EJ Toppling the Idol


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Article on teaching writing, especially for those who attended the Sept 21 workshop on The Steps & Strategies of Writing.

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EJ Toppling the Idol

  1. 1. 41English Journal Vol. 94, No. 1 September 2004 Lesley Roessing Toppling the Idol was so proud. It was not even the end of the year, and most of my eighth- grade students knew how to write the five-paragraph essay well. They could write anything as a five-paragraph essay: per- suasive pieces, informational articles, compare and contrast, cause and effect, news articles, journal en- tries, eulogies, directions, social letters, Christmas gift lists, lunch orders. The writings followed a cookie-cutter pattern: [indent] general statement, background information, thesis [indent] transition, topic sentence, first example, elaboration, clincher (building up through the year to 2–3 examples per paragraph) [indent] transition, topic sentence, second example, elaboration, clincher [indent] transition, topic sentence, third example, elaboration, clincher [indent] thesis repeated, summary, conclusion This was the district model. I had handed out a template that every student’s ideas had to fit into, offering up my human sacrifices to the Expository God, 5¶ Essay. The awakening came when I handed out a creative writing assignment for a county short- story contest. A hand waved. “Mrs. Roessing, are we to write this as a five-paragraph essay?” I looked around the classroom as heads nodded knowingly. Appalled at what I had done to my writers, their styles, their voices, I knew that it was time to reread the experts and revamp my writing program. Rediscovering Voice, Choice, and Style Typically, I have structured writing around the lit- erature curriculum; most writings were based on literature we read in class. I taught the Perfect Para- graph (a mini five-paragraph essay) and then all other writings in the five-paragraph essay format. I assigned the topic, the genre, and the mode. I even provided some students with the thesis to be proved. As the year went by, the students were permitted to form their own theses and had a choice of types of ex- amples to use. But where was the passion in their writings? I guess that I felt that I had enough for all of us; I was passionate about writing Perfect, Cor- rect Essays. “Quit talking to me,” “too chatty,” and “no I or you,” I wrote on their papers. I did not want to hear voices; I wanted to see Writing. I had read theories of writing and the teaching of writing in the ’80s when I attended graduate school to earn a master’s degree in education along with my secondary certification in English. Because I had never taught, the articles did not hold much meaning. However, in the summer of 2002, after teaching writ- ing for many years, I took part in the Summer Insti- tute of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. As I read the masters in the field of writing, I encountered the idea of STYLE: Let my people speak! Was this a demigod? A nymph? Where did Style fit in the hierarchy of 5¶’s kingdom? Was it a subordi- nate or an equal? Experts in the field—Nancie Atwell, Ralph Fletcher, Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Linda Rief, Gail Tompkins—encouraged the writer’s voice. I had meant to be a good teacher, but I had the feeling that something was not working. I Having perfected her instruction of the five-paragraph essay, Lesley Roessing realized that her eighth-grade students had mastered the formula but lost their voices. She describes her transformed approach to teaching writing and offers specific assignments that helped students “think outside the five-paragraph-essay box.” I R E - F O R M I N G W R I T I N G I N S T R U C T I O N> SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 41 Copyright © 2004 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
  2. 2. could not understand why students did not want to write. In my most effusive voice I would announce that we were “going to write,” and groans would fill the classroom. Going to the dentist came to mind. After dutifully drafting to my specifications, the stu- dents did not seem to want to revise, nor did they edit carefully. Students would make cosmetic changes to their papers and be satisfied. They were finished with their writings. I told them that it was like send- ing “your child to school in a torn dress with dirt on her face.” But these writings were not their children; I know that now. They were my children, and I was- n’t paying the students enough for babysitting. As I read about style and voice, I realized that I had been caught up in listening to others instead of to my heart, trying to fulfill what I thought were the expectations of the students’ future teachers rather than listening to the voices of the students. I had taught personal style right out of my students. It was time to put the writer back in the writing. I analyzed my teaching and found that I was not only directing what to write, but I was also com- manding how and when to write. Day One was Prewriting: brainstorming and organizing; Day Two was Drafting; Day Three, Revision Groups and Re- vising; Day Four, Editing Groups and Editing; and on Day Five the Final Copy was written. I knew the Writing Process; I had the posters hanging in my classroom. But I also knew that writing is re- cursive. I had read about the recursive nature of the writing process, and I certainly wrote, revised, and edited recursively myself. Still, the research did not mean anything until I thought about what the stu- dents wanted to write, what they wanted to say, and how they wanted to say it. I then revamped my writing program. Choice became the central concept. Choice in writing is the key to inspiring students’ desire to learn different modes and genres so that they can have op- tions for writing a particular piece. Choice returns the power to the writer. Students who exercise their choices write what they like and what others like to read. Implementing Choice How did I implement choice? I added writing work- shops, taught effective peer-revision techniques, avoided error hunts, and instituted freewriting and portfolios. With student choice at the center of the program, students wanted to write, wanted to revise, wanted to edit. They wanted their “children” to look good and impress the world. Choice gives the power back to the writer. Donald Murray said, “You can command writing but you can’t command good writing” (Writer 83). Giving the students options was not a problem after I completed the twelve-step program at Control Anonymous. However, students still needed to learn what choices were available to them. Therefore, I taught them about various topics, modes, and genres and how they could communicate more effectively by building on the relationships between what they were writing (topic), how they were writing (mode), and in what format they were writing (genre). As a teacher of a literature curriculum, I wanted students to respond to certain curricula and texts and, at times, topics. I needed to continue to teach grammar and mechanics so that nothing interfered with their messages. I wanted to teach students so that they could make the right choices for their writings. In “A Framework for Choosing Topics for, with, and by Adolescent Writers,” Kelly Chandler- Olcott and Donna Mahar give reasons for occasional teacher choice of topics: “to promote engagement with issues that students might not choose on their own . . . knowing that students who have not expe- rienced [traditional frameworks] may be disadvan- taged in subsequent contexts where it is valued,” that is, state assessments and the workplace (42). These teachers feel that, in some cases, topics should be chosen with the students, “to coach students through strategies they can use to select topics by themselves” (43; italics in original). Every assignment I now give has three components—topic, mode, and genre. When I looked back over my curriculum and assignments, I saw how I could alter the assignments to give choice. I now ex- plain that each assignment has these three elements and, in most cases, one will be predetermined—the topic, the mode, or the genre, depending on the ob- jective of the lesson—and the writer will have a choice regarding the two other components. In the past, for example, after reading O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” students were to persuade a reader of one of two theses: “Jimmy Valentine really did reform” or “Jimmy Valentine did not reform.” They were to use a “correct” five-paragraph essay and 42 September 2004 Toppling the Idol In my most effusive voice I would announce that we were “going to write,” and groans would fill the classroom. Going to the dentist came to mind. SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 42
  3. 3. outline it first because that is what I do. I even gave them a template for the outline so that they would do it correctly. I told them what types of examples to use. I did not mention an audience, either authentic or fic- titious. There really was no choice in this assignment because, after reading the story, one could hardly prove that Jimmy Valentine did not reform. Introducing the element of choice, I required the students to draft a persuasive piece but asked them to choose the topic and genre. In O. Henry’s story, safecracker Jimmy Valentine reformed his criminal life after falling in love. When saving his fi- ancée’s niece from suffocation in a time-locked safe, he cracked open the safe, thereby revealing his past to his fiancée and her father. This act also exhibited his heroism and lack of self-interest to Detective Ben Price, who was in town to apprehend him. After my reformation, students had choices. They could write as Jimmy attempting to persuade his fiancée Annabel that he had changed and they should still wed or as Annabel convincing her father that Jimmy had reformed and she should marry him. A superior could convince Ben Price that, reformed or not, Jimmy Valentine needed to serve his time in jail. Billy, Jimmy’s fellow criminal, could induce Jimmy