Formulaic Freedom: Get Students to Abandon Writing Formulas
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
As a writing teacher, I'm bewildered by challenges facing both students with the writing process and teachers desperately trying to impart tips in an effort to make it easier.
From writing prompts to formulas and everything between, teachers work feverishly to unmask the mystery that is the written word.
Writing has always been a friend to me, close and intimate, without hindrance. Not that I don't understand the discomfort others feel while staring at a blank page, uncertain of how to start or where to go.
Much like music, words dance before me, a symphony of sound, delicate notes of meaning that communicate a plethora of thoughts and emotions. Students feel these things but are often intimidated by the opportunity to share them in writing.
Sitting before me, while I worked in Far Rockaway High School were a number of students with the limited ability to demonstrate their knowledge on paper in English. I was a young teacher at the time and eager to help them pass. It wasn't about developing their skills (sad to admit, but true), but getting them to pass their Regents.
Eagerly borrowing strategies from colleagues, I wrote scripted paragraphs on the board that they dutifully copied and committed to memory with repetition, to increase their confidence for the exam. Fortunately, some of them could achieve 3s or4s out of 6, if they understood what they read, but I wouldn't say I did much to improve their understanding of how to write, only regurgitate memorized lines of little meaning.
Clinging to those formulas was easier for my students and for me, but I realized soon after that it wasn't teaching, at least not the way I wanted to be doing it. Now, I agree, it is a starting point and when scaffolded appropriately, a good one, but it CAN'T be the endpoint. We'd be robbing students of the opportunity to share their own truths in their own voices.
Great writing instruction, helps students develop their own voices in productive and meaningful ways; it's challenging and messy for both the writer and the teacher. It takes time and fortitude, perhaps even convincing, but we all have a story to tell, and giving students the tools to their stories in a way that works for them is important.
There are lots of rules in writing, structure, and subjectivity, every teacher and writer approaches it differently, as he/she should. Careful work must be put into helping students hone their own voices, with deliberate effort to not instill our own style as we do so.
As a writer myself, this is what is most challenging to me. How can we help students craft good essays or other pieces of writing that are authentic and well written? It starts by knowing each writer; learning their purpose and how they feel about writing. Then, and only then can we help our students.
I ventured into the murky waters of teaching authentic writing, using models from different places as well as pieces I created myself, to show what good writing was first. We talked about our reactions, not just to the content, but the manner in which the author was able to manipulate us; the craft, choices the author made to create ideas for us to react to.
We became aware together of the skill necessary to create characters that evoke emotions within us or convey messages for us to relate to or hate. We label those choices and first try to mimic them.
Copying stylistic choices is the first way for an author to find his/her own voice. When we read all the time, specific authors speak to us and those are the ones we seek to emulate. Then as we mimic, we take risks, we develop our own sensibilities as fledgling authors. There is a foundation to work with and the journey begins.
Effective communication is a skill required in life, but not everyone is cut out to be an author. The qualities embedded in the writing process, however, are ones we all strive to use in our lives: tenacity, clarity, honesty, creativity to name a few. As we seek ways to express our truths, we inherently strive to be understood universally, that is the human affect; how do you express your truth?
How do you help your students develop and communicate their own? Please share.
This post originally ran on Education Week Teacher in May 2016.