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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Here’s a Radical Thought: Admit to Your Students You’re Human

“I’m not self-actualized on all these myself,” said Dr. Caryn Huber, Dean of Students, to a faculty of 200 teachers during our opening day professional development. She was introducing a powerpoint that featured the prescribed behavioral qualities we would like our students to master to achieve social, emotional, and academic success.

It was a surprising admission. So surprising, in fact, that I wrote it down. It’s the first time I’d ever heard an administrator (or any one in front of a PD) say this out loud:  that every day we ask kids to act in ways that we ourselves as adults haven’t mastered yet.

We ask kids to set SMART goals, manage their time well, bounce back in the face of failure, interact with peers not of their social group, be compassionate, be responsive, be engaged and curious, be driven and goal-oriented.  But the truth of the adult world is very few of us have that list in the bag.  How many of us have our anger truly in check? How many of us respond with compassion every single time? How many of us sit with  new people at faculty meetings?

Dr. Huber’s admission was a rarity,  yet it shouldn’t be.  Admitting our humanness should be on center stage in every classroom and every PD.  Our shortcomings or weak spots or unevolved selves are some of the most powerful things we could share with our students. That our own struggle to learn is not on display every day in every classroom is a waste of a powerful demonstration on the notion of growth mindset.

I’m not suggesting you talk to your students about your addiction, your divorce, or your abysmal financial situation.  I’m suggesting you share the hills and valleys of your own intellectual journey, the one you’re still on.  My colleague Vickie Moriarity wrote a blog recently about failing her Google test, and the empathy she developed for those students who try and try again to learn content they just can’t master.  Vickie’s own failure and her continued journey to gain Google certification will be a powerful model of resilience for her students.

Teachers sometimes present themselves as having arrived at guru status. Perhaps I have presented myself as a master of things of which I am not because pretending to have all the answers is reassuring to me.  If kids can figure out things on their own, why am I even in the room?  But isn’t that the key consideration in all project-based learning, namely,  what is my role in an educational landscape where the answers are not solid, objective realities, but fluid, in-progress creations?

We often speak through our ego, which manifests itself as dictatorial control when we’re in front of our students.  We have the answers.  We have mastered this content.  Really though, when was the last time I have participated in the kinds of thinking I am demanding of my students?

Am I asking students to write an argument on a controversial claim? When was the last time I wrote an argument on a controversial claim from start to finish with evidence and works cited and clear organization? Am I asking students to write a poem? When was the last time I attempted to channel human experience into figurative language?

Being real about our struggles is a powerful teaching tool.  And more importantly, we need to talk about it.  Dr. Huber tapped into that on opening day:  confession is good for the soul. Admit that we don’t always have our act together.  Make that admission into a testimony.  Our stories will connect us more tightly to one another when we share them with our students.  Sharing the story of your own attempts to learn something, or hey, actually writing and mathing with your students (what a concept!) and letting them see you struggle will be the biggest (and most long lasting) lesson they will learn all year. Be the thing you teach. Show students how it’s done by doing it with them, and sometimes failing. Show them that too.

 

 

 

 

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?   

 

Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 15: What is the best way to involve parents?

Communication and trust between parents and their child’s teacher is crucial, and you should strive to initiate and maintain that relationship as soon as you get your roster until the last day of school. You’ll have no better partner in the academic success of that child than his or her parents.  Here are a few ways to build that bridge and connect with parents often:

  1. Home visits: This is a huge time investment, but so worth it. Home visits at the beginning of the year show parents you care enough about your job and their child to drive around three hours every night for a week to visit families. Call ahead, send an email, or write a letter and let parents know when to expect you.  Go with someone, another teacher or a principal, for company.   Have something like a welcome letter or a contact sheet or a personal profile to leave on the porch or in the door to say that you’ve been there if no one is home.  If they are home, stay long enough to introduce yourself and meet the family, answering any questions they may have, but be considerate of their time. This is a great way to start the year on a positive note.
  2. Communicate virtually:   There are times when talking directly to a parent on the phone is necessary and preferred, but using virtual communication is often more efficient and effective to keep parents in the loop about assignments, field trips, dues, or club activities.  You can create a simple newsletter to distribute via email or create a class website that you update frequently with assignments and a calendar of events. I also use a  great texting app called Remind that is both safe and secure.  Students and parents join your class by texting a class-specific code to a five-digit number. Once they’ve joined, you can send a single announcement to the whole class or contact a parent or student directly with a private message.
  3. PTA: We have an unbelievably strong parent-teacher-student organization at the high school where I teach, and one of the great benefits of that organization is the parent involvement with other parents.  By joining in the planning or working at a school wide event, their involvement increases the family’s investment in the culture of the school.
  4. Open House: If your school has open house before school starts, your role is hostess. Print up some nice inexpensive business cards with your contact information, classroom website, times that are good for parent conferences, and hand these out to parents.  Be sure to welcome them in and encourage them to look around and ask questions. If your school has open house after school starts, your role is to communicate to parents how their child is doing in your class.  Have samples of each student’s work available for parents to see along with a specific praise for their child.  If there are concerns, request a parent-teacher conference later; open houses are usually not a good place to go in depth about one child because multiple parent and guardian groups may be moving in and out of your classrooms, and confidentiality may be compromsied.
  5. Field Trips: The parents that I’ve had the best relationships with have been the ones that I’ve asked to help with field trips. I believe in the value of taking kids outside the brick and mortar school as often as possible, and I have several small walking field trips to places near our school throughou the year. Because our district requires a 1:10 chaperone-student ratio on field trips, I often reach out to parents to help.  These are low-stakes trips that often do not require transportation and last only for a few hours.  It’s a great opportunity to get to know parents beyond a cursory conference.
  6. Night Events: Another great way to create parental involvement is to plan events where their child will be performing or participating. This might be a debate or a mock trial, a spoken word poetry open mic, or a theatrical performance. All of these activities draw parents out to support their children, and you can use this as an opportunity to make contact and give them an update on their child’s performance in your class.

