Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer Reading--Writing To Learn



In preparation for a class I will teach this summer, I have been rereading William Zinsser, author of the classic texts On Writing Well (Harper Perennial, 2006) and Writing To Learn (Harper Perennial, 1993).  Both books are required reading, along with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (Longman, 1999), for any writer wishing to improve his or her craft.  And as Zinsser insists, writing is a craft.

Zinsser breaks On Writing Well into several parts, including Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes.  He insists on writing as a process, and that only through diligent revision and rethinking can writing improve.  First, he insists, good writing is a product of good thinking.  This is where the second book is valuable.  Zinsser believes that one can learn any subject simply by delving into it as a writing project.  To write is to know, and he advocates returning to a model that has disappeared on the education landscape these days in lieu of all the talk about Common Core:  writing across the curriculum.  Many teachers who do not teach writing or English believe it is not their responsibility to worry about grammar and good syntax.  They read student writing for content, not for language when they assign writing.  Many teachers hide behind the excuse of too many students and too many classes.  But there is some validity to the excuse:  how can a person read and grade thirty or thirty-five papers from a single class?  If each paper is five pages, a really miniscule amount of writing, that adds up to 150-175 pages of text, a not miniscule amount.  If that same teacher teaches four or five classes of the same size, the reading piles up to 600 or more pages of intense reading and annotating.  If a teacher assigns writing every two weeks, the problem becomes readily apparent.  This is why it makes sense to spread the writing instruction around.

What students need is feedback, and often this feedback must be tailored to the person and his or her writing.  Blanket statements to a class are not as effective as working through a paper, line by line, with a student.  Focused intensity breeds results.  Students understand when teachers walk them through the revision process.  These days when students read less, they have less experience with the language.  The do not encounter good writing often enough for the polished work to benefit their own abilities.  So in whatever class, in whatever discipline, students must be exposed to good writing and encouraged to create their own quality work through deep thinking, revision, and publication.



In Writing To Learn, Zinsser gives plenty of examples of good writing across the curriculum.  He examines history, the sciences, even mathematics, and suggests ways that good writing could be incorporated into assignments.  In fact, the entire second part of the book is devoted to specific subject areas and good writers.  He tells us that “Clear writing is the logical arrangement of thought:  a scientist who thinks clearly can write as well as the best writer.”  He goes on to say that “we write to find out what we know and what we want to say,” a sentiment echoed in the work of many other writers.  “Writing and thinking and learning [are] the same process,” he writes.

Now, a good writer may not be visible in the lens of a standardized test, so in addition to those kinds of assessments, we need writing samples.  Engaging a student with writing is the best way to find out what he or she knows.  Therefore, teachers should work together across the disciplines to plan units of curriculum.  When teachers collaborate, the work is shared; no one instructor is responsible for all the writing.  However, many non-English teachers are themselves insecure about their writing abilities.  This is often what is behind a teacher’s reluctance to assign and grade writing.  It is difficult enough to understand molecular biology, but to comprehend subject verb agreement, or the rules of usage?  Most teachers in their disciplines do not worry about grammar issues.  So, it is up to the English teachers to assist colleagues with writing instruction, but every class needs writing assigned on a regular basis.

Within the school, there also must be a writing culture.  This means sharing good writing from students with the school community through presentations and publication.  Every school should have a budget for student journalism and academic writing.  We cannot expect students to understand how to write well if they do not see examples of good writing.  In addition, if they see their own work valued enough to be published to the community, that will offer more positive affirmation than any grade.  When I have published my students’ work, they are much more excited about their friends and family reading their essays and stories than they are about my singular comments on a returned paper that only I have seen.  If teachers can bring in working writers in different disciplines—the science reporter from the local newspaper, or an essayist with a new book out—that will also go a long way to demonstrating the importance of good writing in all the disciplines.

To make students good readers and writers, they need practice and experience.  We cannot just wait for the English teacher.  Writing should be used across the curriculum.  William Zinsser’s books are just two of many excellent resources out there for teachers looking to improve their writing instruction no matter what subject they teach.


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