That’s a Stupid Rule (and other thoughts on writing)

I will admit to being disappointed already by Day Two of teaching. I remember how I taught 6th-graders to write back when I was teaching middle school in the 90’s. By January they were relatively autonomous and could write three page research papers. They knew how to ask a question for research, how to identify sources, how to take notes (not copy!), and how to put ideas into their own words. And these were not children from privileged backgrounds. The students I taught could have been in the program I am working in now.

So I have to ask – what’s up with how we are teaching kids how to write?

I do not expect my students to be perfect. I expect them to have questions and issues about grammar and style that need to be addressed. I expect they will need help developing ideas and organizing their thoughts. But, I do not expect that their overall writing will look much like that of a 13 year old.

Of course there are things they can do that are way ahead of what my middle school students could do. They are excellent at talking about writing and asking questions. I told them on Day One to speak up and they do speak up! I am proud of them for that. Today, they began writing their essays. In this three week segment, I am having them write two. I don’t expect either of them to be polished. It’s all about the experience and learning. This is supposed to be helping them prep for college so let’s focus on essay writing, shall we? You have to write one to get into a university.

pen and paperAfter about 20 minutes of writing I had them share their work. They have responded pretty well to my approach which requires them to share their writing daily (either reading directly from their work or talking about their ideas and issues within their work) and the posing a question for us, their audience, at the end to help them with. Students come up with great questions. Others come up with great suggestions. Rarely do I have to add anything or push the conversation along.

In that regard, they are where I had thought they would be. They are very articulate about where they need help and about offering their ideas. And for all my academic friends, let me say that my students are better than some reviewers. They can give good critiques without being uppity or mean. They are helpful and kind.

And some of them are strong writers or are reasonably where I would think they would be. But at least half are not. And I am not sure why that is. Why do a good chunk of my students seem to be no better off than the 13 year olds I had back in the day? Ultimately, it is what it is and I’ll work with it, but it’s a question I have. What does writing instruction look like?

Today, we talked about my conception of writing instruction. I talked about how writing isn’t rigid but a fluid process where today you might brainstorm some ideas, tomorrow draft, then do some editing, then need to do some reading to inform your writing, and so on. I talked about the importance of playing with any idea. My doctoral students will probably sigh if they read this, but I told my high school students today that sometimes you just don’t know if an idea will work well or not in your piece until you try it out. So if you have an idea that you want to try go try it! Be prepared to delete it, or keep it, or have to change it up a bit. Or maybe you’ll get really lucky and it’ll end up looking like you thought it would in the first place (lucky you!).

We had two great questions come up today during discussion. The first was if students could use the first person in their writing. One young man asked me this, and a second said that a teacher told him, “Never use I because no one cares what you have to say.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. I’m just reporting it back. It opened up a nice conversation about active and passive voice and, at the end of the day, I told them to use I as much as possible.

The next question was about tone. In sharing their work, one young man had taken a more informal approach in his writing than the rest. I liked it. I thought it worked and had the potential to be made into a very funny story. The others took him to task and the question arose if it was appropriate to write something conversational and informal in an essay (ultimately, I think in this case it is fine, but I was impressed that they jumped on this). That question opened the door to what they imagined people reading college application essays would want – they concluded mostly stuffy, very formal writing, with long sentences and as many big words as possible. Their answer makes sense to me. They think that’s how you write in order to sound smart.

But the one thing that made me laugh the most came during the actual writing of the drafts. One young man asked me if you apahyphenate thirty-two when writing it out. I decided to go all APA style on him, and I typed up an example on the screen showing them how to use numbers in their writing. This led to the following conversation:

Student: Why does that rule even exist?

Me: Well…I guess…I think…I don’t know actually. I just know the rule. See, there are certain style manuals that have rules for writing and this is one of those rules. I didn’t make it up.

Student: It’s a stupid rule.

Me: I’m not so concerned about the rule. I’m more worried about how many of these random, weird rules I know off the top of my head.

We all got a bit of a laugh off of that.

So what’s in store for day three? We are going to take a closer look at sentences people drafted today and work on making them cleaner and tighter. I told students to be prepared – all writing should be considered public. I’m looking forward to seeing how they respond to some closer work in regards to their writing.



Comments 2

  • Leigh–I’m enjoying reading about your summer teaching adventure. Brings back memories of teaching high school and college developmental reading and writing. So many “stupid rules” so little time!