to return to his old life and go on a safe- cracking spree with him. As another choice, the writing could serve as the speech of either a defense or prosecution lawyer convincing a jury of Jimmy’s innocence or culpability. These, of course, were mod- els, not the only choices. Next, depending on the topic selected, the stu- dents adopted the genre that was most effective in getting the job done: a letter, a love poem, an office memorandum, a speech, and so forth. The students were still responding to the text and learning a mode of writing; the writers chose the genre and the topic. Two curricular areas had been addressed (literature and writing), and I was excited about reading the results—hopefully as excited as the students were about their writings. I must say that the writing improved greatly with the addition of voice, and this assignment was fun to read. Lauren’s letter from Annabel to her fa- ther began, “Our eyes met, and I glanced down, blushing. He smiled that sly smile as I resisted star- ing. My whole day was made from just one glance into the easygoing, sea-green eyes. My beloved Ralph, while still Jimmy Valentine, moved here with every intention of robbing your bank when our paths crossed and our eyes met. He became a new man, became Ralph Spencer, for one reason and one reason only—to win me.” Three pages later, after in- troducing her proofs of reformation, including allu- sions to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Annabel (Lauren) made her final plea, “Jimmy Valentine has always been a pure-hearted and responsible man, and he truly reformed into Ralph Spencer. I still wish to marry this remarkable fellow with your blessing. I love Ralph, and Ralph loves me. You must let this marriage go on if just for love’s sake. Who among us could deny true love?” The voice of a romantic had spoken, as earnestly and persuasively as only an eighth-grade author could. Best of all, the writing did not sound like a fifty-year-old realist. Another student elected an option not even proposed. Andy wrote a scene in which detective Ben Price returns home after allowing Jimmy Valentine to go free and explains his motivations to his wife, who is afraid that he will be fired. After listening to Ben’s arguments, she, as well as the reader, is con- vinced that Ben took the “right” action, if not the legal action. Reconsidering Form To help students who wish to attempt a mode or genre that has not yet been formally taught, I bor- rowed and revised an idea from Linda Rief. I pre- pared outlines of the basic format of each genre and models of writings in each—social and business let- ters, compare and contrast, legal briefs, different types of poetry, news articles, scripts, critiques, speeches, obituaries, brochures, personal memoirs, descriptive narratives, diary entries, and so forth— for the students to use as references. These are kept in a file accessible to the students, and when they want to attempt one of these genres, the students can borrow models. We also look for models in lit- erature as we read. After implementing writing choice in her classroom, Nancie Atwell found that “[f]reedom of choice does not undercut structure. Instead, students become accountable for learning about and using the structures available to writers to serve their purposes” (15). In “Unlearning Writing,” Donald Murray writes that he had to unlearn certain lessons that 43English Journal Lesley Roessing Giving the students options was not a problem after I completed the twelve-step program at Control Anonymous. SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 43
  4. 4. were ineffective and “guaranteed to produce writ- ing that says nothing, is dull, graceless, unread” (par. 3). One of these lessons was that form precedes meaning. Murray reminds us, “Of course we often sit down to write a column, an essay, a textbook, a novel, a memoir, but the genre, its form and struc- ture, should rise out of the evolving meaning. I have had a magazine article become a novel, a poem be- come a column, and a column a poem. And the form within the genre should grow organically as the writer writes to discover what to say and how to say it” (par. 18). When students write in response to a specific topic as an assessment for a unit of study or a prac- tice for standardized testing, I give them freewrites on liter- ary topics or themes and then let them choose the mode and genre. By the end of the year, writers are able to respond to literature by choosing the most effective ways to present their ideas and their voices, de- pending on what they need to communicate. Linda Rief wrote, “to express themselves effectively all learners have to read and write and speak in their own voices. But they can discover their voices only by answering their own questions, their own inquiries” (10). Nancie Atwell shares the explanation of Susan Sowers, who observed how students develop as writ- ers and how schools help this process. The children “decided what they would write. They wrote on a range of topics and in a variety of modes wider than their teachers had dreamed of