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!