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!

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