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Reimagining School Writing

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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A closeup of a female high school student sitting at a desk taking a test.

There is a sad truth about the way that most students learn to write: They become boring writers. To write with clarity and insight involves struggle (regardless of age). When faced with this challenge, many students are taught to detach from content, to analyze with sterile language, and to develop ideas within a narrow formula.

Structure is helpful, but if not implemented strategically, it can stifle creativity and require students to go through motions rather than investing themselves in creating something. Many of our attempts to help young people develop writing skills actually deter them from the joy and power of developing a unique, insightful writing voice.

New Ways of Understanding the Writing Process

Others (such as Nancy Flanagan, Elizabeth Rorschasch [PDF], and Ray Salazar) have thoughtfully written about some of the problems with the widely-used five-paragraph essay. Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers, explains that a problem may not be solely restrictive formats, but also the organization of the process:

[T]hink of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning -- before you know your meaning at all -- and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve. Only at the end will you know what you want to say or the words you want to say it with. . . Meaning is not what you start with but what you end up with (15).

How can we honor this process and make school writing about discovery? Instead of leading students to feel that school writing must be separate from their lived realities, how can writing allow students to find meaning through a process of creating?

At Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, where I teach, we adopted common language to help us unify our writing instruction. Throughout the four years of high school, we emphasize thesis statements and the crafting of arguments. While I believe there is much value to this approach, I've also come to believe that we should do more to help young people develop their writing craft.

In the book Occasions for Writing, Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy II offer a vision of essay writing which provides a more open structure that I find liberating. They frame essay writing as "mak[ing] something new, something that only you can create," (2) and they encourage writers to go beyond the idea of a thesis: "Rather than simply declaring a thesis in your writing -- something that you intend to 'prove' -- you should be actively inquiring about and developing an idea" (6). This type of essay writing allows writers to use images, experiences, and text as evidence that leads to discovery. By blurring the line of what is acceptable for an academic paper, we allow students to experiment and be creative. Because they become more engaged, they become better writers. And because they are better writers, they are better able to adapt as writing expectations shift within different contexts.

My Experiment: Advanced Essays

This year, I've given it a try. My 11th grade students have been writing what I chose to call Advanced Essays. (Here's one Advanced Essay project description.) Each one has come at the end of an inquiry unit where we read multiple texts that investigate a theme. Themes are broad and have included topics such as Literacy; Identity and Belonging; and Violence, Militarism, and Alternatives. We begin our inquiries together as a class, reading, writing informally, and discussing. Then I provide students with a collection of resources beyond what we have covered together and also encourage them to research on their own as they work to "develop a larger idea." (I’m using the words "thesis" and "argument" much less.) With the goal of allowing writing and ideas to evolve and develop, we've done many writing exercises that lead to the final product, including:

Most of these steps are graded for completion in the hope that students are not penalized for taking risks and struggling with large ideas. I want students to see these steps as part of the process of discovery and creation of a polished final product.

Much of the writing that my students produced this year is different. While some chose to stick with what they know (the format of traditional academic essays), others found ways to use their lives and their city as evidence while developing ideas that can be profound and moving. The result is writing that means something in the world, writing that has the potential to engage any reader, inside or outside of a classroom setting. The students have been posting their work to public blogs and proudly sharing their papers with peers. A more traditional format would not have encouraged Anastasia to write about the illusion of color-blindness, Jun-Jie to write about immigrant struggles, Alex to write about sheltered schools, or Imani to write about social media and the new sense of identity. (See more examples in my post Student Voices on Identity and Belonging.)

As it turns out, this experiment with writing instruction helped me develop an idea of my own: How we ask students to write affects their understandings of learning and creation. Let's do what we can to bring more meaning to the work of school by letting students explore ideas, express themselves, and write in organic, innovative, and public ways.

Was this useful? (4)

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

MichaelEdits's picture
Author, editor, proofreader, book junkie, hiking nut, NFL addict, cat lover

I started my students with the traditional five-paragraph expository essay, and once they'd mastered it we moved on to what I'll always think of as "the fun stuff." I like the idea of learning the rules first, then learning how and why to break them. I regularly saw effective, powerful, lively writing from unexpected sources.

