Nothing is more difficult to teach — at least at the K-12 level — than writing.
You can teach kids vocabulary terms and math formulas and scientific principles all sorts of ways, both good and bad. You can lecture, assign reading, assign videos, hand out worksheets, develop experiments, create matching games.
But no one can learn to write by hearing about it, reading about it, watching videos, using flashcards or playing games. Every individual has to actually do it in order to learn how.
What makes this more difficult is that we can’t assess student writing using a multiple-choice test or even, if we’re honest, a finely tuned rubric. Evaluating student writing is always subjective, and it requires extensive, individualized feedback and hands-on guidance from a careful and reflective reader. Talk about time-consuming!
Unfortunately, our response to this challenge has been to assign less writing or to teach students writing through formulas, like the old “five-paragraph essay.” (My editor once told me this format is so widely discredited that no one is teaching it anymore — and yet, my students have all learned it. Hmmm.)
Or the new “claims-warrants” structure — which I honestly don’t even understand.
When I was in elementary school, it was “7 steps to a good report!”
The justification for these methods is “If not this, then what?” But every attempt to break down writing into a formula ends with students asking questions like:
How many paragraphs should my paper be?
And how many sentences in each paragraph?
Seriously? Is that what writing is? (How many paragraphs should a blog post be?)
How many times in your post-academic life have you been asked to write anything that fits this kind of formula? For most of us, the answer is “never.”
So what do we write — and how — once we get out of school and into a workplace?
For most professionals and many non-professionals, writing is a critical skill. At the very least, you have to be able to write a resume, a cover letter and clear, coherent, appropriately toned emails.
In many jobs, you also have to be able to write data analyses, research reports, proposals, contracts, promotional campaigns, persuasive sales talks, job evaluations and complaint letters. You have to be able to clearly express a point and support it with reasoning and evidence, in a whole host of different disciplines and venues.
I’m not arguing here that we should only teach “real world” writing in school. I value the humanities, and there’s definitely a place for teaching creative writing, poetry, and literary analysis. But we can’t only teach English-class-style writing, and we have to help our students learn to break out of that mold.
What’s the answer? I’ll take my cue from higher ed. At the University of Wisconsin, “helping students improve their writing skills is a responsibility for all faculty” (https://www.uww.edu). Similarly, teaching writing in our own disciplines — and helping students understand where writing fits in subjects like chemistry, math and economics — is a shared responsibility for all high school teachers.
I propose we each assign at least one full-on writing assignment each year. And that we be prepared to coach our students along the way, rather than giving them a fill-in-the-blanks formula.
Accept that it’s subjective. Accept that it’s a challenge. Do it anyway.
Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush