Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Teaching Writing and Grammar (Part II)

I know we have had some high profile movies and books that show a dedicated teacher who inspires her students (inner city kids make for good drama) to write meaningful prose. Usually, the teacher winds up resigning at the end of the movie because her methods were just too “out there,” because we all know that anyone who professes to love to teach teenagers to write, and write meaningfully, must be a little bit nuts.

The fact of the matter is that teachers who can get kids not only to write, but to care about what they write enough to use a process and struggle to say something meaningful, are few and far between. In twenty-four years, I have not taught with many teachers who were dedicated to writing. Sure, I’ve worked with grammarians, literature buffs, amateur actors and screen writers, but a good, solid teacher of writing, who slogged through endless papers because her students wrote every week, who tried to publish student work, and was willing to read draft after draft after draft, not so much.

Teaching writing is hard. All teaching is hard, but teaching writing is really hard. You have to love the written word. You have to respect the student voice. You have to want to know what a kid is thinking, and therefore, appreciate what he writes.

Combine the difficult task of teaching writing with the further complication of teaching proper grammar, and we have a laborious task worthy of Hercules. And I dare say, after watching television news, reading what passes for print journalism these days, and reading missives from administrators and teachers, we have largely failed to teach writing and grammar effectively in the last twenty years.

Recently, the Harvard Writing Project undertook a study of how we teach writing. In a “Special Issue: Responding To Student Writing,” scholars examined the undergraduate writing program over the last thirteen years. They came to some significant, if not earth-shattering conclusions about how we should teach writing.

The most prominent conclusion was that “timely and detailed feedback plays a crucial role in students’ development as thinkers and scholars.” This point immediately attracted my attention. At my school, I carry five preparations, all honors and Advanced Placement, and I struggle each evening with whether I should spend my time researching, developing, and preparing my lessons and readings for the next day, or grading papers. Since I would rather stand in front of my students with a solid plan and know where I am going with the lesson, the papers usually wait. As I mentioned in the previous post, this is beginning to drive me crazy because immediate, detailed feedback is what nurtures a new writer.

The study says that this feedback can take many forms, including “written comments on drafts and papers, e-mail messages responding to proposals or introductions, and personal conversations in office hours or after class.” This feedback is “central to their learning experience,” and what students should expect from their writing teachers. “Feedback improves their writing, as well as providing them with a more satisfying writing experience,” the report goes on to say.

If students see their work treated in a way that demonstrates the teacher values what they write, things change very quickly in the writing classroom. “…[T]hey learn to see writing as an opportunity for personal and intellectual engagement with course material…Students report feeling insulted and angry when they receive little or no feedback on their writing.”

The report contains many first-person accounts of writing experiences through a student’s eyes. This testimony serves to reinforce the main thrust of the report. The study also addresses marginalia, the practice of writing notes and comments in the margin of the paper by the teacher. Too many comments, and the student tunes out. Too few, and the student feels slighted. The study boils down the “Six Tips for Effective Marginal Commenting.” One, “Comment primarily on patterns—representative strengths and weaknesses.” Two, “Use a respectful tone.” Three, “Make positive comments,” and four, “Write legibly.” If only the students followed this advice on in-class timed work. Five, “Ask questions.” And finally, number six, “Use terms that students can understand.”

The report considers writing across the curriculum, including teachers’ voices about student work from departments of education, social sciences, and of course, English. There are also lists of “Pitfalls to Avoid,” “Making the Most of Final Comments,” and “Types of Problem Papers.”

When the report delves into the views of teaching fellows in the undergraduate program, the passion young educators have for their students becomes evident. “The real joy of responding to student writing is engaging in a dialogue about ideas and their presentation,” says Daniel Gutierrez, a teaching fellow in history. “If clear writing is a reflection of clear thinking, then there is no better way to help students improve their writing than to focus on the main ideas of their paper, to challenge them to re-think and better articulate their arguments.”

The bottom line is that grading papers is a time-consuming and often grueling process. According to the report, a paper can take “anywhere from 20-45 minutes for a typical 5-to-7-page paper.”

This is my assessment as well. And again, if a teacher must prepare lessons, handle other miscellaneous administrative paperwork, and read a variety of background texts and journals to stay up on his subject, grading papers is just one part of the picture. On some days, I receive a written paper from two to three classes. I lug home a set of forty to fifty papers that evening. If each one takes ten minutes, a very modest allowance, it takes me 500 minutes or more than eight hours to complete the sets. Teachers do have other lives. I laugh when I interview prospective teachers and they tell me they want to teach English because we get all that time off each summer, and we are home by four o’clock each day. Leaves plenty of time to work on that screenplay, right? Only if you never sleep.

The thing is, when you find that one gem of a paper where the student has poured out her heart and soul and she has something to say, not just a regurgitation of class notes, it is worth it. And I firmly believe that such students should be, must be, rewarded with publication. Ultimately, we do not write in a vacuum. We write to be heard, to have our say, to tell it like we see it.

I do not know how I can do my grading differently, but I am always on the look-out for new methods. Until I find a better way, I will continue to read my students’ work, draft after draft. They must know that someone cares what they have to say, even if it takes time to return the paper.

As one of my seniors said as he left my room for the last time: “All you wrote on my papers was ‘dig deeper, dig deeper. Go further.’” Yes, as weird as the comment sounds, I wanted him to keep thinking, keep probing the subject, keep looking. That is the rule of engagement. That is why we write, as so many writers have said: to find out what we know and what we believe.

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