Why Do We Divide Writing into Modes?

 

When I was in high school, we used a textbook that divided writing instruction into different rhetorical modes:  description, exemplification, narration, process, comparison and contrast, classification, definition, cause and effect and argumentation.  While newer textbooks are now organized thematically —Jim Burke’s high school reader Uncharted Territory (2017) is a good example, organized topically by education, freedom, identity, and relationships—we often still draw those instructional lines when teaching argumentative, informative, and narrative texts as if each mode had different aims.

We English teachers love classifications because they help us process information.  I am guilty of divvying up writing skills and processes into isolated categories, and I’ve often sacrificed authentic student writing, creating expository boundaries where none existed, for neat and tidy curriculum units.

But real writing resists all that – good writing is especially resistant to classification. It’s good because it’s clear, artful, and has achieved its purpose, not because it has followed a pre-determined form or met the properties of a specific mode. In any given text, the three modes delineated by the Common Core—argumentative, informative and narrative—are blended to the point that the reader isn’t struck by disparate text forms but the gestalt of the whole essay. How would one characterize Oliver Sack’s A Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Heinretta Lacks?  These are texts which tell a story to enlighten the reader using data and scientific research surrounding a critical argument that serves as the heart of the work. Is Skloot’s book a narrative? Yes. Is it an argument? Yes. Is it an informational text? Yes.

As Andrea Lunsford attests in her book, Everything is An Argument, I would assert that Everything is a Narrative and Everything is Informative, and all of it is born from the writer’s creativity and critical thought. When strict distinctions exist between argumentative, informative and narrative writing, students begin to think of modal boundaries as inescapable territories beyond which their writing must not pass, even though the authors of the Common Core do concede that “skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.”

“For all a rhetorician’s rules/Teach nothing but to name his tools.” – Samuel Butler

Writers determine their product by their own need and urgency to communicate and their (perhaps) vague awareness (at the outset) of their rhetorical situation.  On the occasion of publishing his first novel (after working as an award-winning short story writer for his entire career), George Saunders wrote an essay for The Guardian about his process of writing his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. He says it’s a mistaken notion to think a writer has something to express and then he just expresses it.  “We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.”

Saunders’ claim – that the expression of an idea doesn’t become fully clarified until one begins to actually write and its birth is shrouded in mystery and pain – doesn’t apply only to fiction writers or writers working at a certain level of sophistication. As a writer myself for forty years and a teacher of student writers for nearly a quarter century, let me testify:   all writers struggle similarly and mightily.

All writers, at every level, attempting any expression, enter into an exasperating and blind process. It is only after the writing is finished that it’s seen as following a similar pattern represented within a certain house of discourse. Once I left my high school English classroom,  I never once thought of those modes because I never again found writing situations so nicely diced up.

 

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First Week Lesson: Demographic Grouping

During the first week of school, my goal is two-fold:  I want my students to see self-discovery through writing as their main goal, and I want to build a community based on story.  I use activities that encourage students to meet each other through the details of their lives. These stories and details eventually serve as the fodder for personal essays, arguments, and informational texts they will write later in the year. 

Demographic grouping is one activity which asks kids to group themselves by various identities and meet the other people in the room who share that characteristic.  The key to this activity — for both community building and self-discovery– is to ask kids who find themselves in a demographic group to argue for or against their own inclusion based on their life experience, hence stories. When they find themselves in a circle of Capricorns, for example, they need to tell stories and trot out evidence as they share the details of who they are or who they think they are.

For a 90-minute block class, I use three demographics: Myers-Briggs, Western astrological signs, and birth order.  I want students to share stories about what it’s like to be a part of these subsets of the larger population, and I want them to challenge or confirm their placement in these groups.  Do they agree or disagree with their “label?” What stories in their lives support or negate this assessment of who they are? Do the definitions fit?

