumental in the emerging writer’s journey to finding voice.

Q-Do learning structures help or hinder voice?

A-Learning structures lay the groundwork for comprehensive writing, but some educators are very critical of structure such as formulaic writing, particularly the 5-paragraph essay. They claim that it stifles creativity and ongoing self-exploration, elements necessary in shaping voice. However, as Picasso said, “you’ve got to learn the rules like a pro, before you can break them like an artist.” The fundamental goal of writing formulas is to teach students about the components of a basic essay. By first mastering the introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, students gain a clear understanding of what readers expect in different parts of their work. And this initial awareness of audience is important later on in developing voice. 

Q-Is it okay to write in the first person?

A- When I first started writing essays, I was taught to detach myself from my writing. My teachers told me in order to be objective I had to be absent and not use the pronoun “I.” But why shouldn’t writers be present in their own writing? Writing in the first person lends credibility to your work and helps to build a connection with your readers. When you say “I,” you commit yourself to your writing and having a personal stake in what you produce makes you more careful and thoughtful about the words you choose. It makes your compositions more interesting to you and your audience. This is what voice is all about—breathing life into your work.

Q-How should teachers respond to student writing in order to encourage voice?

A-Writing teachers often comment on student papers by using a red pen to point out errors and make suggestions for improvement. Even though these remarks are usually well intended, students may still perceive them as harsh and unhelpful. Comments such as “too wordy, be more specific, try harder, you didn’t get the point,” are vague and unproductive. When I was in elementary school, my teacher wrote in big red letters on my paper “Reading and Writing below grade level!” This warning scarred me for life and for years I was terrified of writing. Teachers should distance themselves from these traditional methods and recognize that the best kinds of comments are those that enhance the writer’s feelings of dignity. Don’t ever underestimate the power of positive reinforcement.

John Bean gives great advice. He says that teachers should play the role of a coach providing guidance for revision, for it is in the act of revising that students learn most deeply what they want to say and what their readers need for ease of comprehension. Comments that make students want to revisit and deeply delve into their work are very constructive because it will engender awareness of voice.

Q-What are some recommendations for thoughtful and constructive feedback?

A-Teachers walk a fine line when responding to writing. They really do want to help their students improve their writing skills, but they have to realize that young people are sometimes overly sensitive when they see their papers marked up with hurtful comments, so they have to be cautious about what and how they say things. 

Here are some suggestions.

-Don’t use a red pen to comment on papers. It looks like blood, which denotes death. Use something less threatening like a pencil or blue or green pen instead.

-Always start with a positive comment even if good things are hard to find. Some examples are: “interesting argument, great title, nice transitions”

-Intermix positive and negative comments. Start with something positive then a criticism, then another positive and another criticism, and so on. This will provide a balanced response.

-Criticize the paper and not the student. For example, “this paper lacks direction,” instead of “you don’t seem to know where you are going.” But for a positive comment, you can say “you.”

-Don’t use exclamation points or excessive underlining when pointing out something negative or confusing. A question mark would suffice.

-Be specific with suggestions in order to avoid frustrating the student.

-Don’t nitpick over spelling or grammatical errors in early drafts. 

With this careful consideration, emerging writers will be encouraged and empowered to find their true voice and reach their full writing potential.

Q- Thank you for your insight and suggestions, any final words?

A-In closing, I would like to say that there is so much more to voice than what I have covered. It’s not the easiest thing to explain, let alone teach, but as elusive as it is, I find it the most fascinating feature of writing. I hope that my thoughts and suggestions help educators and emerging writers understand the impact of voice in writing and that the classroom is the most important place to introduce and cultivate it.

Works Cited

Bean, John. “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers.” Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide To Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning In the Classroom, 2nd ed, Jossey-Bass, 2011

Elbow, Peter. “Reconsiderations: Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries.” College English, vol. 70, no. 2, Nov. 2007, pp. 168-188.

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

Thomas, Patrick. “Writers Must Develop A Strong, Original Voice.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017

Rodriguez, Rodrigo. “Leave Yourself Out Of Your Writing.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017

Parker, Kimberly. “Response: Never Use “I.”” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. WVU Libraries. 2017

Lambert, Keith. “Helping Students Find “Voice” In Their Writing.” Education World.

Harris, Robert. “Recommendations For Writing Comments On Student Papers.” Virtual Salt. April 29, 1997.

