Monday, May 6, 2019

Reflections on Part Three of John Warner's Why They Can't Write, Pages 127-183 (Post #4) - A Guest Post by Lauren Carfa

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. Lauren Carfa, 3rd grade ELA Instructor, volunteered to post the fourth reflection, which I've provided below.

Must It Be All or Nothing?

I have, embarrassingly, severely held up the progress of this blog! While life has truly been a big factor in this, I’ve come to realize some personal avoidance as well. I have really struggled through this book because I find myself often frustrated either with what Warner is suggesting, or with what I feel is a lack of completion. What I mean by that is I feel he keeps saying what is wrong, what not to do, and why, but that is it. I’m left wondering what he suggests as a better method.

I’ve tried to be very reflective as I read this text. I wrote at the beginning of my notes for this section that I am a product of the system that he is writing against. I was taught how to write for the purpose of taking and passing a standardized test and then moving to the next level and I wholeheartedly agree that, while I have some strong and helpful skills in writing, my education was narrow and lacking. Sadly, I didn’t find college to be any different at any of the institutions I took classes from. This personal experience lends me to feel supportive of many of Warner’s arguments about what students need. I wish my educational experience had been more about encouraging thought and creativity rather than teaching me to meet specific measures that may or may not bear fruit for me in life.

On page 129, Warner says “If you believe school is properly viewed as something like ancient Sparta...much of what I have to say...will sound like the rantings of a soft-hearted dreamer entirely divorced from the real world.” I keep coming back to this statement because I do think so much of what he says isn’t realistic. I don’t see how to merge his desires and aspirations for education with the reality of people. However, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere near the other option he offers. To me, this further illustrates what I keep feeling about so much of his opinion - there is no middle ground, just either or, us or them.

Further illustrating my struggle to sift through the reading, I know that all of the above isn’t fully reflective of my section that I am to represent, but rather my feelings on the book as whole.

In my section, Warner talks about the need for students to be fed and come to school well-rested, and also says, “...but can we agree that enhancing the intellectual, social, and emotional capacities of students is likely to lead to these [preparing children for higher education and careers] outcomes?” Perhaps this will be the conclusion of Warner as well, but the piece I often find to be missing in the field of education is relationship. I really believe relationship is what sets educators into the categories of someone who leads, produces, or brings up students who are successful, confident and capable, verses the educator that holds a place, or worse, stifles the love of learning. Warner keeps referring to the “tyranny of grades” and compliance. I think of tyranny of grades as nit-picking for mistakes, rather than looking at the whole picture of what the goal of the learning was. Regardless, he is right - grades and compliance can lead to defeated, apathetic children. I think that type of educator is one that lacks relationship. I believe that grades and compliance, inside relationship, can be healthy, beneficial, and provides a platform for success and growth. This also applies to writing. Grade, or don’t, but if you don’t have a relationship with your students they won’t grow and develop as a result of your efforts either way. In my opinion, this point is exemplified on page 141 when Warner lists five things that should be our goals. Goals 4 and 5 state:

4. We will end the tyranny of grades and replace them with self-assessment and reflection.

5. We will give teachers sufficient time, freedom, and resources to teach effectively. In return, they will be required to embrace the same ethos of self-assessment and reflection expected of students.

My question is, how do we then determine this standard is met? If there is not a relationship and there is no grade or requirement to demonstrate the expectation is being met, I envision a huge range of “success”. Don’t misunderstand, I do not think that everyone should turn out the same or have identical goals. I want to celebrate the individual. I mean in terms of teachers certain they are impacting students when students feel lost and uncertain, or students certain they are top of their class when they haven’t mastered basic skills. Self reflection is not a strength for everyone.

Finally, on page 153 Warner talks about the circumstances in which writers thrive and advocates giving students experiences and opportunities to make choice and build a practice and love for writing. This, I can get excited about. This, I can get behind. I just don’t understand why it must be completely separated from grades and structure. I see a classroom where both can hold space.

I chose to include the following pictures to demonstrate why I still hold value to giving children structure to work first within, and then out of. This first picture is of a writing piece done with little to no structure. The requirements were very broad and focused on minor things such as how to turn it in, to make sure you have your name, etc. The children had a choice of topic, including one that was free choice. There was no grade attached and no structure given to follow.

This next picture is of the same student's writing, during even the same week. This picture is a portion of their final copy pages for a project in which they had choice over the topic, but they had to follow a structure and use various tools practiced in class as part of their grade.

My expertise is not in English, though I am an “English Teacher”. My expertise is in children. I believe children need guidance and structure that comes from a loving person they respect. That is the place they grow from.