The first demographic congress we convene is around the 16 personality types founded in Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types as listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Students take a 10-15 minute quiz which will then place them in one of the sixteen possible combination of four paired personality traits: 1) Introversion or Extraversion; 2) Intuition or Sensing; 3) Thinking or Feeling; 4) Judging or Perceiving.  Based on their answers to the personality quiz, students will be given a four-letter personality, such as INFJ.  

Before class starts, I post the 16  individual personality types around the room along with a brief explanation of each type.  Once students have their types, they migrate around the room and find their Myers-Briggs compadres.  For fifteen minutes, I ask them to trade stories that confirm, negate, or qualify the personality type by which they’ve been labeled.  

In addition to being a fun, engaging activity which generates numerous narrative opportunities, I also get to see where my dreamers, my leaders, my risk takers, and my nurturers are. 

After that,  students divide themselves by their zodiac sign.  The Western astrological signs are based on which month of the year you were born. According to astrologists, planetary formations at the time of birth can determine a person’s individual character.  I’m surprised every year by how many students do not know their zodiac sign.  

Before class, I print off a generic description of each of the 12 signs and post these around the room.  Students migrate to the mini-poster that bears the symbol for their sign and join the others in the room who were born under the same sign.  As they did with the Myers-Briggs grouping, students spend about 15-minutes reading the descriptions of their sign (they especially love to read the section about relationship compatibility) and share stories in these groups as to how they are alike or unlike their sign. This is a great activity because it immediately creates kinship among disparate students in the class based on their birth month.

The last grouping I do is birth order.  All the first born, middle, youngest or only children get together in groups. I will have printed off descriptions of the characteristic of that particular birth order, and the groups discuss whether they agree or disagree with the definition of their particular rank.  Birth order is a great nugget of teacher information for me as well.  I know first and only born kids are often my natural leaders, and when I select group leaders for inquiry sessions later in the year, this information will come in handy.

Once we’ve circled through three demographic groups, I ask students to return to their seat and write a reflection of the activity, such as what surprised you about the descriptions? Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the demographic groupings in which you found yourself? What was the best story you told today? What was the best story you heard today?   

 

Publishing Outlets for Teen Writers

Students in my Literary Arts program are required to submit their creative projects to the outside world:  writing contests, literary magazines, or local, regional, and national publications. I believe students should experience submitting their academic and creative work for publication for the numerous tangential lessons, including close reading for submission guidelines and preparing their manuscripts with formatting dependent on those guidelines. Researching a possible venue for an article or essay, studying submission guidelines, and actually submitting their work to a contest or a publication is great training for budding writers.

Each year I introduce them to websites such as New PagesWriters Digest  and Poets and Writers,  which has a searchable index for numerous possible venues as well as a database of articles on both fiction, poetry, and non-fiction craft issues. Students have also submitted their work to contests like Scholastic Art and Writing and the National Council of Teachers of English’ Norman Mailer contest, which awards, as part of their prize package, the chance to be published. There are also local contests (local for me is Kentucky) such as the Kentucky Poetry Society contests which publishes the winners in their literary magazine. Students also submit to our school literary magazine or school newspaper, and really industrious students can even self-publish their work and distribute it.

Another indirect benefit of seeking publishing outlets is that students begin to read online literary magazines searching for potential submission spots. I tell them not to just send their writing like a plague of locust out upon the land, but to make a smart, targeted, well-research submission. One of the first things I ask students when they are considering submitting to a venue is: Have you read their publications to know what kinds of work they publish? Some online venues have hyperlinked back copies or send free sample copies.

Another lesson of submission for publication is the soft skill of fortitude.  The goal of submitting a piece of student writing to the real world is not necessarily to get published, but merely to understand the process of submission.  However, when one does get a response, either publication (yeah!) or rejection (seriously?), there is value in getting that first rejection slip.  Students join the ranks of great writers, like Rowling, Gaiman, or Melville, who were rejected numerous times.

