Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Learning to write

Well this isn't on the topic of our readings, but I felt it relevant. It's a conversation I had about learning to write coherently and effectively. It's a little stream-of-consciousness.

My boyfriend is student teaching high school history this semester and he's freaking out because most of the kids don't know how to write very well at all and he'd like to teach them but doesn't know where to begin and doesn't know where it went wrong in the first place. I voiced my frustrations from when I would peer-edit in high school and literally couldn't get any meaning whatsoever from sentences and paragraphs. By the end of the paper, I might have a vague idea of what the point was. This wasn't always the case, but the amount it did happen startled me. What goes so wrong in our educational system that people in high school can barely even write coherently? He made the connection that writing well is often just a matter of being able to put together an argument, something else many people lack. Perhaps if logic and rhetoric were still taught more thoroughly?

When he mentioned that he wanted to teach writing to his students, my first reaction was "no! don't!" because every time I've ever had a non-English teacher (and some English teachers) try and instill some sort of writing ability in my classes/me, it has been a miserable failure. It's almost always done on a basic level ("This is a transition word... use them, or you won't make sense."), and the fact is that when someone needs that kind of writing instruction, they really need to abolish all their previous conventions and start anew. That level of intensive work is barely possible in a year/semester of English, let alone a class where the student should primarily be learning an additional subject (in this case, History.) On the flip side, if the teacher tries to work on higher-level skills (like diction), they'll automatically go over the heads of half the class because, sadly, many many high school students actually do need instruction at a super basic level.

Something else I have noticed is that there are few hard and fast rules regarding what makes writing good in all situations, and these are basically rules that guarantee you'll make sense. Then, depending on what's expected of you, your strategies for "good" writing will change. The tie here to education is how it seems every teacher has a slightly different expectation of writing style. Smart kids pick up on this trend. They learn the basics that are always applicable and then realize they'll just have to adapt each semester for the rest of it. However, some students don't pick up on this and when one teacher contradicts another, it's confusing. I know it took me until junior year to really get that concept. Before that, I was searching for this perfect model of writing that would be applicable in most situations. To this, my boyfriend said "but it seems so obvious that one writes differently in different situations!" I figured out an example: your sophomore and junior year English classes both involve a lot of literary analysis. So this is two English classes doing the same work. Theoretically, the ideal writing style would be the same. But one teacher favors a very formal style and one pushes spontaneity and humor! It would be so easy for a student to become confused about the "correct" style to write literary analysis in. I'm not suggesting that different styles shouldn't be taught, merely that each teacher not pretend their word is law in regard to writing, as so many of my teachers have before, and acknowledge that students are going to conform to their style for a semester and then move on.

I've started to do just what I'm complaining about and fail to make any sort of argument or point, but I leave the discussion open. I'm interested to hear how everyone else has experienced learning to write well, especially in high school.

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