Riposte 5 (class)

“I believe my dear sir, that a class is the greatest drawback in the world. You must do everything which the class does and nothing else.”

– John Randolph of Roanoke, while at Columbia University, to his stepfather St. George Tucker in 1788 (from David Johnson’s John Randolph of Roanoke, pages 21 – 22)

“[Woodrow] Wilson, though an excellent teacher, was not a very good student, in the sense that he had no real knack for learning from other people. ‘Everything of progress comes from one’s private reading,’ he said. He stopped attending class [at Johns Hopkins] and arranged to complete his [Ph. D. there] by studying on his own.”

– Jill Lepore’s book review in this week’s New Yorker.

Creating taste

The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.

So ends Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade” (from Mystery and Manners (1970), her posthumous essay collection). Allan Bloom starts his volume Shakespeare’s Politics (1964) where O’Connor leaves off:

The most striking fact about contemporary university students is that there is no longer any canon of books which forms their taste and their imagination.

Emotional narratives

A lyric poem progresses, but how? The concept of emotional narratives has helped my students enjoy poems, recite poems, write poems, and write about poems.

Our ninth-grade curriculum reinforces the stages of narrative: exposition, initiating event, rising action, etc. My students get that. And plot progression is a nice, concrete set of stairs for students to climb to something more abstract, or at least more subtle. Lyric poems feel like they move, but the shifts often involve tone instead of time or place.

Check out “Lesson Plan: The Tone Map” starting on page 20 of this year’s Poetry Out Loud teacher’s guide. The referenced CD is free, but you don’t need it to learn the lesson yourself.

Once you get through “Jenny Kissed Me,” try your new skills on another lyric poem in which, roughly speaking, nothing happens. Maybe keep it seasonal: here’s my favorite snow poem — Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”


On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom

Before I started teaching, I never thought that a high school English teacher is, or should be, a reading teacher. But literary criticism really is reading instruction, and we English teachers distill literary criticism into decoctions for our students to drink with challenging texts. That’s why I’m so thankful for the New Critics, despite my qualms: Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren tried out and refined their theories in their college classrooms. Looking back on it, I think some of my best English professors saw themselves as something like remedial reading teachers.

Roland Barthes’s small, rewarding book The Pleasure of the Text, which I’m slowly working through, points out, I think, the chief reason reading must be taught, even in AP-level English courses and in college:

Now paradoxically (so strong is the belief that one need merely go fast in order not to be bored), this second, applied reading (in the real sense of the word “application”) is the one suited to the modern text, the limit-text. Read slowly, read all of a novel by Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does, for what happens to the language does not happen in the discourse: what “happens,” what “goes away” . . . occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover — in order to read today’s writers — the leisure of bygone readings: to be aristocratic readers. [Pages 12 – 13, emphasis original]

Have Barthes’s “aristocratic readers” died off with Fielding’s and Sterne’s readers? The comparison between the best of modern fiction with (what I take to be) eighteenth-century novels suggests that reading instructors may find help from the Age of Enlightenment.

Continue reading

The right to call someplace home

A federal trial court judge’s clerk usually handles the prisoner petitions.  When I clerked, I would read the petitions, research them, and write an order for my judge to sign deciding the case.  Most of the research was in constitutional law because prison administrators have a lot of leeway in running their prisons with only their prisoners’ constitutional rights circumscribing their policies.

One day my judge refused to sign one of my drafts.  The inmate in question had petitioned the court for damages after debris had allegedly hit him in the head and injured him on a work site.  The prison administration was at fault, he said, because it hadn’t issued him a hard hat.  My order would have permitted the case to proceed to a hearing.

My judge smiled. “There’s no constitutional right to a hard hat,” he said.

One of my students earlier this month came up with a new inalienable right.  When I asked the class what rights he would add to (or specifically enumerate in) the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, he included “the right to call someplace home.”

Consider the virtues of a right to call someplace home.  It’s vague, like due process or equal protection.  Everyone can pay it lip service.  A faction could read it as requiring the government to find housing for everyone.  Another faction could hold “English only” legislation unconstitutional since it infringes on a penumbral right to speak only the language of an immigrant’s homeland.  Others could weaken it, or perhaps use it in a way my student may not have intended, by discovering in it only the right to call the United States home, first holding that the government decides what “someplace” is for everyone.  Some may find the right only aspirational: we are a rather nomadic people as well as a melting pot, and perhaps we feel the need for place more acutely for our relative rootlessness.  And some may find it merely tautological.  After all, calling someplace home sounds quintessentially unalienable.