Thoughts On Group Project

Propelling Kids To New Heights

I haven’t participated in a group project since my undergrad days, so I am a bit out of touch with the dynamics and my computer skills are lacking, though they are much better now than when the semester started, but this sounds like a fun and interesting undertaking. I think the brainstorming phase is the hardest part of any project because we all have such great ideas and narrowing it down to one will be difficult. 

Having been out of the classroom for so many years and not having had any teaching experience, I was unsure of what I would get out of this class and was nervous about whether I would be able to meaningfully participate in the discussions. Thankfully, the articles were so interesting and thought provoking that I had formed enough opinions and insights to contribute to our exchange of concerns and ideas relating to the teaching and advancement of writing in classrooms. I am also grateful for having such a wonderful professor and classmates who enriched our discussions with a wide range of writing and cultural experiences.  By sharing your classroom practices and stories about interactions with your students, I have been brought up to date on the state of education in our schools. And I am happy to say that with teachers and aides as deeply caring and dedicated as you, the children are in good hands.

It’s no wonder you all (especially Linda) love Peter Elbow and John Bean.  Like many of you, they were once educators and through years of teaching, grading, commenting, encouraging, and interacting with their students, they came up with observations and strategies that can bring out the best in both students and teachers.  Research from all of the articles we studied shows that educators should be moving away from most of the old, traditional practices used in teaching writing and that classrooms should be more student-centered. A common thread in all of the readings is that kids are a lot smarter and intuitive than we give them credit for, and I agree that removing as many obstacles as possible that hinder creativity is the wave of the future.

But enough with the research. I’m getting tired of reading about what scholars and researchers think about how to teach writing. I’d like to hear what students have to say on the subject.  I’m curious to know what they think about comments on their papers, formulaic writing, high and low stakes writing, rubrics, grading practices, voice in composition, etc. With this in mind, I like Emily’s idea of an open mic night. I also propose creating a questionnaire or survey using topics discussed in class and asking students who respond to them to be guests on a series of podcasts moderated by members of ENG 5020. I would like to see what teachers and students agree and disagree on. Having this discussion in a neutral, friendly setting would be a very eye-opening experience and would give each insight into the struggles of the other. I could see much to be learned from an honest and sincere exchange of opinions and ideas.

Like I have said before, I am not a classroom teacher and I may never be one, but I like the idea of tutoring. But before I help even one person, I need to know what circumstances are optimal for motivating students to want to write at a higher level. From all the articles I have read for this class as well as research I have done on my own, I have gained plenty of background knowledge in writing theory, however, the practice component eludes me. I need to actually sit down with someone and help him or her with their writing in order to experience how theory becomes practice. But before this happens, I want to equip myself with the best tools and learn how to use them effectively in order to help others become better writers. With that said, I would like this group project to further enlighten me on the struggles both teachers and students face when it comes to putting thoughts on paper. 

Multiliteracies and Writing

ESL Tutoring and Rubrics

In elementary school, I was unaware that English was not my first language.  I  just thought I was a poor student because I was reading and writing below grade level up until almost junior high school. It never occurred to me that my problem was a linguistic one. I really could have used some tutoring, especially the kind described in this article by Harris and Silva. Unfortunately, back then, there was no such thing as English as a Second Language. We non-native speakers were lumped together with English speaking students who were also having trouble with reading and writing and relegated to the lowest level of the reading program used in class. Thankfully, times have changed and so much effort and research is now being used to help ESL students in classrooms and tutoring centers. 

This article highlights the challenges that ESL tutors face when confronted with the diversity of concerns from ESL students. Classroom instruction alone is not sufficient in providing the kind of help that is needed for people with different linguistic backgrounds. One-on-one instruction is great because it allows the tutor to focus entirely on a particular student and his or her “questions, concerns, cultural presuppositions, writing processes, language learning experiences, and conceptions of what writing in English is all about.”   I think it’s also the most efficient way of teaching ESL students. By knowing the needs of each individual, lesson plans can be tailored to certain problems and questions and feedback is immediate. I think it also makes each student feel more cared for and in turn will make them work harder and be more focused as they are only dealing with issues that are relevant to their particular situation.