Lisa_MCcoy's picture
Parent. Teacher. Budding Writer

Could completely relate to this article! Kids hate to write and this strong feeling comes from the way our educational system approaches writing. The writing exercise needs to be more open and fun, so that students could explore their creative side.

Tan Huynh's picture

Hey, Michael. I agree in teaching structure, and once competency has been established, I allow them to break out of the structure. English language learners especially need this explicit teaching of structure because it gives them a foundation to build on. Structure is never the end, but just the beginning.

The way I teach structure is by allowing students to deconstruct mentor texts to find language features and notice how the author is consciously using words to create meaning. I write extensively about this process in the following article

Not teaching structure is akin to letting beginning swimmers jump into the deep end and "explore" how to swim.

I do like Josh's approach of building a context through using multiple texts commected to a concept. This body of knowledge gives students a context to form opinions. They can use writing to form the communicate their opinions.

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks, all for such thoughtful comments! I think the variety of ideas exemplifies the range of possibility within the writing process for individuals (and instructors). It makes me wonder about best practices for a wide range of students.

Nira Dale's picture
Nira Dale
 Apple Distinguished Educator, PBS Digital Innovator Lead, District Instructional Specialist, EdTech Geek

@Joshua Block: Yes! You hit the nail on the head! " practices for a wide range of students." Our approach should absolutely be driven by the learner. Yes, some students will need more structure and prescription, while others will need strategies that engage their interests and boost their confidence for the task. We'll find much more success as teachers when we meet our students where they are and scaffolding them to advancement, as opposed to forcing them to meet us, and leaving them behind if they can't reach our standards for success.

Brett Goodman's picture

This is really spectacular insight. I think too often educators focus on a final product (a paper, in this case) being as "good as it can". I've always thought that the focus should be more on the teaching of how to go through the process of writing than on giving students a specific structure that a paper must follow. I love that instead of giving them specific topics, you gave them processes to go through, so that one (or more) of the exercises was likely to work. This gave students a process to follow, and--judging by what you wrote--they followed it to some rather spectacular final products.

I think we are often so concerned with making sure that students produce an "acceptable" final product, we can halt creativity. I know that in some of my college courses, I've just been given an assignment to show an idea "with the work equivalent to a 2-3 page paper". While at first this was frighteningly open-ended, I found that I was able to do some uniquely creative things, and my classmates did as well (though some did opt for the paper).

Kathleen Ralf's picture
Kathleen Ralf
Teacher of Humanities & English at Frankfurt International School and online instructor for Genocide & Human Rights at Global Online Academy

I echo some of the comments from above on teaching structure first, then teaching students when and why to break from this structure. The kicker is what is the end goal for the student's success? Are they going to writing exams where they must stick to this "boring" structure? Are they graded by outside examiners who are looking at how well the student conformed to a specific structure? If the answers to those questions are yes...then we need to teach the boring structure and warn them about the ramification of using visual emotional language.

I am all about project based learning and teaching students to love words and the craft of writing. I also wish we could get away from having to teach kids how to a "boring" essay. But I also know that is the way of academia, the formulaic essay is a language they must learn to speak for IB and AP exams. The essay is still a major part of the university writing. The key is finding a balance in our courses that let kids explore other types of writing to express what they know.

Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

Josh, I'm just finding this article, but I've been traveling this path as well. That started for me back in 11th grade in the 80s when my 11th grade American Lit teacher gave me a copy of Elbow's "Writing with Power" and has developed ever since with frequent trips to Bard College's Institute for Writing and Thinking and readings like Cioffi's "The Imaginative Argument," a college-level text that you might find useful.

The concept of the "Advanced Essay" and the depth of learning you're helping your learners develop is just awesome. This is 11th grade?

I'll be emulating this in my classes this year. I've a study of "Story" in which the primary text is Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories." I can build a boat load of ancillary texts into that. Thanks for this post! The ideas are flowing now. (oh...the watery imagery is a bit too much. I'm drowning in it.)

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for your comments, Garreth. Glad to hear the ideas are flowing! Yes, this is 11th grade. I'll have to check out The Imaginative Argument...

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