At the end of Sue’s first draft of her senior paper, I wrote the following:
Sue, as you often do, you have turned in something with moments of insight AND I don’t know really know what this is, which is both a breath of fresh air and confusing.
Here are my teacher questions: 1) What’s your thesis? 2) What support do you provide for your thesis?
Here is my non-teacher observation: I see you writing in a way where you aren’t trying to make a point but find a point worth making. That’s interesting.
Sue (name changed) is an exchange student from China. (I have four exchange students this year, a trend I’ve never experienced in my teaching career.) All of them write essays differently than my West Seattle students. They have a different sense of what an essay is.
Sue’s writing zigs and zags. She circles around ideas, draws conclusions, hypothesizes, waffles on one conclusion before striking it all together. In the first draft of her senior paper, she went from telling an anecdote about chopping wood with her host-mom to analyzing Great Expectations in detail to reflecting on the Chinese orphanage system. She definitely doesn’t follow the rule that all paragraphs have to have at least five sentences. I can guarantee you she has never heard of Jane Schaefer.
Around the same time I was thinking about Sue’s writing, I read an essay in the New Yorker called Montaigne on Trial by Adam Gopnik. Michel de Montaigne “invented” the essay, which translates as “attempt.” Gopnik discusses the experience of reading Montaigne today:
Sit down to read [his essays] thoroughly step by step… and you will be disappointed, since the ‘argument’ of the essays is often less than fully baked, and the constant flow of classical tags and quotations is tedious. Open more or less at random, though, and dip in, and you will be stunned by the sudden epiphanies.
Montaigne’s version of an essay–discursive and inductive–is Sue’s style and the style of my other exchange students.
It is definitely not the style of my West Seattle students. When I looked at their first drafts of their seniors papers, I encountered near lock-step organization. Every body paragraph had at least two pieces of evidence. Every paragraph ended with a link to the topic sentence. Every draft included one counterargument after the main body paragraphs. They did what they have been taught for years, and their papers were uniform, generally boring and not necessarily logically stronger than Sue’s.
For years, I have rationalized the five-paragraph essay and its related extensions: the essay is like training wheels for students; it organizes their thinking; it forces them to hone their reasoning; we have to have some rules, we can’t have writing anarchy.
Yet–and this was both a teaching error on my part (this is my first year at West Seattle and I haven’t always known what to expect) and a teaching error on the part of my department’s scope, sequence, and alignment–my West Seattle seniors weren’t generally creating cogent, complex points. Just because their writing was organized didn’t mean the reasoning was sound and the claim relevant. They weren’t thinking by writing. They were filling in mental boxes and calling it good.
I concede that I have seen formal argument essay writing improve under the Common Core writing standards, and yet I see trends that give me pause.
- Students increasingly look for evidence to support an argument they already have. The notion that we write arguments to sharpen our thinking is being replaced by the idea we write arguments to prove how right we are.
- I see skepticism (both from students and teachers) towards informal writing (“pre-writing work”), like freewriting, expanding seed ideas, journaling, and poetry. “Why would I do that when I already have my idea?” In other words, “real” writing isn’t a means to discover what you don’t yet know or see. “Real” writing proves to others what you do already know.
I have tools in my belt to mitigate this mindset, like annotations, class discussion, requiring students to gather evidence for multiple arguments, dialectical journals, verbal reflections, and I emphasize the notion of “Collecting Ideas” in the writing cycle. During first semester, my juniors explored the questions, “What is patriotism?” In their inductive essays, they had to end their introduction with a question rather than a claim. While not flawless, the experiment of inductive writing required them to piece together ideas and “think aloud.” Like Montaigne, they had epiphanies among the clutter.
And I have more to learn and think about.
I leave you (and myself) with questions to ponder in this work.
–How do you help students write not only to make a point but discover a point worth making?
–How do you ensure young people understand that the process of writing, in positive ways, clarifies and complicates?
–How do we develop young writers who are flexible, who can adjust how they write for authentic writing purposes?
–How do we teach organization not as a formula but a logical process?
–How do we reward/not punish those who write thoughtfully but struggle/refuse to follow formula?
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