In addition to the typical training required for tutoring native speakers, ESL tutors need to be aware that drafts written by ESL students may look nothing like what they are normally used to seeing. They might be overwhelmed by vocabulary choices, sentence structure, punctuation, and organization. Figuring out where to begin in correcting is a daunting task. The suggestion of prioritizing among errors and making distinctions between global errors (text based) and local errors (sentence level) is a good start. In addition, I agree that noticing patterns of writing in different cultures will help tutors explain errors by comparing and contrasting American conventions versus the target culture. For example, knowing that in Spanish the adjective goes after the noun will help tutors explain that in English the opposite is done. The adjective goes before the noun. Tutors in writing centers also have to be very patient and good listeners. ESL students are usually more reserved in regular classrooms. They are often shy and quiet around large groups of people, but in a one-on-one setting they may be more comfortable sharing their writing difficulties, or even personal concerns. It is important to establish a friendly rapport with students so that they will be comfortable articulating their needs and what they hope to accomplish at the end of the tutoring sessions. It is also essential for tutors to initially assess the writing competency of students and be realistic about the level of improvement they can achieve. Constant dialogue and realistic goals are important so students know what to expect.

The rubric I just got back from Dr. Zamora for my Formulaic Writing paper was the first time I have ever seen a rubric used to judge the quality of my writing. I’m not saying that my past teachers never used a rubric to grade my work. I’m just saying that I was never made aware of their use of any. Maybe they weren’t popular in the 70’s and 80’s, but they are widely used today.  I now know that there are many types of rubrics out there, not just a one-size-fits all standard one for all teachers and subjects. 

I always wonder what constitutes good writing and whether there needs to be a consensus in order to make a final judgment. “The potential for wide disagreement about what constitutes good writing is a factor with which both students and teachers must contend.” I found John Bean’s article about rubrics most interesting, especially the research done by Diederich in which 53 people graded 300 essays written by freshman at 3 different universities. The  grades were so varied, but he found that people in specific subgroups put more weight on particular areas, such as creativity, sentence structure, liveliness, and organization and development. The fact that he could discern some patterns in this chaotic system enabled him to develop a method to train readers to measure their assessments within a certain number of criteria. 

This was groundbreaking research in the 1970s that was absolutely necessary because “the processes by which individuals make judgments about writing are surprisingly complex, and controversies concerning evaluation of writing are among the most heated in composition studies.” Training readers to reach high levels of agreement on grades promotes fairness and consistency. This is very important given the number of students in modern classrooms. In addition, interrater reliability is essential in grading standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and AP exams.

I am definitely pro-rubric and am not surprised that most teachers are also in favor of rubrics. I would imagine that it makes their job of teaching and grading much easier, especially when they have the freedom to choose from a variety that best suit their goals and teaching styles. As a student, I like knowing in advance what my teachers are looking for in a particular assignment. I’m sure other students feel the same way. Consulting rubrics are also an effective and fair approach in settling grade disputes.

Pedagogy and Power

Pedagogy of the Oppressed/Power and Pedagogy In Educating Other People’s Children

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes the symbiotic relationship between the oppressed and their oppressors. Interestingly, one cannot exist without the other, but while the oppressors appear to be the more dominant group, it is actually the oppressed who have the power to liberate themselves and their oppressors, thereby restoring humanity to both. 

The relationship between the two is a complex one. The oppressors who “love only themselves” are the ones who initiate violence against those they don’t even recognize as  people, referring to them as “blind and envious masses, savages, natives, subversives,” “things” that need to be brought under control. These excuses are among many that colonizers have used for centuries to subjugate weaker countries, and the moment the inhabitants of these lands fight back against their oppressors, they are labeled “violent, barbaric, wicked, or ferocious,” the perfect excuse for taming them.

But while the role of the oppressor is quite clear, the role of the oppressed is a peculiar one. Freire says, “The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.” In addition, the “oppressed find in the oppressor their model of manhood.” Their perception of themselves or what they aspire to become is always seen in relation to their oppressor. Their identification with and “adhesion” to the oppressor prevents them from having consciousness of themselves as members of an oppressed group. While they may not be happy with this situation, they are reluctant and scared to separate from their oppressors. 

You can’t really blame them though because freedom is risky. When the oppressed discover a longing to be free, they fight with their own conscience. They know they can’t do it alone, but are afraid to convince others to go along with them, preferring to stay safe as a prisoner than face the uncertainty of freedom. But at some point, they will want to break free from their “stifled humanity.”

How do the oppressed separate from their oppressors and gain “fuller humanity?” It’s not easy. They have to watch out for “false charity,” where intentions are not sincere and simply used to encourage people to come back for more, whereas “true generosity” helps people to liberate themselves from the bonds of oppression. Freire says the first step to liberation is to critically recognize its causes. He poses the question, “How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation?” He explains that it’s not about escaping oppression, but transforming it through reflection and action (praxis). The revolutionary leadership must establish a “permanent relationship of dialogue” with the oppressed in order to bring about real change. 

