July 22, 2006

Teacher Sucked Into Lies by Peer Pressure

Tim Fredrick is rehashing some lies teachers tell. The lies about writing pararaphs and essays has me thinking about teaching writing in my own classroom. Last summer I spent plenty of time thinking about writing at the SNWP Summer Institute. And during that time of great reflection, I came up with the all answers of how to grow excellent writers in my classroom.

I wish.

I've had this inner battle about teaching formulaic essays. I don't really like it for most students. For students who struggle with writing and those who are more left-brained, heavy structures work for them. I'm thinking of a group of boys I had in a proficiency English class a few years ago. They were the last five students who needed to pass their high school writing proficiency test. It just so happens that they all had IEP's and ranked woodshop as their favorite class. The only reason they tolerated my class is because I gave them hope that they might actually graduate. Tough crew, aye? (Nay, they were such a great bunch of guys!) I taught them how to write basic, structured essays. Paragraphs related to each other. The thesis was supported. Beginning, middle, and end. Bare bones, functional stuff. They passed the exam, and they did become better writers. Better, mind you. Writing is developmental. (Hopefully they never show up in Teacher Lady's class.)

Flash forward a few years where I found myself at a large middle school in a different school district. I'd spent the first several years of my career with few peers in my subject area, as I worked in a small school. I thought I'd done a good job of teaching writing to my high school students--we had many successes. Then I moved to a different environment and I'm told I had to teach using this certain method that I'd never heard of nor used. I'm freaking out because I'm thinking I've missed some important information in my career, like the proper way to teach students to write. Everyone--even some of the first-year teachers--seemed to know exactly how to go about teaching in this method, yet I was clueless. I went to several teachers in the department for information about this writing method, and I came back with some handouts that looked like fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

Those worksheets only filled in part of my confusion of how to teach writing using this certain method--mainly over exactly WHAT I was suppose to do with those worksheets. Would that magically make my students good writers? If they fill in the blanks, will they have an essay? How was I to get from point A to point B with those sheets? It wasn't self-explanatory to the students nor me. I've used some outlines and formulas to help students learn writing structures, but they were no where near as detailed--or stiffling.

Did you know that nothing dulls an interesting narrative than trying to make it fit into a 5-paragraph essay? Of course you all do. Innately, so did I, but we still tried to force that square peg into a round hole...

Later I found out that at one point there had been an in-service training and that method of teaching writing was adopted. Despite the fact that most of the teachers currently on staff had never actually attended the training, each year teachers were pressured to use this method. Whatever it was. It was like some educational folk legend that gets passed down generation after generation.

Is it also educational folk legend that paragraphs have 4-6 sentences? I don't know. I heard that one from my students:

"Last year, Mrs. Wonderful Teacher told us that paragraphs have 4-6 sentences."

I reply, "Uh, well, I guess that could be true." Oh crap! Shouldn't I know how many sentences a paragraph has? Obviously paragraphs don't always have 4-6 sentences, but is that what I should be telling students at this level of their education? Gawd! I hate it when I don't know what I'm doing.

Now, here's the rub. Mrs. Wonderful Teacher is a wonderful teacher, and I respect her. How do I go about addressing this paragraph issue when I'm not sure what to say, yet I know "4-6 sentences" isn't quite that easy? (Especially if they are redundant or empty sentences.) Thanks for paving the way Mrs. Wonderful Teacher...The students seemed to want solid answers--black and white--and I'd already confused them with the last grammar lesson I gave that included so many exceptions to the rule that the rule is actually more of a suggestion. They think I'm nuts because they've known this rule since 1st grade and now I'm breaking it all to hell. So far I don't have much credibility for my brutal honesty about our crazy English language.

Oh! Then what will my students say to their teachers next year?

"Ms. Crazy Teacher told us____________. Can you believe that?!"

I don't want to perpetuate some of the lies going around in our ELA classrooms. Reminder to self: Avoid getting sucked into lies. You do know what you're doing. Paragraph and sentence lengths are suggestions--for some they serve as a foundation. For too many they could serve as an crutch, and that is unacceptable. There is no easy way to teach writing. It's about ideas, not numbers. I cannot even explain how I teach writing in my classroom because it's different from year to year. From student to student. No worries, though. I have this wonderful bag of holding with tons of tools and tips. Metaphorically, or course.

Being Ms. Crazy Teacher who gives elusive answers about our crazy language in an attempt to stretch the minds and abilities of students isn't such a bad thing, is it? Better than Ms. Liar-Liar-Pants-On-Fire!

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