Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Reflections on Part Two of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 87-123 (Post #3) - A Guest Post by Claire Reddig

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Claire Reddig, MS English Instructor & Writing Specialist, volunteered to post the third reflection, which I've provided below.

My blog post is organized around quotations that I hope capture key issues discussed and provide room for debate and discussion

“In fact, contact between faculty and between students may be the most meaningful part of education” (90).

At Oakridge, we often hear about the importance of relationships and for good reason. This quotation caught my attention not because it is radical, but because I wonder how our writing instruction and feedback would be different if building relationships was our top priority. For me, I’d definitely make more room for writing conferences (I think I’d call them writing conversations) and I’d see my students’ writing as a chance to learn more about them as people and as writers. I’d probably be less critical if building a relationship was my primary goal and I’d give my students more room for creativity and autonomy. What about you?

“We should not be surprised that a school day could be alienating when it’s dominated by interacting with a screen and a computer running software specifically designed to highlight your deficiencies” (93).

This quotation caught my attention because we use a computer program called iXL in Middle School to teach grammar skills. The upside to iXL is it is personalized and it (in theory) teaches the students how to avoid mistakes. We began using iXL a few years ago when the grammar pendulum began swinging away from direct grammar instruction and we were searching for a middle ground. We also found that our students were at very different places when it came to grammar knowledge, so iXL allowed us personalize grammar instruction and free up more class time for reading comprehension and writing practice. As you can imagine, students are not fans of iXL and see it as a chore. I still see iXL as having a role in our MS classrooms but I would love to hear about other options...

“They have rarely been required to distill or synthesize an argument to its essence, a higher order task than mere comprehension. They are comfortable repeating what they’ve heard/​ read but less experienced in articulating what a text ‘means’” (99).

I think this quotation gets at the heart of so many issues in our classroom. I think we are giving our students less opportunities to push themselves as creative and critical thinkers in a safe and stress free environment, whether it is in writing or in conversations. If we want to see our students use complex analysis, they have to practice these skills in an arena that values trial and error. And we need to value and highlight this critical thinking when we see it in our students’ writing (even if the arguments contain grammar and spelling errors!)

“But the far more important part of the work is my trying to figure out why the error has been made so I can offer something to the student that allows them to return to their writing process in order to do better next time. Often, this is only achieved in consultation with the students themselves” (101).

I think this quotation goes back to my thinking about how my feedback about student writing would be different if relationships were my key goal. I think I would see myself as a teammate who is offering feedback in a non-threatening way and is instead offering suggestions and things to ponder rather than requirements.

“Those who hold on to the notion that students must learn the ‘basics’ of grammar before allowing writers to move on to the more difficult work of expressing ideas are denying those students access to experiences that make use want to learn to write. It is the equivalent of music students being confined to the study of sheet music, without ever being allowed to play an actual instrument” (108).

I have to admit, this quotation got me a little hot before I read the following quotation several pages later…

“This is not a declaration that anything goes or that students do not need to be instructed on writing good sentences, but from their earliest attempts at writing we must allow students to see that ‘proper’ expression is dependent on audience and occasion, and this means they must make informed decisions” (110).

For me, the key to successful writing and grammar instruction is to find a happy medium. We don’t “confine” our young writers to worksheets and practice in isolation, but we also don’t deprive them of direct instruction and feedback about grammar concepts in a stress free (read grade free) environment. I also really appreciate the reminder that purpose, audience, and format always matter when it come to writing.

“Unfortunately, we make many sacrifices on the altar of correctness, a practice that is surely exacerbated by testing and accountability systems that promulgate the illusion that there are right and wrong answers in the realm of reading and writing” (109).

This quotation brings me back to conversations Lauren and I have had on numerous occasions about what type of writing is “worthy” of public consumption. Do we need to make sure our students’ writing is free of all grammar and spelling errors before posting it in the hall or posting it to a blog or sharing it with an authentic audience?

“There are reasons why we don’t keep score and everyone gets in the game when children first start playing a sport” (109).