Anyway, it’s a step up from a constitutional amendment delineating the right to a hard hat.

Propriety & usage

An irate parent called the school office this week. In her most recent newsletter, his daughter’s teacher had ended a sentence with a preposition. He told the office he was going to take the matter up with the school board.

The young teacher’s principal confirmed to her that she had erred. The teacher was pretty upset about it, Victoria said.

I was indignant. I asked Victoria to write an email to her teacher friend for her to share with her principal, her school board, and any other inquisiting body this parent and I could imagine. When Victoria wasn’t writing the email to my liking, I took the laptop from her and included this quote from Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

. . . recent commentators – at least since Fowler 1926 – are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error or an offense against propriety. Fowler terms the idea a ‘cherished superstition.’ And not only do the commentators reject the notion, but actual usage supports their rejection. (763)

Acknowledging her email’s sudden shifts in tone, Victoria explained at the email’s end that I had written its middle portion.

The teacher told Victoria the next day that the email had made her feel a lot better.

Are these the moments I live for? As a former quasi-fundamentalist, I’m pretty sensitive to the bad effects of a rules-oriented approach to spirituality. Maybe someone who equates a mastery of the often-whimsical rules of grammar with propriety pushes my buttons, too.

Webster thinks that Dryden first came up with the no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-clause rule. Dryden described it as a modern rule superior to what had come before – preposition-trailing clauses and sentences stretching from Old English clear through Shakespeare. Dryden’s rule eventually infested three of those popular, powerful, nineteenth century American textbooks. “The topic entered the general consciousness through schoolteachers, and, as we have seen, it persists there still” (764).

What did the teacher’s impropriety signify to the parent? Evidence of moral relativism? A lack of rigor in today’s public education?

This year, I feel the strongest tug ever between good writing instruction and the strictures of public education. The stakeholders – the parents, the administration, the government, the kids, the teachers – all expect certain things, and it is impossible for a teacher to change that. Good teaching is a subversive act, I’ve heard, but can’t we refabricate all of society to make it somewhat less so?

The night after our email, I attended Warren’s back-to-school program. His civics teacher handed us a short introduction, each paragraph of which included a different species of punctuation error. “God,” I thought. “American public education.”

Posted October 3, 2010.


“But pray, sir, why must I not teach the young gentlemen?”

“Because, sir, teaching young gentlemen has a dismal effect upon the soul. It exemplifies the badness of established, artificial authority. The pedagogue has almost absolute authority over his pupils: he often beats them and insensibly he loses the sense of respect due to them as fellow human beings. He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater. He may easily become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous; in any event he perpetually associates with his inferiors, the king of his company; and in a surprisingly short time alas this brands him with the mark of Cain. Have you ever known a schoolmaster fit to associate with grown men? The Dear knows I never have. They are most horribly warped indeed. Yet curiously enough this does not seem to apply to tutors: perhaps it is scarcely possible to lay the prima donna to an audience of one. Fathers, on the other hand -“

— Dialog between Mr. Martin and Stephen Maturin on page 92 of The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian

I’ve logged hundreds of hours over twenty novels (most of them two times over) enjoying your company, Dr. Maturin. It is difficult to accept that, all the while, you have seen me as unfit to associate with grown men. I appear to myself now like one of the bores in the wardroom with whom you are trapped for months on end.

I wasn’t always a schoolteacher, Stephen; is there anything to be said for that? In fact, I held your opinion of schoolteachers for years until I was brought by the lee fifteen minutes into my teaching career.

I made a grammatical error in front of my first class. Some verb I used didn’t agree in number with one of those indefinite pronouns that can go either way; I don’t remember the exact details.

Some smart girl called me on it in front of the whole class, and I thought it was a good time to introduce my teaching philosophy.

“Hey, I’m new to teaching this. I’m going to make some mistakes. I want you to feel free to point them out to me, but I expect you to take it well when I may have to correct your grammar on occasion. In other words, I’m going to model the humility and the excitement about learning that I hope I’ll find in you guys.”

