Saturday, August 15, 2015

Teaching and Evaluating Writing (Part 1)

I am attending a writers' conference (When Words Collide Festival, Calgary) this weekend, and especially enjoyed listening to the Keynote Address by Diana Gabaldon. In it, she talked about how writing is taught in schools: in every grade 5 class, the teacher has the students write down bullet points about their topic; then break up into groups to share and critique their bullet points with each other; then use that corrected list to write an outline; share outlines in pairs or small groups; take outlines home to parents for proofing; then turn that into the teacher to provide feedback; then use the teacher's feedback to produce a good outline; then use that outline to write a rough draft; have the students breakup into pairs to read and review each other's rough drafts; then take rough draft home to parents to correct (rewrite); then have them write a good draft; break up into pairs to proof each other's good drafts; and then hand that into teacher. [Well, she actually described the process in greater detail, but you get the idea, and most people recall something along this line from their own experiences.]

Then Diana Galaldon asked the banquet hall of writers, "Does anyone here actually write like that?" And of course, everyone agreed that "the writing process" as taught in schools has almost no connection with real writing or real writers. Diana Galaldon then described her own personal writing process to gales of laughter, because (almost) no one else in the hall wrote remotely like that, and could not begin to fathom how anyone could possibly work like that. It's not that Diana Gabaldon is weird, it's that anyone else's approach to writing seems unworkably bizarre.

What real writers know is that there is no one process that works for everyone; on the contrary, every writer has a different approach to the process of writing. Derrell Schweitzer interviewed something like 1,000 American SF authors about their writing and writing process, and the one thing that stood out for him was that (1) every writer in the sample said there was only one way they could write; and (2) no two writers in the sample wrote using the same process. (Sociologist Howard Becker, in his book Writing for the Social Sciences, came up with the most credible explanation for why that is, but going into that is beyond the scope of the current posting. Sufficient to say, everyone's process is inherently unique.)

The problem is that by insisting on this one outline-roughdraft-finaldraft approach to writing, teachers get passable product out of our kids that allows teachers to assign grades as if these grades were meaningful. It is easy to confuse this manufacture of product for the teaching of writing, but the production of 'final copy' under these conditions has little to do with learning how to write. In the late 1870s, the newly invented public schools decided to pay teachers by the linear foot of writing produced by their students. That seemed fair, because the more your students wrote, the more you got paid. Payment by results. But of course, it only took teachers twenty seconds to figure out that if they set their students to copying out the bible, they could significantly increase their salaries. Consequently, schools became factories that produced written work, without any regard for actual learning. If we know, as we emphatically do, that "The Writing Process" as it is generally taught in school is largely unrelated to the actual process of writing, then someone needs to explain to me how the current approach in schools is in any way an advance over the obviously ludicrous situation of paying by the linear foot in the 1880s?

But suggesting there is only one The Process of Writing" not merely a mistake, it's a destructive lie. I spend a lot of time when I give writers workshops undoing the damage caused by high school English teachers who have dictated "The Writing Process" as "how you write". Because many people believe their teachers that this is the only way to write, if that one approach isn't working for them they come to erroneous conclusion that they cannot write. This is actively harmeful! to the majority of students. I think teachers should also subscribe to the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. But our assessment practices for writing do a lot of harm. We are supposed to be teaching kids how to write, but the vast majority learn instead the more fundamental lesson that writing is not for them.

I am perfectly fine exposing everyone to the notes-outline-rough-final-draft approach as one possible option with which students should experiment. But that is not the only or even best way to write. I remember one of my English profs talking about how he used to teach THE WRITING METHOD and developed a four stage assignment structure that force students to do the notes and then the outline and then the rough draft before the actual paper as essentially four separate assignments, because it was the only way to force students to do all the require steps. Then one day a girl brought in a paper because she had seen something on TV the night before that had totally inspired her and she had sat down and pounded this (brilliant, as it turned out) paper. Then she said, "sorry, I didn't have time to write an outline yet, I'll do that for Monday if that's okay." And he had suddenly realized that half the class wrote the outline by writing the paper first, and then deconstructing it to come up with the outline. And he smacked his forehead because he finally 'got it', and he stopped using that industrial-model assignment and started designing assessments that helped students become actual writers by helping them discover theirprocess.

I have in workshops and in my editing business occasionally told writers they had to make an outline. This tends to come up more frequently for nonfiction, and especially academic, writing, but even sometimes fiction as well. Notes and outlines help some specific writing problems, and when I see people with those problems and they take my advice to use an outline, they improve rapidly and say things like "thank you for teaching me about outlines." Sometimes that's exactly what they need to become proficient. But it is not universal, and for other writing problems, not only would that advice not be helpful, it would actively make the problem worse.

This should not be hard to grasp. Yet when I teach my English Major student teachers that the traditional approach is the wrong approach to assessing writing, they resist. Because actually assessing writing is complex, challenging and requires getting to know each student to diagnose their individual needs and remedies. The old way is simple, easy, and can be applied to the class without knowing anything about anyone. But um, if your job is to teach writing, then you should probably do that and not turn your class into a factory producing writing by the linear foot.

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