So how does this translate to the classroom? Freire believes in education as a practice of freedom and that teachers are the revolutionary leaders who are supposed to liberate students. Teachers know and understand the plight of the oppressed student because they were once students themselves.  Through a “permanent relationship of dialogue,” teachers are supposed to help students recognize and reflect on their oppression and then lead them to some form of action to liberate themselves from the dominant establishment. I’m sure Freire outlines how this is supposed to happen in subsequent chapters.  

Delpit’s examination of the “culture of power” makes me acutely aware of just how difficult it is for teachers to educate minority children. Freire says that in the classroom teachers are the revolutionary leaders responsible for the liberation of the oppressed(students), but according to Delpit, this is not happening. The people who are supposed to be designing curriculum are not aware of the circumstances and life experiences of many black children. Even though they may be well-intentioned, their methods are still not effective. In the interest of “being nice,” many white teachers simply give up on trying to teach black children because they don’t want to appear unfriendly or unconcerned. This false generosity does not help students (or teachers) in the long run. By being passed from teacher to teacher unwilling to address underlying problems, students fall through the cracks and end up graduating with inadequate writing skills. 

Both Delpit and Freire agree that reform will be the result of true dialogue, but I agree with Delpit in that it should be a top-down approach, where the people in power should “push and agitate” to create societal change. It makes perfect sense that in order to educate black students black educators should have the loudest voice in designing curriculum or developing strategies to help students learn to write. This goes for every culture. When I was a young student growing up in mid-town Manhattan, most of the principals, superintendents, and teachers were white. The student body was mostly black and Hispanic, and these were the poorest performers. This article helps explain why. Teachers are in a great position to create awareness that not all students learn the same way. Listening and really hearing what they have to say and allowing them to have a voice in their own education is the best use of power for everyone involved.

Voice In Writing and Students’ Rights To Their Own Texts

Voice In Writing and Students’ Rights To Their Own Text

As someone who used to work for a business magazine, where most stories were information based, I welcome and appreciate voice in writing. I agree that “voice is an important dimension of texts and we should pay lots of attention to it.” Elbow says that the topic of self in writing goes as far back as the ancient Greeks, and with the exception of a surge of renewed interest in the 1960’s, there isn’t much scholarly research or discussion about it in more recent times. We read about these surges before in “The Erasure of the Sentence,” where theorists became passionately involved in some aspect of writing and then suddenly, the surge died down. But while scholars haven’t debated the issue recently, voice in writing is very much alive in our classrooms. In fact, voice is alive everywhere – in print, politics, digital media, and email. In addition, the audience is so wide and varied now that using voice is more important than ever in letting others know who you are and how you feel. How else would you stand out in such a vast sea of written text?

In his essay, Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries, Elbow examines written language through 2 lenses-text and voice. When seen through the lens of text, “words are interchangeable and not attached to persons,” there is no particular speaker and no particular audience, while the voice lens highlights how “language issues from individual persons and physical bodies and how the same words differ, depending on who says them and how,” so the words are produced by people for other people. 

I understand the conflict, but think there is a need for both. Expository essays, academic research papers, and news articles are usually text based, although more and more I see voice infiltrating news stories. When I want to be strictly informed, I don’t appreciate any form of voice. It is distracting and I don’t like my information biased. I like to make my own judgments based on the facts. Because there’s so much voice in the news today, I have to read a wider range of articles about the same story just to glean the facts. In fact, some newspapers or news outlets have become too full of voice that I avoid them entirely. I agree that voice is power, so watch how you wield it.

I also support the enthusiast view of getting voice into writing. Everyone including young children has something important to say and in their own way. We have become a much more student-centered society and I don’t blame teachers for encouraging students to put their true selves into their written work. It makes reading more interesting and grading papers less of a chore. But teaching voice as opposed to text seems like a much harder task. How do you generate voice? Elbow says, “With practice, people can learn to write prose that “has a voice” or “sounds like a person.” The ritual of reading aloud helps students produce words and sentences that are more pleasing for the audience to read in silence. The more I read about it, the more I believe that voice is a gift, not something that is easily taught in typical Language Arts or English classes. Teachers can only go so far in helping to find your voice, it’s up to you to hone it. I like having choices. If you are the kind of person who prefers to stick to the facts and take a more technical, mechanical, or formulaic approach, go for it. On the other hand, if you like asserting your voice into your written work, then do that also. If you can figure out when it is more powerful to use one over the other, then you are well on your way to becoming a good writer.