You get the idea, Stephen. I deliberately shed the image of the all-knowing and infallible teacher, and I was up there modeling learning. You probably would have approved.

Anyway, a few kids on that first class of that first day exchanged sneers, and, if I had had more than fifteen minutes’ teaching experience, I’d have known that I was in deep trouble.

For the rest of the year, that class refused to believe me when I taught grammar. They called out objections when I told them that the past participle of “drink” is “drunk.” They looked at me with exaggerated incredulity when I explained that one might end a sentence with a preposition with impunity. They didn’t even believe me when I insisted that “grammar” ends with “ar” and not “er.” Everything I taught in the grammar line was suspect.

During that year, I read an entire book on grammar and scoured two grammar textbooks I happened to have around. I tried to explain to my students that rudimentary English grammar isn’t rocket science. I’ve got a doctorate, admittedly not in English grammar. Kids, I can learn this in a few weeks!

It was no good, Stephen. Kids – especially kids in that unforgiving stage of life known as ninth grade – want infallible teachers.

I finally picked up the signals. The following year, I admitted to no mistakes until Christmas. I learned how to deflect unwanted challenges with a slight smile, with a turn of the lip, or by just moving on. I learned to answer a hard question with, “What do you think?” delivered with a knowing look. I sent kids to the grammar text or the dictionary to answer their own questions. I’m not at the point where I can make up answers to questions I don’t know and then insist on my answers long after some smarty-pants proves me wrong. But I could get there. I could become the all-knowing tyrant, always right, always virtuous. I could become “horribly warped indeed.” Sure, I could become the pedagogue of the world, Stephen.

But come to think of it, doctor, you never commanded anything except your sick ward and an occasional surgeon’s mate. What do you know about classroom management? You are to consider how you react given the slightest authority – how imperiously you often treat your patients.

Consider Jack, for all love. Jack’s crew doesn’t want him to be just another mate, someone to learn the ropes with them. Despite his never admitting mistakes, Jack almost always commands happy ships with only occasional floggings. It’s lonely at the top, Jack and I can tell you.

Face it, doctor. Infallibility may be part of good classroom management until kids reach the age of understanding, which I now think is sometime after ninth grade.

“He does them harm, but the harm they do him is far greater.” What a fellow you are, Stephen!

Posted August 2006

My unit assessment

Each summer I organize the new academic year in units.  Until this summer, I did the job in three to five hours.  This summer I have spent weeks at the task.  After learning more about writing instruction at a summer institute, I want to tie most of my ninth-grade English curriculum – literature, grammar, oral expression, and vocabulary – to writing.  I thought I was struggling simply because of this major refocusing.  I don’t think so anymore.

Here’s my problem.  No one really learns writing in units.

Why teach in units?

Do I teach in units because everyone else does it?  Because some parents may freak when they learn that I teach without them?

Do I teach in units because many people, if the thought of teaching without units were to occur to them, would insist on a false dilemma: units or chaos?

Do I teach in units to pretend that something has been mastered?

Do I teach in units to validate my subject?  Do I imply that writing is complicated enough (and therefore important enough) for units?

Units say my subject is too complicated to understand as a whole.  But what puts the pieces back together after we break the writing down into units? A final exam?  Who sews up the patient after the anatomy lesson? The writing is dead; just wheel it away. Leaning parts of a thing is not the same as learning a thing.

Units say you can master a thing and move on to what’s next.  It works pretty well in math, I think.  You can teach one thing at a time in writing, too, but the next thing sheds new light on the first thing and teaches it all over again.  Or it might, without units.

Units say that strategies are good for only one aspect of writing – one genre (if each unit is a genre) or one part of the writing process (if each unit is a writing stage).  Writing breaks down into strategies, but locking the strategies away into parts of some pedagogue’s idea of the writing process keeps students from using the strategies when they need them.  Why, for instance, should I outline before I start writing?  (Why do I have to even think before I write?)  Why can’t I write my first (and perhaps only) outline for just part of an involved revision?

I’ve read books on writing instruction in which the authors describe the struggle they had with deciding where to place certain material in the books.  (“I wanted to put this in the first-draft unit, but it seemed so important to revision . . .”)  Good writing instructors feel that struggle.