New Teacher Series/ Question 14: How do you stay on top of grading?

Grading is the English teacher’s special crucible.  Sunday nights are especially arduous. You’ll bring those papers in on Friday afternoon, promising yourself to grade them first thing Saturday morning.  But Saturday morning rolls around, and you run some errands, go to the grocery. Then you promise yourself that you’ll get to them Saturday afternoon.  You know what happens. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm on Sunday, and there’s a pile of ungraded essays on your coffee table that you keep circling.

My late father-in-law always said to me, “You know how to avoid those essays? Don’t assign them!”

Of course, it’s not that simple with English teachers.  Writing is a skill that requires nuanced and individualized feedback.  Last year, a meme was making its way around the interweaves that showed how many hours it takes teachers to grade essays.  At the low end (a teacher who had 100 students and only spent 5 minutes on each essays) the teacher spent 8 hours grading papers.  At the high end (a teacher who had 150 students and spent 20 minutes per paper) the teacher spent 50 hours grading papers.  That’s just insanity.  So how does a high school teacher, with a relentless daily schedule, do it?  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t make everything due at the same time. I know this might be impossible if you are teaching several sections of the same class, and you want to keep them at the same pace, but one class of 25 essays isn’t as daunting as five classes of 25 essays.  Even if you break them up by a few days, the wiggle room will keep the grading stress to a minimum.
  2. Don’t grade everything all the time. There are numerous activities that are both important and beneficial that don’t need to be assessed.   Carol Jago’s book Papers, Papers, Papers gives many examples of strategies for assessments that are non-graded, but still provides students with skill practice.
  3. Google Forms is your friend. Any online grading system, such as a clicker system, which collates student answers in a spreadsheet and provides graphs and individualized data for you is excellent for quick assessments.   Use these online data gathering tools to streamline your grading flow.
  4. Grade essays with an analytical rubric, preferably one designed with your students. Rubrics make grading essays easier as the descriptions and feedback concentrates on 3-5 categories in a range of performance levels. Creating a rubric with your students is an instructional gold mine that allows them to understand how they are being assessed and what the expectations of the assignment are before they start.
  5. Formative assessment comes in many forms. You don’t have to have a paper and pencil test to assess all student learning. A quick conference or a thumbs up/thumbs down survey can yield the information you need to know.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 12: What are the best strategies for teaching grammar?

Confessions:  I’ve never diagrammed a sentence in my life. I always have to roll around lay/lie and who/whom in my head before I commit. And if someone put a gun to my head, threatening death unless I told them the pluperfect subjunctive tense of a regular verb, I most likely would die.

However, I love language, and I love to write.  And gosh darn it, people can understand me, so what gives on the grammar front?  Unfortunately, grammar has gotten a bad rap because teachers tend to trot out the grammar exercises as the path to writing greatness, when actually clarity of expression, significance of idea, and originality of style and voice have more primacy in good writing.   Yes, correctness is significant because without an agreed upon system of communication, how could one enjoy the expression, idea, style and voice? But grammar and usage are only a small part of the wider practice of writing.  Many of us have made grammar instruction the one and only path to better writing.

Let me save you a few years of frustration.  In the first decade of my teaching career, I was a beast with the grammar worksheets and grammar units. But here’s what I discovered.  Kids might score 100% on an isolated comma drill worksheet, but then write an essay as if they’d loaded up their BB gun and comma shot through every sentence.

Even after I circled every single grammatical mistake and wrote in the margin the page number where this error was addressed in the textbook, they might fix the errors on that draft, but would make the same mistakes on the next essay.  The corrections didn’t stick.

I was teaching these rules in isolation without understanding that while most people think of grammar as a bunch of arbitrary rules, grammar is actually a system by which a writer can order words in sentences for power and beauty.  Here are three broad tips I use for teaching grammar:

  • Teach grammar in the context of their own writing. Teaching grammar in the context of a student’s own writing is the key to students understanding and applying the logic of a grammatical system.   Students have varying readiness levels for grammar instruction, and meeting them where they are, on the page, is the most effective, differentiated instruction you can use. Read Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, a fantastic book that shows a teacher how to teach grammar in the context of a student’s own writing.
  • Teach students explicitly the top 20 most common grammatical errors as they edit their own writing. Most students consistently make the same types of errors in their writing. After you’ve read several thousand student essays, you will see that the pattern of errors concentrates on about 20 old familiars.  Showing them why these errors occur and how to remedy these errors will improve their writing more than a blue million grammar worksheets.  Use mini-lessons to instruct students how to avoid The Big 20, and then refer back to those lessons during one-on-one conferences.
  • Teach grammar in the context of their own reading. Students who read independently are more likely to absorb the sound and sense of syntax. They can hear the balance and rhythm in their own sentences.  If a sentence is awkwardly constructed or logically flawed, they will be able to identify it even if they don’t know exactly what is wrong with it.  That’s where you coach them on the structure or punctuation or positioning of clauses and phrases.  Ask them to examine the sentences of an author they love.  Illustrate the power of style, grammar and usage by examining the sentence structure and usage of William Faulkner alongside Raymond Carver.