assigning. They cared about content and correctness” (12). I have found this to be true as my students attempted writings based on the models that I presented or had on file and on brochures, eulogies, a variety of news articles, and even recipes. Analyzing Purpose and Audience After we permit and encourage students to make choices, how do we teach them to make effective choices? I find that it is most successful to concen- trate on two areas—the purpose to be achieved and the intended audience. The best device I have found for demonstrating the importance of purpose and au- dience in choosing format and mode is analyzing ad- vertisements. Advertising is a medium where success is completely dependent on reaching a targeted au- dience for the purpose of convincing them that they need to buy, use, or vote for a product. Here the form truly fits the function rather than the function fitting the form. To help students see the relationship between purpose and audience, I have them contrast several commercials. I pair a commercial for Boston aimed at attracting tourists and a commercial for Philadelphia targeting residents. Students note the devices used and the differing formats of the two commercials. Another effective comparison is a commercial for milk and one for coffee. The milk commercial is clearly aimed at a teenage market and uses music, popularity, and the drink’s similarity to soda. The cof- fee commercial is aimed at tea drinkers. A staid “Queen Elizabeth” sedately drinks coffee in her cas- tle at teatime. Applying the analysis of purpose and audience to writing, students listen to the story of a murder mystery and decide how (genre) to write about it for a variety of audiences and purposes—as the victim’s mother-in-law (to celebrate with the wealthy widow), as the victim’s daughter (notification of death), as a reporter writing for the newspaper (obituary and a society report of the funeral), as a police officer (offi- cial murder report), and as the district attorney (to prosecute the court case)—and in which mode to write for each assignment. During analysis the stu- dents discuss the effectiveness of each choice made. Experimenting with Form Sometimes I have pushed students to experiment with forms they may not have considered. When stu- dents read articles about the World War II concen- tration camps, I suggested that they write their reactions as poetry. At first they complained. After they responded in poetry, many said that they ex- pressed such a strong reaction because of the format. Of course, only those who felt successful told me that. There may be others who wrote in the format because I suggested it but might have felt more successful writing a news article or a diary entry. In 44 September 2004 Toppling the Idol By the end of the year, writers are able to respond to literature by choosing the most effective ways to present their ideas and their voices, depending on what they need to communicate. SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 44
  5. 5. either case, the exercise introduced them to the idea of trying new genres and of seeing what fit their style and got the job done. It forced them to think out- side the five-paragraph-essay box. I was concerned that I might be replacing one template for another. However, after studying a unit on the Holocaust and reading The Diary of Anne Frank, my Humanities class studied apartheid and read Sheila Gordon’s Waiting for the Rain. When I gave the open assignment of writing a final reflection on the novel, I received a variety of responses. Possibly be- cause they had just written their concentration-camp poetry, many students chose to write their reflections as poems, but even in those cases I found rich, indi- vidual variety. Some wrote about the novel, others wrote about apartheid, and a few wrote about dis- crimination in general. Students wrote poetry that rhymed, blank poetry, and free verse, depending on their purpose and voice. Many incorporated poetic de- vices that we had studied. The responses were heart- felt and moving. Michelle began: Apartheid was the South African government initi- ated in 1948; Apartheid was the political system that caused people to separate. Apartheid was a system that ruined many lives. Apartheid destroyed friendships; many people died. Joe explained the title of the literary work in his introduction: An unjust government Keeping freedom contained. While a race quite different Is waiting for the rain. Amber retold the story: One black, one white— Would they become lost in the fight? Two different worlds soon to be torn apart; Two different souls who seemed to share one heart. As time went on, things quickly changed. Lives were broken apart; both worlds rearranged. Frikkie and Tengo were the closest of friends Until Apartheid brought that to an end. Using a different poetic device, Bobby wrote first-person refrains that demonstrated Tengo’s grow- ing awareness of oppression: Stanza 1: I never questioned how things were Stanza 2: I seldom questioned how things were Stanza 3: I occasionally questioned how things were