Good writing instructors know that writing is recursive, but it’s worse than that, I think.  “Recursive” suggests a nice spiral – maybe a falcon’s widening gyre – to replace the linear writing process usually taught in American primary and secondary schools.  After the end, we go back to the beginning, better informed.

But writing isn’t even that tidy.  In fact, what serious writer follows any deliberate writing process?  Any such center cannot hold.  A different writing sometimes requires a different process.  A good writer experiments, learns from other writers, and lets her writing teach her.

But I believe – maybe for the first time – that writing can be taught.

I’m putting together a writing toolbox modeled, in a way, after Stunk and White’s The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style serves as a textbook, a reference book, and an inspiration.  White arranges the rules and suggestions (the equivalent of my tools) in categories – usage, composition, form, misused words, and style – but there is no suggestion that usage must be mastered before composition, composition before form, etc.  And, within most categories, the book’s rules and suggestions come at the reader in no apparent order.  I think it’s best that way.

I’ll introduce the tools in the order the class writing generally needs them.  I’ll mix up literary terms with stylistic notions and writing strategies.  Some sample tools (all of them lifted from books I’ve read in the past few years): question showers, implied metaphors, great first lines, misplace your modifiers (i.e., replace your modifiers with action), show (don’t tell), detail discovery, sonnets, exploding a moment, snapshots, “thoughtshots,” freewrites, and “golden lines.”

Some of these tools are learned most easily when studying and writing narratives, and some when studying and writing poetry, say.  But I have to be careful: my poetry should inform my research writing.  I don’t want students to use their imagination – and their tools for imaginative expression – for only what we’ve called “creative writing.”  (Research papers aren’t creative writing?  No wonder they’re so awful.)

Students need it broken down.  But if all we do is break it down, we’ll get broken-down writing.

Some of our students’ dislike for writing is natural: writing is, after all, hard work.  Some of their dislike comes from the artificial writing taught at most schools.  Some of it comes from the critical way in which we assess writing.  Some of it comes from writing to a bored, artificial audience (the teacher).  Some of it comes from having teachers who have no interest in, or time for, their own writing: students have no model, no writer in the classroom.  But some of our students’ dislike for writing comes from the way we pretend writing develops.  Some of that pretension – that artificial tidiness – shows up in our course organization – our units.

Right now, at least, I count units as extremities of dead, pedagogic writing.  Do we really have to teach writing in units?

Did your parents raise you in units? Do masters and mentors teach in units?  Did Buddha?  What did Jesus do?

Like real writers

I teach high school English to hang around writing.  Like most people, I learn best when I teach, and I hope to learn writing by teaching it.  It has always worked for me with the other strands in our English curriculum.  Teaching grammar, for instance, has helped me to learn a lot of grammar I was never clear about, and the grammar has helped my writing.  Teaching literature has helped me consider new ways for close reading, and that has lead to some new writing.

But until recently, teaching writing has taught me little about writing.  I have taught a lot of scaffolding – a lot of structure that I have long ago stopped using in my own writing.  I have gotten student papers that feel like fatigue and mental strain and hopelessness and pretension all mashed together.  I have rarely mentioned to students that I like to write, since my admission only seems to put distance between them and me.

My five weeks this past summer with the Northern Virginia Writing Project have made me hope that my writing and my writing instruction can find each other.  I understand now that students need a writer in the classroom, one who is not afraid to model frustration and patience and poor-quality first drafts.  The books I’ve read and the teaching lessons I’ve experienced this summer validate me as both a teacher and a writer, and I have already trusted my instincts as a writer a lot more during our first two weeks of school.  My ninth-grade students are beginning to respond.

I’m teaching as a writer now, so I’m teaching from some deep water inside me.  But I’m teaching mostly to students who feel no connection with writing. I am rediscovering that teachers aren’t the only ones in class separated from their own writing.

Writers know how to write, and teachers know how to teach.  Students need writing teachers who are both writers and teachers.  If the teacher is a writer, it is more likely that students will see themselves as writers, too.  Students’ writing won’t improve much unless they know that they already have a voice for writing and unless they have a teacher who will help them uncover and refine that voice.

Writers also support each other and gain inspiration from real audiences, if blogging has taught me anything.  I’d like to make my classroom more like a writers’ workshop and a writers’ support group, and I’d like my students to write for authentic audiences.