Publishing Outlets

Here are a few of the publishing outlets I suggest for teen writers:

  • Amazing Kids Network Magazine is an online publication that features work by both middle grade and teen writers. They also host interviews with mentor writers and have monthly writing contests.
  • The Claremont Review publishes young writers and artists, aged 13-19, from anywhere in the English-speaking world.  Twice yearly, they accept fiction, poetry, drama, graphic art and photography.
  • Creative Kids Magazine publishes poetry, fiction, personal narratives, humor along with fantasy, historical and science fiction. They publish four print issues and maintain a website of work written by teen writers.
  • Hanging Loose Magazine.   A division of Hanging Loose Press, the subscription magazine supports and publishes teen writers in their monthly magazine. They accept poetry and prose from high school students and will offer feedback and editorial advice if requested. If work is accepted, writers are paid a small stipend and two copies of the magazine wherein their work appears
  • Rookie Magazine This is a publication especially for teen girls, and I love the funky graphics of this site, which posts writing and art from their readers.  Rookie also hosts over twenty categories of posts from “eye candy” to “you asked it” sections with writing on music, style, clothes, and fashion.
  • Stone Soup has been around for more than 40 years and is now available in both print and web versions.  The readers and writers of this magazine are 14 years or younger, so only freshmen writers might want to pursue a publishing spot with this publication.
  • Teen Ink.  Since 1989, teen writers have found a publishing opportunities at Teen Ink, who considers submissions for their online and print magazine, as well.  Teen Ink also provides feedback on novels as well.
  • Teen Lit  distributes free books to teens in exchange for a review that is edited and then published on their site.  They also publish short stories, poetry, and essays on their site, and host a discussion board, a writing community, and a treasure trove of writing links for craft and inspiration.
  • VOYA or Voice of Youth Advocates Magazine  is a journal that promotes YA literature and reading. The magazine invites teen writers to contribute to the magazine through poetry and art contests, as a book reviewer, or by submitting a manuscript for the Notes from the Teenage Underground column.
  • YARN or Young Adult Review Network is an online literary journal the publishes fiction, poetry and essays for Young Adult readers, written by established authors and teen writers

Online Writing Communities

Another way students can reveal their work to the world is to join an online writing community.  In these communities, participants submit their pieces for discussion and ranking by other members.  If students are old enough and responsible enough to have a Facebook page, they also may enjoy joining online writing communities.  Several of my students have used one or more of the following to publish their work:

  • BookCountry is an online writing community with a crisp look where students can read and review others’ works as well as learn about the craft of writing and pick up a few publishing pointers.
  • Figment has a lot of bells and whistles including a blog called “The Daily Fig,” which features posts about craft, inspiration, plotting, manuscript formatting, and much more. There are also multiple forums and a feature called “Figment Chat” where members can chat with published authors and writers.
  • Go Teen Writers is a supportive community with a seriously well-stocked archive of craft articles about plot, characters, point of view, and much more. Maintained by YA authors Stephanie Morrill, Jill Williamson, and Shannon Dittemore, the site is well-designed and generous with resources for teen writers.
  • Scribophile is less a social media site than it is an online workshop site where community members share their work to get and give feedback as well as trade information about writing.
  • Wattpad is a streamlined social media site for writers and readers.  If student create a profile, they can post chapters of their novels and read the work of other writers for free from more than 20 different genres.
  • Writer’s Café is a similar social media site that hosts a blog and has a neat publishing tab with a searchable database of literary magazines and writing contests.
  • Write the World is my new favorite teen writing community.  A nicely-designed, global, non-profit organization that works with teachers and student writes all over the world, they offer writing groups for peer review as well as competitions, writing prompts, and expert feedback.  This site also provides resources, writing prompts, and lessons for teachers of creative writing.

 

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New Teacher Series/ Question 10: What are the best strategies for teaching writing?