I’ll choose this quotation as my final one because one of the enduring points for me from this book so far is the need to grade less and give more freedom and grace to our student writers.

P.S. - I didn’t feel the need to reinforce the message on pages 113-123. It seems like I would be “preaching to the choir.” Feel free to share your favorite quotations from that section!

Monday, April 8, 2019

Reflections on Part Two of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 35-123 (Post #2) - A Guest Post by Stephen Hebert

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. Stephen Hebert, AP Lang & American Lit. Instructor, volunteered to post the second reflection, which I've provided below.

A Recent Lesson in Atmospheric Conditions

This past week, I witnessed a disappointing phenomenon in my classes.

After spending the first three quarters of the school year figuring out my new school, I decided to dedicate this final quarter to a series of pedagogical experiments. My first experiment was to find a new approach to the most difficult text we read all year: The Scarlet Letter. I turned the book into a role-playing game in which students had to complete a series of “quests” in order to escape 17th century Boston and make their way back to the present. For the first two weeks, students seemed quite excited. We had weekly goals for how much they needed to read, but otherwise, their progress in the game was left up to them. They could choose which quests to complete and which to ignore.

Something changed, however, this past week. In the Upper School, we have progress reports, and I had to somehow convert students’ performance in the game to a letter grade for these reports. I put students into groups and asked them to devise systems for turning game performance into a letter grade. After listening to a dozen different proposals spread out over five class periods, I took the most popular ideas, combined them, and then put them on the board. Very quickly, the energy that we’d built up in class over the previous two weeks died out.


When I asked students about it, the theme was quite clear: “Grades are the worst.” For me, this is just a variation of what John Warner suggests in the opening chapter of this section: “School sucks.”

In “The Problem of Atmosphere,” Warner begins with a social experiment that leads him to a startling claim: “Students are not coddled or entitled. They are defeated” (38).

I tend to agree.

The System and the Culture

As a teacher and a chaplain at three different independent schools, I have spent many hours over the last ten years counseling students who have been defeated by grades and test scores, who feel so beaten down that the opportunity for growth is no longer possible for them until they can get some distance from the system that made them feel that way.

What are the characteristics of that system?

As an Upper School teacher, I’d argue that the specter of college admissions plays a large role. More specifically, the misguided belief that all students need to go to college to be “successful” and that only certain colleges count. The highly competitive nature of college admissions, coupled with the belief that a blown test or quiz will end their chances at getting into University X, creates a culture of compliance rather than creativity, a culture that values grades over learning, a culture that sees school as a transactional, quid pro quo arrangement, rather than a journey of (self-)discovery.

Our students fear failure.

They look at a 100-point scale and they see 70 ways to fail (0–69) and less than half as many ways to succeed (70–100). Even worse, many of them believe that anything less than an A- is a failure. As we prepare them for college and life, where the economy is more and more based on gigs which require creativity and soft-skills, this narrative of "success" has put our students in a bind that doesn’t allow them to experiment, to make a mistake, to skin their knees. Thus, we make our contribution to the anxiety epidemic. If I believed that my future hinged on a particular quiz or test, then I’d probably be anxious too. 

Writing as Antidote?

What does this have to do with writing?

As Warner says to his students, “writing is an ‘extended exercise in failure’” (41). As teachers of writing, we have an opportunity to provide students with an alternative to the do-or-die culture that they find themselves mired in. Why? Because we can teach them how to fail. We have to.

In her response to Jared’s post, I deeply appreciated Lauren’s extended bicycle analogy in which she approached teaching writing in the third grade as a way of building skills by laying down fundamentals. You have to know the basic rules of bike riding in order to ride a bike: how do the pedals work? where are the brakes? what's up (or down) with gravity? 