I went to school at a time when classrooms were very teacher-centered, where complete authority and knowledge was in the hands of teachers. Every writing assignment was handed in as a final paper. There was no such thing as drafts, a progression of work towards a finished product. When it was graded and returned, that was the end of the assignment. My teachers never offered to let students revise their work and there was no negotiation. The concept of multiple drafts was something I was introduced to in graduate classes. What Brannon and Knoblauch propose in their essay about giving students the rights to their own texts was unheard of a generation ago, and I’m not sure how I feel about it today. Teachers would have to develop a relationship with each student to form a partnership to allow “students control of what they want to say in the way they wish to say it,” thereby incentivizing them to write in the first place and also be willing to revise. In theory, I think it sounds good and it might work in a class of serious, more mature writers, to have the skill and commitment to clearly communicate what their intentions are in writing what they write. However, in practice I don’t think this is a practical approach. Most writing prompts or assignments ask students to address a particular topic with specific questions to be answered or issues to be explored. To do this requires a certain amount of focus, development, and coherence, a skill the average student does not naturally possess. Teachers are necessary in helping students acquire these skills, and they don’t have it easy. They walk a fine line between “appropriating their students’ texts,” that is, correcting it to what they think it should look like and allowing their students the authority to shape their own work. Should students be allowed this authority? It depends on the age. There are certain skills that we all need in order to communicate effectively, letting your audience know clearly and precisely what you mean. Teachers should be the ones to teach students the basic skills to do this, especially at a young age. This often requires the red pen or just letting students know they’re going off topic or don’t understand the assignment. I’m all for giving students greater authority over their own writing, but if they want readers to take seriously what they have to say, they have to “earn the authority” to do this by following instructions and learning to take some criticism. I’m old school and still believe that adherence to rules is important especially in lower grades. As students mature and have shown mastery of certain skills, then teachers should loosen the reins and let students have more authority over their own writing.

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.


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.

Writing Assessment

Writing Assessment in the Early Twenty-First Century

Assessment is a necessary evil in the teaching and learning of writing. In this article, Kathleen Blake Yancy describes the overall frustration teachers feel when confronted with assessment tools because they downplay the importance of real work done in the classroom. The role of assessment has varied throughout different periods, or waves, over the last century. 

The first wave was prior to the 1970’s. During this time, there was an emphasis on reliability of methods used to judge whether students were prepared for college. High stakes testing using multiple-choice questions was employed to measure writing skills. This practice is still used today, and while many people question its validity, it is known to offer consistency and high reliability. This machine-like efficiency was considered fair, as well as cost effective and timesaving. 

The second wave of writing assessment was from the 1970s to the late 80s. This time period saw a huge interest in the writing process. Holistic scoring became popular with its reliance on actual samples of student writing, as opposed to student understanding of texts written by others. Scoring guides were also used to insure reliability so that it would conform to the need for a standard of consistent scoring. In addition, the shift towards teachers rather than ”testing experts” to create prompts and score essays was gaining momentum.

The third wave was from the late 1980s to the turn of the century. This period marked a more student-centered approach to assessment, where students played a role in helping educators understand their writings and the methods they used to produce them. Portfolios consisting of a variety of texts were selected by students themselves and presented to faculty at the end of the program. This new method of assessment was driven by classroom evaluation and sought to showcase a range of writing genres. Just because a student writes well in one area does not necessarily mean that he or she writes well across all areas. The portfolio allowed teachers to measure proficiency in many genres and it gave both students and teachers a bigger role in assessment.

Yancy describes the “current moment” as fluid and dynamic. One of the minor themes she touches on is the role of critical thinking in an assessment program. Without this feature, are students performing to their full potential? Other themes are racial inequities, cultural considerations, and digital media, all valid concerns that are still subject to debate.

What I found most interesting about this reading was the conflict between local and national control of assessment. I sympathize with institutions’ desire to develop and stay true to local values, but the danger in that is being disconnected from the bigger picture. I hear the teachers in our class complaining about No Child Left Behind and the implications on the local level. I can see how government intervention in classroom dynamics is very frustrating to teachers.

The waves show a trend, however, toward assessment getting closer to the classroom and becoming a less automated and mechanical process.  From second grade through the end of college, most tests that I took were multiple choice or fill in the blank. I never felt that there was any critical thinking involved and my grades were not a true reflection of what I actually learned or absorbed. I’m glad that this is no longer the main source for evaluation. 

