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?