Lauren Carfa's comment from the Oakridge English department's private blog

It reminds me of one of my son's first bike riding lessons. His grandmother bought him a balance bike for his fourth birthday. He loved that thing! He would zoom all over the driveway and sidewalks on it. One day, he decided, against my advice, to brave the very steep hill just beyond our driveway. I watched out of our kitchen window as his little blue helmet disappeared from view down the hill. I ran outside to see him speed downhill and steer intentionally into a hedge on the side of the road a few hundred feet away. I ran down after him, disentangled his little body from the bushes, cleaned him up, and wiped the tears from his cheeks. When I asked him why he steered into the bushes, he told me, “I didn’t know how to stop.” (Incidentally, this is how he stops on ice skates too...)

As it turns out, steering into the bushes is an effective way to stop your bike, but it may not be the best way. It’s reckless.

Likewise, in coaching golf and baseball, I’ve watched kids get hung up on the details. Recently, I was working with a nine-year-old pitcher. I was trying to get him to move his hips in a certain way so that he could really push off the rubber and toward home plate; hopefully, he’d generate a little more speed and accuracy. I took him through a drill to give him the right feel for what his body should be doing, but when he got up on the mound to try it out, he was so focused on what his lower body was doing that he literally forgot to release the ball. Instead of throwing it toward the catcher, he spiked it into the mound several times before I told him to just forget everything and throw a strike.

Sometimes, when we are faced with a glut of rules and regulations, we find ourselves stymied, unable to even complete the simplest tasks.

In writing, there must be some middle ground, some sweet spot where we can avoid being totally reckless while also avoiding stultification. We must be able to create an atmosphere in our classrooms that foster the kind of creativity that we long for in our students.

But how?

The key might be in taking seriously what Warner tells his students: “[E]very piece [of writing] is a custom job, created by a unique intelligence (the writer), in the service of the needs (purpose) of a specific audience” (72).

Questions to Consider

This leads us to a series of questions to reflect on and explore in our own practice and in our own institution:
  • What are we doing to create an atmosphere that encourages students to take risks and learn from their failures?
  • What systems in our classrooms, in our department, in our divisions, and in our school should we re-examine?
  • How does our grading and assessment of writing reflect our values as educators?
  • How are we creating writing assignments that help students to see each piece of writing as “a custom job”?
Or, perhaps you disagree with John Warner (and me). Maybe you’ve got an alternative way of understanding the atmosphere, the systems, and the fads that Warner calls out in this section. Maybe you’ve got a passionate argument for why the system isn’t broken. Spell it out below!

Monday, April 1, 2019

Reflections on Part One of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 1-31 (Post #1)

At The Oakridge School, the entire English department is reading John Warner's Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Six of us have volunteered to post reflections on the book as we read and discuss the text. I volunteered to post the first reflection, which I've provided below. 

Last week, we read Shirley Jackson’s terrifying short story, “The Lottery,” and discussed its significance as a class. There was consensus among the group that the story was asking us to reflect critically on the idea of “tradition.” We analyzed its most important symbol – the black box from which the characters draw slips of paper for the gruesome ritual of the lottery. We learn from the story that the black box is older than anyone there and therefore possesses a kind of sacred quality for the residents. However, the narrator notes that “the black box grew shabbier each year” and “much of the ritual [that related to the box’s purpose] had been forgotten or discarded” (5). Later we discover that the box they’re using isn’t even the original one, and towards the ending of the tale, the narrator chillingly states, “Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones” (9). My classes agreed that the black box symbolizes certain “traditions” – not tradition in a generic sense – but specific cultural practices whose origins are largely forgotten but the impact of the practice remains strong. The scary question posed by Shirley Jackson is one which asks us to think about traditions we still practice that not only lack purpose but may be harmful to certain individuals in our community. Every society has its black boxes, and John Warner wants us to interrogate the culture of writing instruction to expose the shabbier practices we still hold on to.

Black Box Traditions Are a Way to Control the Variables

For instance, take the five paragraph essay. Does anyone know where it came from? Why does it settle for five units instead of four? Why emphasize the limits of form as opposed to the infinite possibilities involved in a process? The 5 paragraph construct, according to Warner, can be traced back to Harvard’s entrance exams in the late 19th century!! Last I checked, the skills demanded by 21st century universities and employers are drastically different than what was needed in the 1800s. Warner writes, “The five-paragraph essay is an artificial construct, a way to contain and control variables and keep students from wandering too far off track. All they need are the ideas to fill in the blanks. It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom” (29). The five-paragraph essay gives us a manageable set of variables as instructors and (perhaps more importantly) as graders. Warner makes clear, though, that often “we overestimate our own past proficiency at writing” – meaning it’s important we examine the costs of this traditional construct before casting the first stone when grading students’ ability to correctly adhere to the form.

