An ode to the teacher-led writing classroom

I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I fell for Inside Higher Ed’s clickbait and read an article headed “Professor with no formal training shares some effective tools for others who must teach writing classes” on Twitter and titled “An Ode to Teacherless Writing Classrooms” on the site. I have thoughts.

Let’s deal with the obvious question first: why is an untrained professor teaching writing? The author is a well-intentioned associate professor of mathematics. I’m a well-intentioned associate professor of English as a Second Language. If my university assigned me to teach introductory calculus, nobody would be happy. But for some reason, it’s OK for universities to drop unqualified faculty (as well as unprepared TAs and overworked adjuncts) into first-year writing classrooms. Why is this? Is there a lack of trained writing teachers? I don’t think so: in fact, the job market for composition is growing. Unfortunately, it’s become acceptable to say “anyone can teach writing.” This needs to change because bad employment conditions are partly responsible for bad teaching, as John Warner has argued.

Before we dispense with the title … “must teach writing classes”? It would be really helpful if the education media stopped perpetuating the notion that teaching writing is a punishment. Is it easy to teach writing? No. Is every class filled with wonder at the discovery of the next Atwood, Sedaris, or Ngozi Adichie? Nah. But I assume most first-year math classes don’t solve Fermat’s last theorem. Still, as a recent Chronicle article detailed, introductory courses should be taught by the most not least qualified faculty because it’s just good practice.

So can we please stipulate that writing teachers need to know something about teaching writing and stop putting untrained composition instructors in a leaky boat with only a copy of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers as a paddle?

But what wrong with Elbow’s vision of the “teacherless” classroom? After all, there’s a lot in Elbow’s prodigious output that is valuable: brainstorming, the believing/doubting game, and portfolio assessment, for instance. Writing Without Teachers was first published in 1973, and it’s a great book. However, the constructivist movement that it epitomizes has been justifiably criticized for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And the writing teacher.

Should students be encouraged to explore their experiences in their writing? Depending on the task, yes. Should teachers put away the red pen and encourage students to write multiple drafts with multiple rounds of feedback? Absolutely. Can peers give each other feedback? Yes, definitely.

However, the problem is that constructivist or progressivist approaches readily devolve into what the late Michael Halliday called “benevolent inertia,” in which learning is expected to take place “by magic” (Halliday & Hassan, 2006). When teachers don’t direct writing instruction, students fall back on the genres they are familiar with, which may be fine for traditional, mainstream students who enter the university with a high level of cultural capital and are able to play Elbow’s games with some facility and little prompting. But it’s a disaster for non-traditional, less prepared, and many culturally- and linguistically-diverse students. Absent good writing instruction, they struggle to write the high-stakes genres required for advanced study. Consequently, the students who most need writing instruction are least likely to receive it.

So if learning to write doesn’t happen by magic, and if universities and colleges continue to place untrained instructors in front of writing classes, what should teachers know? We explore this question in depth in our forthcoming volume Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (edited by Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns, University of Michigan Press, coming spring 2019), but while that book is in press, here are some tips:

  • Figure out what you want your students to write: don’t call everything an essay or research paper! We all write best when we have a purpose for writing, which starts with a clear definition of the task.
  • Find out what your students know. If you give students freedom to choose the genre of their response, make sure they have access to sufficient range of genres to choose from, or you might end up reading a lot of recounts, five-paragraph essays, or summaries instead of narratives, interpretations, and syntheses. Assume nothing about your students’ prior writing experience or skill, especially in diverse classrooms.
  • Collect or write models of the task, including ones close to the level your students can write. Analyze the models with your students to understand the content, organization, and language choices that are effective. Writing doesn’t just come from within the writer: it is situated in a particular context.
  • Be explicit in your expectations: are students making an argument? What constitutes acceptable evidence? Should they use sources, and if so, where should they find them? What conventions do you expect them to follow? Who is the audience? What is the purpose of their writing? Guide them through an analysis of the assignment.
  • Write all or part of another model with your students, as a class or in groups. Collaborative writing helps students better understand the task (trust me, I wrote a dissertation about this!).
  • Write a clear rubric in student-friendly language that shows students what you consider to approach, meet, and exceed the course learning outcomes. Do this before you start the assignment and distribute the rubric with the directions.
  • Use the rubric to guide peer- and self-review as well as your own feedback.
  • Plan mini-lessons that address specific skills and language students will need to succeed in the assignment (this is easier the second time you teach a class, of course!). Remember that the purpose of feedback isn’t just to correct what students did but to expand what they can do.
  • Once students have understood the task and genre, analyzed model texts, and written one together with you, then go ahead and use the tools of process writing: brainstorming, planning, revising, peer review, conferencing, etc.

Teachers should not work to efface themselves from the classroom. We teach writing because we know something (not everything, but something) about writing, and it’s our job to help students become better writers, not just to produce the writing they already know how to write.

You can find out more about the pedagogy I described above, the Teaching/Learning Cycle, in this series of posts and elsewhere in the literature, including several chapters in our forthcoming volume Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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