These three big ideas – kids need to write like writers, interact like writers, and be rewarded like writers – stand behind fourteen changes I am making to my writing instruction.

1.  Have students write, to start with. I’ve never liked prewriting graphic organizers.  I figured it was because I didn’t learn to write that way.  But now I know the real reason: I’m a writer, and writers don’t prewrite much.

Sometimes writers work from an outline (I’m working from one here), but they usually start off writing.  When I’ve assigned outlines to my ninth-grade students in the past, some students have usually written their papers first, and then they have made their outline.  It annoyed me.  But they were only acting as writers do.  I was just acting like a poor writing teacher.

How do you know what you think until you write it? Students who write first often discover what they have to say as they go along.  Graphic organizers rob students of that discovery, since they force students to think as if they were writing.  To “envision” writing is like envisioning vision.  Instead, just write.

As if psyching students out of writing well were not damaging enough, graphic organizers also keep students from discovering where their writing could take them.  No matter how many times I’ve told students that they need not follow their prewriting organizer or their outline, they have tended to do so.  Such writing is usually slavish and spiritless.

I won’t deny students graphic organizers.  (See section 2 below.)  I won’t introduce but a few organizers, though.  For those that like them, I’ll insist that they sometimes try writing without them for an exercise.  This week I suggested that students use some organizers as “midwriting” organizers to help them see where their earlier writing took them.

I’ll encourage students to make a mess with their writing.  Do freewrites.  Mix in fragments and lists as the inspiration comes.  I’ll have students experiment with graffiti writing (not on buildings!) and show them how some of it may become poetry.  I’ll train students to pick through their messes for the raw energy needed for expanded writing.

In fact, I’m looking at everything we teach our kids about writing, and I’m saying to myself: “I’m a pretty experienced writer.  Do I do this?  Does any writer I know do this?”  I’ll trust my gut more, now that I’m in class as a writer and a teacher.

2.  Be both linear and flexible about the writing process. Many poor writers have poor writing processes, but most poor writers don’t have an ownership stake in any writing process, not even in the one that they use.  Early on, they discovered that their teacher’s process didn’t fit, so they decided that writing wasn’t for them.

Let’s get honest about the writing process.  It’s not rigid.  It’s not even linear.  Good writing instructors know that writing is recursive, but it’s worse than even that, I think.  “Recursive” suggests a nice spiral – maybe a falcon’s widening gyre – to replace the linear writing process usually taught in American primary and secondary schools.  After the end, we go back to the beginning, better informed.

But writing isn’t even that tidy.  In fact, what serious writer follows anyone else’s writing process?  Any such center cannot hold.  A different writing sometimes requires a different process.  A good writer experiments, learns from other writers, and lets her writing teach her.

I started some great discussions about the writing process last week with this: “Do you like to think before you write, or do you like to write and think at the same time?”  [Pause.]  “There is no wrong answer.”

I realize now that my question validated the kids as writers.  Writers develop preferences.  They may try a lot of things, but not everything fits.

I tell the kids that they are experienced writers, that they have been writing papers for seven years now.  I commiserate with them on their having been bounced from one teacher’s emphasis to another’s for years.  I present the upside: they have been exposed to a lot of techniques, some of which probably work for them.

I admit that I’ll insist on their trying different techniques, but that they’ll be calling the writing-process shots when they work on their major pieces. I’ll be looking for good writing in their major pieces, not adherence to a structure or a technique.  When we learn a writing technique, we’ll spend time experimenting with it and reflecting on how, if at all, it may fit a student’s emerging writing philosophy and style.

So we’ll learn technique and process, but we’ll also learn good writing.  That’s where the literature comes in.

3.  Read like writers. We’ll take favorite excerpts from novels and short stories we read and ask ourselves, “How did he do that?”  We’ll analyze and then imitate.  What sticks becomes part of a student’s emerging style.  (My favorite book along these lines is The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing by Robert Ray and Ann Ray.)

I’ll teach the kids to spot a favorite passage, to look under the passage’s hood, and to lift some of the parts from it for their own hot writing.

4.  Allow content to dictate structure. Most states’ standards of learning (or the local school systems responsible for implementing them) require teachers to have students produce a certain number of papers per year.  The standards specify the kinds of writing required: expository essays, research papers, personal essays, etc.  So teachers dutifully teach by the genre.  For instance, we explain what an expository essay is, we teach its components, and we tell the students to write one.