 

Last year, I had a conversation with one of my classes on why writing was so hard.  Here are a few of their reasons:

  • I don’t know where to start.
  • I don’t know where to end.
  • I don’t write in chronological order or in any order that makes logical sense. It’s all over the place.
  • I don’t always write in complete sentences, but sometimes I do.
  • I’m afraid I’ll write the wrong thing and have to do the whole thing over.
  • The choices are overwhelming.
  • Every time I write something crappy, my teacher always likes it. Every time I write something I think is brilliant, my teacher thinks its crap.
  • Because it just is.
  • I have a hard time getting what’s in my head out on paper.
  • I’ve discovered that I really don’t know how to tell a story.

In an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement from fiction writing, novelist Philip Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration.  Writing is frustration— it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” And yet failure is the process by which all writers – novelists, essayists, social critics, screenwriters, journalists, technical writers—meander their grief-stricken way to the finished product. How do we support kids in failure?

Next to teaching (and all things for which there are no clear paths—loving someone, raising kids, grieving, etc), writing is the hardest thing I do and it may be the hardest thing we ask kids to do.  We’re asking students to engage in an activity which requires memory, logic, visualization, vocabulary, plus kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.  Plus failure.

Research on the neuroscience of writing shows just how enormous an undertaking writing is.  Neurologically, writing is a skill on par with someone playing a musical instrument or participating in a sporting event. It’s complex, unique, and only develops through practice.

So while I admit that writing is so incredibly, mind-bogglingly hard, I would argue, the teaching of writing is even harder.  A good high school English teacher attempts to create an environment wherein 150 students (with 150 sets of information and misinformation, memory, value, prejudice, vocabulary, and logic) grapple with the enormously complex task of 1) attaching mental images to 2) the concrete, appropriate words in 3) the best order to 4) move an audience for 5) a specific purpose in 6) a specific, cohesive form using 7) appropriate-to-the-product usage and grammar.

Gasp.

So how are we to manage this Herculean task?

You must be a writer yourself.  I feel everything that needs to be said about the importance of English teachers to be active readers and writers has already been said by great teachers, like Nanci Atwell  (In The Middle) and Penny Kittle (Write Beside Them). Writing with your students makes you humble in the face of the staggering, monumental task you are asking them to accomplish. Writing is dynamic, not a set of static concepts students learn once and master.  To understand the struggles of writing, you don’t have to be a published author, you just have to write on a regular basis. You can’t teach writing from a position of theory.  You must have a process and projects of your own.  If not, you are in an untenable position to support students with the overwhelming number of decisions with which they will be faced.

Move beyond the free write, graphic organizers, and constructed response. If students are to become better writers, they must move beyond teacher-created forms, like the 3.5 paragraph essay and the 6 point essay.  Freewriting and graphic organizers have given struggling writers a great tool by which to get the ideas in their head down onto a piece of paper in the form of words and sentences. But those tools are still training wheels, and writers need to learn how to ride, wide open into the dark unknown. Struggling, then failing, then learning how to struggle and fail smarter is part of the process of becoming a better thinker and writer. If we provide students with the pre-fab forms by which to fashion their thought, they will never have the opportunity to learn from the process of navigating that road alone.   Students must learn to manage the project of their own writing from start to finish to become better writers.

Allow students to choose their own writing projects.  Teacher-created writing assignments come from the brain of the teacher, not the student writer. Writing prompts have a long and gloried history in the English classroom. From “What did you do over your summer vacation?” to the perennial “What would you do if you won a million dollars?” writing prompts have provided reluctant writers a spring board from which to jump onto the often-intimidating blank page.  Being able to respond in writing to an on-demand prompt is also one of the skills we use to measures how students demonstrate their own learning of a concept.  However, real world writing asks students to discover their own reasons to communicate, their own exigence.  We need to teach students to recognize this need and to write toward a finished product. Students must learn how to select their own topics, manage the time to research, draft, and edit a long project, and ultimately, deal with the inherent failure, even while becoming a better and braver writer in the end.