Stanza 5: I frequently questioned how things were Stanza 6: I usually questioned how things were Stanza 8: I always question how things are This year, after completing both the study of the Holocaust and apartheid, I asked my students to com- pare and contrast The Diary of Anne Frank with Wait- ing for the Rain. Left to their own devices, Katie and Emily wrote about conversations between Anne (The Diary of Anne Frank) and Tengo (Waiting for the Rain) in which the two protagonists discuss the discrimina- tory activities of their governments. Katie began, “If Anne Frank and Tengo could meet, they would find their governmental situations to be somewhat similar. But they would also have many differences. Tengo might even feel appreciative after hearing Anne’s story, and Anne might find Tengo very fortunate to be able to live freely on a big farm.” By coincidence, or maybe by eighth-grader proclivity to so- cial discussion, Emily recounted a comparable conversation in her own, distinct voice. She wrote, “If there were to be a meeting of all oppressed people, it is a cer- tainty that Anne and Tengo would find each other. They would have more to talk about than anyone would have thought. Anne might say to Tengo that he must have been so lucky to be able to run around in the fresh air all the time since she was cooped up in an attic for years. Tengo might reply that she must have been very lucky to receive such an education since he did not receive an education until his early teenage years, and then he learned mostly on his own.” She ends her writing, “Funny, how a conversation between two completely different people from two completely dif- ferent worlds could show so much about oppression through the years.” What a creative (and effective) idea! I will have to resist the urge to assign it next year and remove the choice from the assignment. Reflecting on Practice How did I know when I was successful in reaching my goal? Students wrote; I didn’t have to apologize 45English Journal Lesley Roessing This year, after completing both the study of the Holocaust and apartheid, I asked my students to compare and contrast The Diary of Anne Frank with Waiting for the Rain. SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 45
  6. 6. 46 September 2004 Toppling the Idol for giving writing assignments. I now enjoy reading their writings and so do they. The highest indicator of success is effective writing, deeply revised and, in a different respect, writing that is done when not as- signed. Note passing has become an art; when I con- fiscate a note, it is a pleasure to read. Where will I go from here? I hope to follow Linda Rief and “[e]ach year I [will] let go of more and more and the students [will] take more and more responsibility for their own learning. Their think- ing [will be] deeper, richer, and more diverse” (3). Whereas I once thought the omnipotent deity 5¶ Essay ruled the world of exposition, I now trust stu- dents to inform and persuade in their own ways, in their own voices. I will find a new religion as I top- ple my idols of the past and help the students decide how to get the job done. Works Cited Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1998. Chandler-Olcott, Kelly, and Donna Mahar. “A Framework for Choosing Topics for, with, and by Adolescent Writers.” Voices from the Middle 9.1 (2001): 40–47. Goodrich, Frances, and Albert Hackett. The Diary of Anne Frank. Prentice Hall Literature Silver. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1989. 303–68. Gordon, Sheila. Waiting for the Rain. New York: Bantam, 1987. Henry, O. “A Retrieved Reformation.” Prentice Hall Litera- ture Silver. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1989. 55–60. Murray, Donald M. “Unlearning Writing.” Learning Matters 2.6 (1998): n.p. ———. A Writer Teaches Writing. 2nd ed. Boston: Hough- ton, 1985. Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts with Adolescents. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1992. Lesley Roessing has taught eighth-grade language arts and humanities for fifteen years at Ridley Middle School in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. She is a 2002 Writing Fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project. email: lesley_roessing@ridleysd. k12.pa.us. EJ 5 Years Ago Revolutionizing the Research Paper Assignment In high schools and colleges today, English teachers and their colleagues across the curriculum are still as- signing research papers. Students still go through a process to research and locate suitable sources for their topics, but the personal computer and access to the vast and tangled web of the Internet have revolutionized the research paper assignment. Not only does word processing, with its quick and easy revision applications, make writing the paper easier, the ability to find resources via the Web makes researching appealing, almost glitzy, to adolescents. Susan A. Gardner, Hiltraut H. Benham, and Bridget M. Newell. “Oh, What a Tangled Web We’ve Woven! Helping Students Evaluate Sources.” EJ 89.1 (1999): 39–44. SEP-EJ2.QXD 8/10/2004 7:58 AM Page 46