What Kind of Writing Should We Teach?
The way teachers currently teach writing has come under fire recently by folks in the College-and-Career-Ready camp who feel that students should be focusing on more practical writing as opposed to writing about self-centered pieces. I am certainly in agreement that students need to learn how to write reports, letters, briefs, technical explanations, etc. The Common Core standards are focused on such types of writing as they attempt to set guidelines for students to be better prepared for their role in society and the world. But I would like to pose a question: Does it have to be either/or? Don’t we need both?
My response to this question is, yes, we can have both and we need both kinds of writing, and we can and should be teaching both. One of the factors that brought about the focus on the writing process several decades ago was the failure of teachers to really teach writing. Much like Durkin’s finding when she investigated how comprehension was “taught” back in the 70s, teachers tended to assess writing without ever really teaching students how to negotiate the process of writing. Or, if they did teach a process, it involved a slavish adherence to a particular formula or format that left little room for originality or creativity.
Process writing pioneers such as Janet Emig and Donald Murray led the charge to help writing teachers focus on the process instead of the product. One of the ways their followers, such as Lucy Calkins, found to get students engaged in that process was to allow them to write about topics of interest to them, rather than topics they were assigned. Students were encouraged to write about things that they were “experts” about, even if it was a mundane task such as learning to make their own beds or collecting rocks. Quite naturally and understandably, those interests and areas of “expertise” were often quite egocentric.
Perhaps the problem is that teachers have not followed up with more academic and/or practical applications of the writing process. Once students have honed their skills writing about topics they like, they should be asked to apply those skills to topics that are not so personally oriented. Obviously, no 21st Century boss wants an essay on his or her employee’s feelings about global warming when the employee has been asked simply to research and report on the impact of the company’s product on a local geographic area in order to avoid legal action against the company.
Perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at how we are teaching writing in American schools. As a teacher educator, I’m personally hearing complaints that recent graduates do not know how to formulate an appropriate business letter, a basic skill no student should graduate without. I have no research to back up my theory that teachers have become so enamored of the writing process that they have forgotten what the ultimate goal is, but something is definitely going wrong. If this is the case, I can certainly understand how it came about. Few English teachers look forward to the groans they hear when they assign a research paper. They would much prefer to have students in their classrooms who are enthusiastically engaged in their writing assignments and if the students will only engage in the activity with enthusiasm when writing about things they like, at least they’re getting some writing done.
But as we march into Common Core with its emphasis on practical writing, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. Focusing on the writing process using topics of personal interest to the student should be a technique that teachers can use as a scaffold as students learn the basic skills. But we must, at some point, bring the focus back to the product. I think this is how we have both: Thoughtful and creative teachers must come up with engaging strategies to move students from their self-focused perspectives to an outward looking perspective which sees the need to be able to communicate clearly and practically with those in the world around them. I hope we’re up to the challenge.