This is not a good idea, usually.  If structure drives a paper’s content, students learn not to trust their own voices. Students conform their voice to what they perceive to be the tone of a model essay, and they write only to connect the dots on some outline.

Besides, when we teach structure before content, we’re not teaching structure at all.  Real writers learn structure by finding out what fits the writing as it develops.  Part of writing is learning how to structure content appropriately. (See my recent post “The Tyranny of the Secondary School” for a more comprehensive indictment against premature writing structure instruction.)

Of course, structure can challenge an excellent writer to write better.  In his book Collected Poems, Robert Bly points out how the limits of poetry meter can force a poem against those limits, creating great energy in a poem.  I will challenge students with form this year, particularly poetic forms.  But such challenges should be the exception for my ninth graders.  Most writing, at least on the first draft and the first revision, usually should be without much consideration of form.

This year, then, we’ll make lots of first-draft messes.  We’ll learn some revision tools, and then we’ll learn some structure.  We’ll meet in writer support groups and discuss how our writing may develop into a commonly recognized structure, or, as I suggest in my next point, to discuss how it may come to resemble some combination of established structures.

5.  Speak the words and listen to them, too. Though I’ll deemphasize structure, I’ll emphasize the sound of words, which poetry forms sometimes force us to consider.  Most of the words pelting down on us each day bring little music. But good poetry (and prose) often amounts to an ode to the alphabet, a reconnection of sound and meaning.  We can be the ones who listen to and use the sounds in the words to create meaning.

Oral expression can be part of the writing process.  Reading our work out loud to ourselves and to others will be tools in the writers’ toolbox.  People often wish to revise their work as they perform it.  Sometimes, we hear our work most strongly in the community context, so why not make our performance part of the revision process?  It was this kind of revision – an oral poetry tradition – that probably produced The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I think one reason modern works haven’t matched the greatness of these classics is that we use ink, and ink dries too fast.)

Also, we’ll broaden our understanding of publishing to include performance, and performance can involve as little as a public or private reading.

6.  Blend and loosen the modes. Blending modes has to do with my fourth point (above): content should dictate structure.  Instinctively, many teachers may see the blending of writing modes as a means of confusing students, of undermining the students’ understandings of what the modes require.  I think it’s worth risking the confusion.  Students need to experiment with writing, with purpose, and with audience to see the benefit of a particular mode of written rhetoric.  There really is enough room in the essay genre, for instance, for all kinds of purposes and styles of writing.  Let kids break the rules.  As students’ writing develops, I’ll let it tell them what structure may be best.

Some of this genre-loosening could return us to a genre’s roots.  The classic eighteenth-century novels, for instance, are far faster and looser with the genre’s “rules” than their modern counterparts.  The essay – that staple of high-school writing – started off with no rules against first-person references and no rules against text-to-self connections.  Expository writing also never proscribed humor until schools got involved with it, I bet you.  Genres can be co-opted, partially or completely, by pedagese.

7.  Make class like a writer’s workshop. Writers don’t get much support if the teacher provides no buffer between the writers and the state’s standards of learning.  A teacher’s job is to teach skills and not just the specific terms and products that the school systems emphasize. Besides, if I emphasize the skills, the state standards will be a lot easier to get across.  If my kids are writing, it also will be easier to negotiate with them in order to have them bend some of their writing to meet the school system’s product requirements.

I’m not teaching writing in units this year because the unit model seems to hinder more than it helps.  Learning writing in units would be like learning life in units, I think.  Life and writing both go too deep and explore too much to turn over to units.  Besides, writing is recursive (as is life), and students feel bad if they have to go back to previous units.  The unit approach, then, is too simplistic, too artificial, and too linear.  I’ve taught writing in units for years.  I just didn’t know anything better until I asked myself why my classes couldn’t be more like writers’ workshops.  (I develop the idea that students don’t learning writing in units more fully in my post “My unit assessment.”)

Hopefully, a writers’ workshop atmosphere will help students see themselves as writers.  Students will have daily writing practice, and they will jot down brief, individualized goals for each writing session.  During the session, I’ll be working on my own writing (see point 12 below), meeting with students on their writing, and helping students “push their pieces” by reading over their shoulders and slipping them small slips of paper on which to try out a suggestion.