 

Personal Universe Deck: An Oldie, but a Goodie

Personal Universe Deck is a great way to tap into kids’ linguistic whimsy and their sense of playfulness with words. Plus kids get a personal deck of 100 word cards they can keep all year long or for the rest of their lives. The Personal Universe Deck as a writing exercise has been attributed to American poet and playwright Michael McClure .  This archived one-hour 1976 lecture where McClure takes poetry students through the process is a must-listen before you lead your students through the process.

This activity has been tweaked and adapted many times to teach a host of writing and language skills.    Sometimes when we have an afternoon where a fire drill, a pep rally, or some school wide test has jangled our nerves and squandered our sacred time, I ask kids to pull out their universe decks and write a poem using four of their cards. Sometimes I ask each student to throw three cards into a basket, then I pull out ten cards, write the words on the board, and we each write a short story or scene based on the words.  The key to doing this well is allowing each student to build her own universe in words. Their universe; their words. I usually take about five days to allow kids to develop their deck.  Each day, as a bell ringer, I take kids through one stage of creation.

 Day One: I ask kids to write 100 concrete, specific words in ten minutes (or longer, depending on the class) that represent their individual, personal, beautiful universe.  All words need to be words each kid loves, words she thinks are beautiful, words she thinks exemplifies who she is, and words that are in some way associated with the five senses.  The words should also represent their good side and their bad side, as well as their past, present, and future.

I model this on the board:  “Okay, start with free association on clean sheet of paper.  Start with the first word that occurs to you.  Lilac. I don’t know why I just thought of that, but my grandmother had lilac bushes in her yard, and I’m trying to keep in mind my past, present, future. Each word needs to have some significance to you, so lilac. That’s a smell word, right?  And now I’m standing in my grandmother’s yard by the lilac bush, and what do I hear? How about thunder? Yep, I visited her in the summers, and storms popped up a lot.  That would be a sound for me. Now, just start writing concrete words and follow the associations.  I remember touching the cool, rough concrete of my grandfather’s dairy barn.  Barn is one of my words.  That might be a touch word for me.  Don’t just write down anything to finish the assignment – find words that are beautiful to you, that represent your universe, that are concrete.”

Day Two: Same thing on Day Two as Day One:  we create another 100 words.  This second day of free assocation will be important when we start the selection process on Day Three.  My philosophy is that each kid needs 200 words to find the best 100 words that represent his life.

Day Three:  I ask students to start weeding and whittling down their words to the essential 100 beautiful, signficant, personal words.  I remind them  the words should not be descriptive of senses, like “salty” or “sweet,” but concrete words like “hot dog” or “custard.” Cut out the vague words and replace them with specific. Avoid “bird;” intead say “wren” or “raven” or “blue jay.” Also, cut out words with suffixes, like – ing, -ly, -ed, -s.

Day Four: Students begin selecting words for categories. Eighty of the words need to be related to the five senses:  16 words for sight, 16 words for sound, 16 words for smell, 16 words for touch, 16 words for taste.   Add ten words for movement. Add three words for abstraction.  Then the last seven words are anything else they want.  Kids can make the below chart in their writing notebook for classification or just number their words.

Sight  (16) Smell (16) Sound (16) Taste (16) Touch (16) Movement (10) Abstraction (3) Anything (7)
             

Day Five: I give each kid 50 index cards, and they fold them in half and divide them into 100 small cards that create their “deck.”  On the back of the card, write your initials or some tag that indicates the card is yours.  On the front of the card, write one glorious word.  Repeat 99 times.  Presto, your Personal Universe Deck! (You can even get fancy and laminate these if you bring your media technician a nice pie and promise to clean her house.)

Teachers, how would you use this in your classroom?! Please share and add your ideas in the comments.

 

 

Childhood Photograph: Stepping Inside a Memory

Who are these people? What is their story? What happened before the picture was taken? What happened afterward?

Another great writing activity for the beginning of the year is one that involves a childhood photograph. (Side Note: At some point, I will not be able to use this  exercise because no one has actual photographs anymore.  Weep. Even this year, my students said they didn’t have anything from their mid-childhood, only from their earliest years.)