In recent years, colleges and universities have placed less emphasis on the SATs and the ACTs as the ultimate measure of how well students will perform after high school. Many schools are in fact using portfolios to assess college readiness. I support this trend, however, I still think that standardized tests are practical and have validity. They have survived all the debate and reforms within the realm of assessment. They are not going away anytime soon.

Writing as a Process, Rubrics, and Failure

Writing as a Process, Rubrics

I have no teaching experience in writing, but judging by what the teachers in this writing theory class say about how they approach this subject in their classrooms, I can tell that there has already been a significant shift towards what Donald Murray advocates in his essay Teach Writing As A Process Not A Product. Times have changed quite a bit since this was published in 1972, and while teachers have become more aware of and sympathetic to the challenges facing student writers, there is still much debate about the best way to encourage students to put their thoughts on paper.

Murray explains the 3 stages of the writing process- Prewriting, Writing, and Rewriting, but doesn’t give specifics on how to navigate each stage. Teaching writing as a process and not a product sounds wonderful and his advice about keeping quiet, being patient, discovering truth, exploring the world, might be helpful to students in higher creative writing classes, but I think more structure is needed in elementary grades. 

His implications of teaching writing as a process and not a product are lofty ideals that were pretty radical for 1972. I was in elementary school at this time and not an ounce of these concepts ever entered our classrooms. I do agree with Murray though that respect and responsiveness to a student’s potential is very encouraging, and while I love the idea of giving students the latitude to explore language, life, and whatever else it takes to write meaningfully, I also think that expectations and guidelines are needed to rein in all the freedom he proposes. Can the 2 peacefully co-exist?

This is why I agree with Crystal Sands that rubrics can be beneficial for the writing process. Yes, there are pros and cons associated with scoring tools used to assess how well students meet certain criteria, but when designed and implemented properly, rubrics have tremendous value.

Having a set of guidelines to follow and knowing expectations in advance takes a lot of guesswork out of the writing process. If you are new to writing and suffer anxiety over how to even begin a composition, a rubric may help you overcome your fear. In addition, it helps teachers lessen their grading course load as well as provides consistency and fairness in evaluating work from student to student. 

Sands was initially opposed to the use of rubrics, but after training, she supported their use, explaining that when students were involved in the design process they became more engaged in the assignments, peer review, and self evaluation. This level of satisfaction leads to a more relaxed atmosphere and is much more conducive to writing. I do agree, however, that rubrics do not capture all elements of writing and that many of these elements can’t even be discerned until seen. In addition, rubrics should not take the place of written feedback. Students enjoy reading comments and specific references to their work. If teachers do both, they will have more confident writers.

Failure as an Option

This essay about failure makes me think of the PBS instructional painter Bob Ross who calls mistakes “happy accidents.” I love watching him transform one of his happy accidents into something so beautiful that one couldn’t possibly conceive of it being the result of a mistake. He would most likely agree with Allison Carr that failure gets a bad rap. Failure deserves a place in education, especially writing. Unlike math, where there is always a right answer, writing is about discovery. You may write many drafts and revise numerous times and get very close to being satisfied, but there are no formulas that produce a perfect paper. Writing is fraught with setbacks. The entire process involves risks, and any time you take risks, there is always a chance of failure. Carr says failure is a good thing and should be celebrated. 

I agree with Carr on many points. 

I read an essay a few years ago about why there are so many suicides in top performing high schools and Ivy League colleges. The students were too used to getting straight A’s, and as soon as their grades started to decline, they suffered anxiety and suicidal thoughts. These kids never had to deal with failure on a regular basis. They never learned coping skills or resiliency early in their education. They, or their parents, put too much pressure on them to be perfect. 

Failure is part of learning and parents and teachers should give their kids some leeway for mistakes. Learning any skill takes a great deal of time and patience, and writing is no exception.

But should failure be normalized?

If we over stress the importance of failure, it could backfire, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wouldn’t stress to my own children how important failure is because I fear they won’t put their full effort into things. They do get lazy when they know they have an out. I would imagine that there are many kids like this, so I am not an advocate of normalizing failure. I fear the over accommodation of it will eventually lower standards in the classroom. However, I think teachers should be trained to handle failure in a more respectful and forgiving manner. I would also emphasize the importance of trying your best and not dwelling on negative outcomes. You only fail when you give up.