8.  Teach self-assessment. For years, I’ve lost many weekends and around half of the waking hours of my winter breaks grading papers.  I’ve learned some ways to speed grading up and to get students to pay attention to the comments I jot all over their papers.  I’ve learned a lot of tricks to standardize my comments, and I’ve presented lots of carrots and sticks to get students to read and apply my comments to subsequent drafts.  Most students do the minor changes I request.  However, most students don’t do the deep revision my comments suggest.

If I do most of the assessing, students won’t assess their own writing.  Instead, they’ll leave all of the assessment for me.  (They’ll also be writing for me, and, as I acknowledged before, I’m usually a boring audience to write for.)

Does every paper have to be assessed?  No.  Kelly Gallagher, author of Teaching Adolescent Writers, applies a four-to-one ratio between his students’ writing and the amount of it that he reads for any form of assessment.  My students need to write a lot more than I can possibly assess.

An external assessor should always be trying to work himself out of a job.  I want my students to learn to assess their own writing more and more.  Lifelong learners are necessarily lifelong, skilled self-assessors, too.

Portfolios will help students develop a sense of their own development as writers.  I’ll give them exercises to reflect on what their portfolios teaches them about their emerging writing.  The portfolios will also give me the opportunity to get to know each student better as a writer instead of as another ream from a paper mill.

I want students to write about their writing.  What do they like about it, and how could it improve?  Whom do they wish they could write like?  What is it about that author that appeals to them?

I want students to reflect on their writing process.  As they do so, they begin to connect with some of our grand writing theory.  They see what they prefer; they see what works for them.  They begin to see themselves as individual writers with their own A-game and B-game writing processes.

After some written reflection, students will illustrate and map out their writing process.  We’ll put them on the walls. Students may find ways there to improve their process to help them write like fellow students whose writing they admire.

I won’t grade individual papers so specifically.  I’ll give students a sense of where the paper is against where it could be, and I’ll let the student know what he or she might do to improve it.  But I’ll communicate this less with letters than with face-to-face conversations in writers’ conferences.

I will train the students to run writing conferences between them and me.  The student will bring a bulleted agenda, and we’ll follow it. I will resist the urge to correct or to suggest more than the student raises in his agenda.  To make this work, I have to be a fellow writer, too.  Hopefully, I’m the best writer in the classroom (as things currently stand), and my feedback is worth something.  But having students write for my grade has not tended to help them become better writers.

9.  Talk like writers. We’ll discuss writing with an underlying premise: we’re writers.   Part of reflecting on our writing is talking about our craft and our choices.

Writers have their own lexicon, too.  As we try different things out, we’ll learn the names for them, and those names will enrich our discussions.  We’ll have a writers’ toolbox on the wall to which we’ll add a small poster of each tool as we learn the tool.

Our state’s standards of learning include a lot of literary terms I have to teach.  I hope to be able to put most of the terms we have to learn, whether it is “lyric” or “allusion” or “connotation,” in our writers’ toolbox.  I want them to know those terms as writers and not just as readers.

10.  Write in class. Writing is valuable enough to do in class.  Sure, ninth-grade English covers four other strands besides writing: literature, oral communication, grammar, and vocabulary.  But all of these can enhance writing.  Even oral communication can get into the act with poetry performances and read-arounds.  (See point 5 above.)  But I plan to make writing the main thing this year.  See if you can identify these other four strands in this year’s “is about” statement I’m using this year: “English 9 Academic is about discovering, channeling, performing, polishing, and publishing our writing.”  (“Channeling” refers to learning about genres our writing may gravitate towards.)

If writing is important, we need to do it in class.  Some strong communities of writers get together just to write near each other.  There’s something about the experience of several people writing nearby that enhances our writing sometimes.  Many adult writers cherish such opportunities!  Occasional choices of engaging, common prompts, quiet music, and frequent writing opportunities to push pieces to the next level also give a classroom a community writing atmosphere.

11.  Write to publish. Before this past summer, my underlying motivation to write well has been, “Fear my red pen!”  My students have written at pen point instead of for genuine audiences.  A teacher rarely constitutes a genuine audience since students often can assume that the teacher knows more about the paper’s subject than they do.

