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.

 

New Teacher Series/ Question 3: What if I’m not given a scope and sequence? How will I know what to teach?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was king.  If you didn’t know what to teach, you just started on page one and taught through Modernism or, in the case of Social Studies, the Vietnam war.  But luckily we live in an age of standards.  Standards are not “the test” nor are they curriculum; they are the expectations for what students will master by each grade level.  For teachers in the state of Kentucky, the Kentucky Academic Standards, a 745-page behemoth, lists the skills and content a student should master at each grade level, as she progresses toward graduation.

These standards are what we teach; curriculum, on the other hand, is how we teach it. In Kentucky, our standards are the same from Paducah to Pikeville, but our curriculum may be different from classroom to classroom.  A teacher’s curriculum includes “scope and sequence,” which is edu-speak for how deep and wide you teach a concept (scope) and the order in which you teach the elements of that concept to enhance comprehension (sequence). As an English teacher, you will be responsible for teaching the standards in four areas: reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.  What you teach is established by the state; how you teach it is often determined by your teaching style, the students who populate your classroom, and the instructional resources available within your district.

Good districts create, maintain, and communicate to all teachers a large picture of all the moving bits of curriculum – instructional resources, materials, lessons, units, modules, assessments— that support their learning objectives and goals.  This big picture is called a curriculum map.  The curriculum map shows how the standards are taught in each grade and how the curriculum aligns vertically, so that the fifth grade math teachers know what the fourth grade math teachers covered, and the fourth grade math teachers know what the third grade math teachers covered, and so on.  The purpose of mapping and aligning the curriculum is two-fold:  so students have no gaps as they progress to graduation, and so students aren’t taught the same thing every single year.  Each year their learning should build on the skills they mastered the previous year.

Regardless of whether the teacher in the previous grade level did or didn’t teach the standards he was supposed to, it is now up to you to figure out what those kids sitting in your classroom know and don’t know. Tip: There’s nothing lamer than a high school teacher blaming the middle school teachers, unless it’s a middle school teacher blaming his student’s deficiencies on the elementary school teachers.  Impugning other teachers helps no one. Be solutions-oriented, not a blame artist.

Here are some more tips:

  • Know your grade level/content standards like a lover’s face. For an 8th grade ELA teacher, there are only 42. Learn them inside and out.  The current college and career ready standards were developed by a non-partisan task force of education commissioners, governors, CEOs, business leaders, and teachers like you.  They were designed to make American students globally competitive, and they were adopted by 42 of the 50 states.   They are quality standards. Don’t just cut/slap them onto a lesson plan template, but know them deeply and widely, and understand why these standards are appropriate and beneficial for students.
  • Do not re-invent the wheel. First, ask another teacher, your department chair or your principal for the district’s or school’s curriculum map in your content area. If this is not available, Google is your friend. There are literally hundreds of curriculum maps online. Download four or five, and use them to build your own scope and sequence.
  • Figure out what your students know. All good teaching starts there. Without knowing what your students already know, you will not be able to move them to master the skills they don’t know.  In edu-circles, this is called “formative assessment,” but I call it relationship building. This kind of data gathering can be a pencil/paper test, a thumbs up/down comprehension check, or a longer conversation that helps you begin to grasp each student’s intellectual and academic profile.
  • Be transparent and get the kids in on the gig. Give them the standards. Ask them to analyze and break the standards down into learning goals of their own.  Charge your students with calling you on any activity that isn’t connected with one of these standards.
  • Everything you teach should be related to the mastery of one of those 42 standards. Every activity and assignment should be intentional.  You only have 177 days of instruction; every lesson, every activity, every unit must count.