Students Already Demonstrate the Skills to Write

In the section “Johnny Could Never Write,” Warner observes that “…[S]tudents freely and effectively communicate in other mediums, often using the skills we claim to desire and develop in academic writing. When students turn to school-related tasks, though, those skills seem to disappear” (16). Students already have the skills, meaning the real challenge for us as instructors is shifting attitudes and beliefs that students hold about their writing. However, certain “black boxes” of writing instruction are getting in the way of this. In the opening section, Warner employs the analogy of training wheels to diagnose what’s wrong with traditional approaches to writing instruction. Just as training wheels actually keep the learner from practicing the most important skill for riding a bike, in this case balance, the five-paragraph essay prevents students from developing the writer’s most important skill, which he identifies as choice (such as choice of audience, topic, tone, form, etc.). In other words, the 5 paragraph essay limits students’ opportunities to make the choices that matter as a writer. But I want to take Warner’s analogy further; it’s not just the training wheels when it comes to how we teach writing. If we taught bike riding the way we teach composition, students would read about the rules of bike riding; they would answer worksheets that test their comprehension of those rules. We might even watch videos of the greatest bike riders in history, and occasionally, we would ride bikes ourselves (but with training wheels, of course). And we wonder why students don’t like to write. One thing’s for sure: this approach is not helping us overcome the challenge of transforming students’ attitudes about the practice. We act like the risks of letting them crash or get off course are as physically dangerous as those related to actual bike riding when in reality our classrooms have the potential to be the safest places for students to crash, fail, and try again. As Warner states, “Prohibitions may prevent disaster, but they also may close off the possibility of great discovery”(31).

Human-focused Design Over Function-focused Design

The Council of Writing Program Administrators compiled a list of qualities they think to be most important for every developing writer: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and meta-cognition (25). Warner’s claim is that black boxes like the five-paragraph essay or the tendency to isolate grammar instruction have the result of taking writing out of an authentic context thereby making it less motivating for students to engage creatively and persistently in the process itself. In fact emphasis on traditional modes of assessment “has left our practices largely divorced from the kinds of experiences that help students develop their writing practices” (28). My claim is that we need to focus a little less on outcomes (which tend to take writing out of its contexts) and start worrying more about the outset: Do students already believe in themselves as writers from day one? Is there an authentic context, purpose, and/or audience that beckons them to write? This means moving away from a function-focused approach (function prioritizes efficiency, manageability, conformity, etc.) to design our writing instruction using a more human-focused framework (which prioritizes choice, purpose, ownership, and creativity). Otherwise we risk casting stones at something we should be nurturing – namely, every student’s “deep need to represent their experience through writing” (Lucy Calkin The Art of Teaching Writing). To do that, we have to take the risk of riding without training wheels. 

Questions for reflection:

What are the black boxes of writing instruction (or instruction in general)?

What instructional practices do you want to change in your classroom and what prevents you from doing so?

What instructional practices have you changed in recent years? How are you doing it differently?

What classroom traditions do you want to change? Which ones do you think still hold value and why?

Some resources for extra reading:

Colley, Jared. “Why I’m Done with Paper Prompts: An Imagined Conversation with Jacques Ranciere and Lucy McCormick Calkins.” What Should We Do with Our Classrooms? 2 June 2018.

Council of Writing Program Administrators. “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” National Council for Teachers of English & National Writing Project, January 2011.

Hidden Brain Podcast. “The Carpenter Versus the Gardener: Two Models of Modern Parenting.” NPR, 28 May 2018.

Nazerian, Tina. “Is the Five-Paragraph Essay Dead?” EdSurge, 18 October 2017.