But I am being optimistic when I say that a student audience is the teacher.  Really, the audience in a typical student paper is a construct, a kind of dramatic convention the student and the teacher pull off to make the paper sort of work.  The students and teacher pretend that someone will read the paper to be informed or entertained.  It’s a fake audience, and the cost is often a strained, pretentious, and fake voice.  The greater cost is a learned loathing of writing.

It’s better to have a real audience.  I have discovered already that students put forth more effort when they know other students will read their work than when they know that only I will read it.  They are also far more likely to turn the paper in, for one thing.

I would like to have every piece of writing geared for an audience other than me, whether it is the writer herself, other students, or the general public.  We will publish on blogs, on social networks, in class anthologies, on sidewalks with chalk, in class read-arounds, and maybe in a book through, a print-on-demand site.  We’ll send lots of material to the school newspaper and to the school literary magazine.  We will have days when we write cover letters and query letters to periodicals.  We’ll post our rejection letters in the room as badges of honor.  We’ll have writing contests with prizes and outside, distinguished judges.

12.  Model writing. Pouring less red ink onto student papers should give me more time to write outside of class.  (Of course, I write to relax, and I’ll usually find a way to write even if it means going without sleep.)

If I write when the students are writing, it makes the atmosphere more like a writing support group.  If I demonstrate my writing struggles and genuinely seek the class’s help (as I did yesterday, with great success!), then students will no longer see some great gulf fixed between good writers and them.  We all struggle with writing. The earlier in a student’s writing career we demonstrate it to her, the better.

My students will be in writer support groups (see point 14 below), so I plan to talk about my own writer support groups.  (I’m in one currently, and I’m helping to start a second one.)  “Two of them liked my poem, but one of them had some reservations about the tone.  Let me see what you think.”

I’ll also submit some of my writing to publishers.  This will be difficult for me because I’ve been quite happy with self-publishing.  But why not.  I need to get some rejection letters up on the wall with the students’ rejection letters, and it would be gratifying to have someone publish something of mine.

13.  Revise a lot. I’ll try to break the students’ fixation with putting almost all of their work into first drafts.  I’ve read two books this year (Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers and Barry Lane’s After the End) that have given me ideas on how to make revision writing more interesting.   I’ll also model this with my own writing.

We’ll also revise from the beginning.  I want them in the habit of seeing revision as a natural part of writing. (I’m ignoring Kelly Gallagher’s advice here.  Gallagher believes that you have to get students writing before they’ll be interested in revising.  But Gallagher’s revision ideas are so much fun that my students like revising!)

I will introduce most of my writers’ toolbox tools through revision writing.

14.  Meet in writer support groups. Many students have had bad experiences in peer editing groups.  Charged with finding mistakes, other students have hurt their feelings.  Most ninth-grade students are not qualified to edit other ninth graders’ papers, anyway; many students suggest changes that would only hurt the other students’ papers.

Writer support groups are different.  The members start with only a few, positive chores with respect to the others’ papers.  If the groups advance adequately, teachers can train members to take on more critical functions.  Editing, which is usually the last stage of writing, is not one of these functions.

Writers take turns reading their pieces.  Reading to others is a powerful experience, often both reinforcing and revisory.  Members give specific, positive feedback, such as: (a) What was your favorite part, and why? (b) What possibilities do you see for this writing?  (Structure (see point 4 above), purpose, and audience) (c) What questions do you have?

This last question – a solicitation of questions – is often helpful for deeper revisions.  Even if the group members don’t criticize the work, their questions show a writer how her work is perceived by others, or at least by someone other than herself.

Groups stay together for at least a marking period to allow the development of trust and to permit students to gradually understand the source of a member’s position better.  For more information on writers’ support groups, see my post “Blogging and Writers’ Support Groups.”)

Teachers should model writer support groups by reporting frequently on what happened in theirs.  (See my point 12 above.)  A fishbowl activity with teachers playing roles (the domineering member, the lazy member, the discouraging member, etc.) may also be a good way to start the groups off.


Reconnecting my teaching to my writing feels like reconnecting a hose to a hydrant.  But I’m also on fire to reconnect kids to their own writing. I don’t know which motivates me more: my newfound cohesion or my students’ lack of it.

I want my class to be the kind of writer’s workshop I wish I had the time and money to take.  The fact that it’s on a ninth-grade level shouldn’t keep me from fully participating in it as a writer.