How Should We Teach Writing?

Thank you Rich Czyz for pulling my head out of a depressing news story about a new book titled: In Defense of Looting, and bringing me to a topic I love: writing. And Rich, you’re right; writing in so many schools is not taught well. I don’t know where the educational boxcar labeled “writing” went off the tracks, but the consequences of the derailment surface daily.

So where to begin?

In education we so often talk about the cadence of reading; thus, we read to children. We ask children in turn to read aloud. Well, there’s a kind of cadence to writing too. Rich points it out in his piece when he writes Subject and Predicate. Allow me to add: Subject, verb. Subject, verb, direct object. So, how best to instill the flow of writing into a student?

As a student teacher, I used the method my own 1st grade teacher used. We copied short pieces from the board. It built hand-eye coordination. It built reading and spelling skills. It taught us the flow of writing. We learned the days of the week, months of the year. Here’s a sample from my student teaching days. I taught in a 2nd grade class in Rochester, NY.

A piece of writing from a 2nd grade student.

Notice I set the student up to copy the first part. Asked the student to fill in a blank. Then, the student had to answer a question. See the smiley face in the corner? That’s the “grade”.

This, I believe, is a great way to start building writing skills. To pattern what we want and give student voices. Then we grow them as writers from there. Everything thing in life has structure. We don’t unleash kids into a sandbox without talking to them about leaving the sand in the box and how to share the space.

And now, you’ll all rip your hair out with this next statement: I. TEACH. GRAMMAR.

Honestly folks, what kind of disservice do we do to students when we don’t teach them the parts of speech? When we don’t teach them sentence structure? When we don’t teach them the difference between there, they’re, and their; two, to, and too. Lacking that simple knowledge can reflect poorly on students and their teachers.

I love the Montessori approach to teaching grammar. I used it in a remedial college class (while being told by a colleague not to get caught teaching grammar! What?!)

The Montessori method assigns pictures to parts of speech. Here is my daughter Katy to explain how it works:

The Montessori symbols for parts of speech are designed to remind us what that type of word does. For example, a verb is indicated by a red ball, because bouncing a ball is an action. Subsequently, an adverb is a smaller, orange ball because it modifies the verb. A preposition connects the first part of the sentence to the next via a prepositional phrase. The preposition is marked by a green arch, like a bridge between the phrases of the sentence. A black triangle denotes a noun; a small purple triangle hovers over a pronoun. The teal (or light blue) triangle is an article.

PS: For maximum grammar-learning fun, invoke Schoolhouse Rock.

Katy, Mom’s Proofreader and Snark-dealer

In Katy’s Montessori school, that meant seeing a red dot on the wall where underneath, kids had posted verbs. Prepositions were found under the green arch. They had assignments where they would mark those same parts of speech on a piece of writing. It’s skill building, folks.

A Montessori grammar worksheet.
Montessori Grammar worksheet for ages 9-12.

And here is where I always ask: why is it we accept the notion of skill-building in sports, but not in academic learning? Why do we let students slack off when they might be averse to an academic challenge? How do we build strong minds and strong writing skills if we don’t lean on kids a little bit? Ask students to lift those weights that will, at the very least, allow them to write a coherent letter for a job application.

At the college level, I never ask my students to write something I can’t write myself. So I stick to teaching news writing and research writing; I am not a fiction writer. Consequently, I will write a paper as my students watch my creative process. It used to be writing on a blackboard; now, thanks to technology, they see me compose on a computer. And I talk as I write. I explain why I am changing something. If I throw out a paragraph while proofreading, I tell students why the information didn’t support my thesis.

I walk them through the writing process: Topic. Research question. Narrowing of the research question. Opening paragraph structure. Topic Sentence. Background paragraph for the reader. And then, what the student discovered by researching the question. Closing paragraph summarizing all of the above.

When I write in front of students, I let them see what Rich calls the “sloppy copy.” There’s always a sloppy copy. Even when I write these blogs, I go back and edit [excuse you, I go back and edit 😉 – Katy]. Editing is a part of writing. I wrote a book without an editor because I couldn’t find an interested agent. To this day, I know the research is solid. Would I like the book to read differently? You bet.

And hey, when we stumble upon an artist in a park who is painting a picture, don’t we like to watch the process?

My approach to teaching writing also follows the Montessori tradition: give students the process you expect and let them get creative within the process. For example, during a semester of research writing, I told students the overarching topic was psychiatry. They would generate any kind of research question under that topic. The only caveat? They had to follow the writing process. One student did a paper on eating disorders; I read a paper on smoking. One student wrestled with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I tell them it’s okay to struggle. I am there for guidance and editing. I want them to succeed, so I encourage them to ask questions.

I do have some standard messages for students.

Every form of communication, including writing, begins with two questions: What’s the goal? Who’s the audience? Audience is so important. Students should not write for an audience of one, the teacher. I tell students: you are writing a paper for anyone who walks into the classroom. A complete stranger should be able to pick up your paper and understand what you’re writing about.

Teachers can then help students play with audience. Write a sentence your sibling would like to read. Write a sentence an adult in your life might like to read (let the student choose the adult). Write a sentence to your future self. Helping students understand the concept of audience would be a huge improvement to the teaching of writing.

I don’t accept the vomiting of words on paper for a grade, and that’s exactly how I phrase it. Too many teachers cheer the mere putting of words on paper no matter what that looks like. Let students put words on paper, but those words must communicate something to someone. What’s the goal? Who’s the audience?

Acknowledge every writer creates differently and has a passion for a certain kind of writing. In addition to not writing fiction, I am not a poet; I don’t like writing in a journal. Rap? Nope. Haven’t figured that out yet; but wow, Lin-Manuel Miranda showed us the power and creativity of rap in Hamilton! And there must be a process to rap too. People who love and create those forms of art open us, as teachers, to new avenues of writing we can explore with students. But at the end of the day, writers follow basic conventions (oh, except ee cummings) and it’s those conventions we need to teach to our students.

Jeepers, Rich. I guess I have needed to write this essay for a while. It came flowing out of my fingers and on to the keyboard. Thank you for the inspiration and the nudge.

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