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.


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