The purpose of this exercise is dual: to build community and to develop students’ powers of observation. This lesson also helps students develop those “dig deeper” skills, mining a universal theme, which is discovered in this single moment in time.  This lesson may also translate into the beginning of a personal essay, memoir, or short story.

A couple of days before the assignment,I ask students to bring a childhood photograph to class. The photo should be an actual snapshot, not a studio or school picture, and it shouldn’t be merely a landscape or blank back yard or a wooded area, but a picture that has people or animals or some kind of dynamic personal element.  A picture with story or conflict or emotion is the best.

At the beginning of class, each student attaches his or her picture to a large sheet of blank paper with a paperclip, and I collect the pictures and redistribute them, so that no one has his or her own picture.  The activity is as follows:

  • Study the photo closely. What do you see in the background and foreground? What type of plants, people, animals, landscape, or structural features in the picture?  Is this a rural or urban setting?
  • On the paper, write a  paragraph as if you are describing the photo for a newspaper article. You are not interpreting the story of the photo, but only what you objectively observe.  Be as specific and clinical as possible.  No interpretation, no editorialization.
  • Next, step into the picture and list 10-12 sensory details that might exist inside the picture. What smells or sounds would you encounter in this photo? What would you taste or feel in this picture?
  • Now look at the animals or people in this picture and start interpreting the “story” of the photo.  Write a paragraph or two. What is the relationship between the people in this picture? If this picture were a short story, who is the protagonist, the antagonist? If this picture were a novel, what is the plot, the sub-plot? If this picture were a movie, what is the genre?
  • Now think about dialogue. If there was a conversation going, what are the people or animals saying? Write a conversation between the people/animals in the picture, or if there is only one person present, write an interior monologue about what the person is thinking.
  • Now think about context.  Write a paragraph that answers this question: What do you imagine is happening just outside the frame of the picture, either physically or chronologically? What happened right before this photo was snapped? What happened right after it?  Who is taking the photo?

After writing the above observations, students return the photograph to its original owner.  The original owners are amazed at the small details their “viewer” has discovered in their picture. Also, students are often surprised by the interpretation of the picture.

After they’ve had time to process the observations, I ask students to write a short vignette about their own photograph or use the observations of their peer to develop a longer personal essay or memoir.  Here is an example from my student, Nathan:

It was the first time I ever entered the home I would grow up in.  Small, hairless, swaddled in a thick mesh blanket, and carried through the brisk October air. There was no big celebration, not yet at least, only my parents, my dearest aunt, and my grandparents would crowd around me in curiosity that early morning. Though I had no consciousness of the world or any of its wonders yet, I was being prepared from that very moment, for the trials that would come in only a few short years.  

     If I’m being completely honest, it was one of the best moments of my childhood. Of course there is no way that I could remember this exact moment, but I know that everything was simple, everything was easy, everyone got along, and to some small extent, the world was at rest.  I find this particular picture a bit funny, because the other two men in this picture, my father and my grandfather, would go on to be among the most influential men that I would have the pleasure of interacting with. I find it incredible that a single picture managed to capture a moment of such approval and joy. I find it incredible that even from the moment I was born, these two incredible men looked at me like a bar of gold. The first few times I looked at this picture, I wouldn’t see it, but now I see that I might as well have taken a picture with Superman and Batman.  

     I was far too young in this picture to remember anything that happened that morning, so there is no way that I could write a memoir of that moment. But I can tell you what this picture means to me just as easily as I can walk on two feet. This picture means everything to me, growing up I had very inconsistent maternal role models in my life, but my dad and my grandpa were two men who were always there for me, this picture captures my life’s inspirations and inspirations, it shows what I once was as well as what I am destined to become. But most of all, it shows me that no matter what happens, I will always have my father and my grandfather to look to, and I hold more dearly to that than any memory I can pull from the depths of my brain.