Taking Writers out of Writing

On NCTE’s Teaching and Learning forum, there has been a discussion about the use of first person and the writer’s presence. I am going to make a claim: when we ask students to take themselves out of their writing (as David Coleman, Common Core) has said we need to do, we are mis-teaching writing. I recognize that some genres and rhetorical situations require authorial evacuation, but I am convinced that author-evacuated prose should in our classes be the exception, not the rule. At the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels, we should bring students into our writing worlds, not create writing situations that make them want to be elsewhere. When the rhetorical situation demands it, people can write author-evacuated prose, but that should not be the stuff of our required writing programs.

As a consequence of the Teaching and Learning forum on first person, I asked my first-year students whether they came to our university expecting that academic writing would prohibit first-person prose. Sixteen said yes; two said no.

My colleague, Karen Nulton, and I have been surveying students’ attitudes toward writing as they enter and leave our courses. We alway ask students whether they have been taught the five-paragraph essay (a prototypical author-evacuated school genre). Eight-seven to ninety percent say they have. And with rare exceptions, they say they hate it. They hate that kind of writing.

We know from our research that students want to write–but they want to have freedom of form and topic; they want to be creative. They hate writing when they have to stuff their thoughts into pre-conceived boxes, formula writing. They love to write when the thoughts unfold as they write, not when they are supposed to have the thoughts before they write.

I think the dislike of writing in boxes is obvious to people who love to write, who love to find out who they are and what they are thinking as the words roll out, almost on their own.

But we far too often teach a different ethos of writing–an ethos seemingly designed to kill the spirit of writing.

This is a long introduction to a frustrated comment from Dorothea Reiter–a high school teacher angry about what she has to teach when she knows that what she’s teaching is the opposite of what she believes: Dorothea would clearly love to teach the love of writing.

Dor’s comment below was the consequence of my post in which I asked, why are so many secondary teachers teaching a myth of writing that is seems like flat earth theology. Why are they demanding author-evacuated prose when that’s not how many of us (and sorry for all you others) at the university level teach writing? Basically, at the secondary level, they are teaching counter-productive myths that lead to bad writing and bad attitudes toward writing.

Dor sent me the following (her frustration is probably widely shared among high school teachers):

Message From: Dorothea Reiter 
I absolutely think that the testing industry is the driving force behind how we teach writing in public schools in this country, and it is a travesty. What choices do we have when we are evaluated based on student performance on these mindless, student essays? How can we expect K-12 students to embrace writing as a contemplative process with many contributing factors, such as audience, attitude/tone, mood, etc.? If I do not adhere to and teach the formats required by the tests, how can I expect to continue in the position of a public school English teacher? The law now states that my district can fire me if my students do not pass muster as measured by their asinine test. What good can I do for students if I am not in the classroom? Add to the quagmire the current trend of heterogeneously placing students in “untracked” English classes and my need to differentiate my instruction for up to five levels of learners in every section, and it’s a wonder we even manage to teach them the five paragraph model at all. AND, most of the new testing models lend themselves to a four paragraph essay, not a five paragraph essay. We are losing ground on every front. I could go on, and on, and on…

I am an ex-high school teacher. I hear Dor, the frustration of someone who wants to teach serious writing, not writing in boxes.

I think that for those of us in the postsecondary level, we have some obligation to fight against the testing industry driving bad instruction. We have to unite in support for teachers like Dor. There must be a way to do this. We have Doug Hesse president-elect of NCTE–and he knows. I think on our local level, we have to fight back against the testing industry and the consequent bad teaching of writing. I suspect we have parents on our side–parents who are unhappy about their children having to complete these awful writing tasks, as opposed to a child coming home and eager to write about some kind of fantasy or memory, about a way of thinking about all that he or she is feeling, she being front and center in her writing.

One Reply to “Taking Writers out of Writing”

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