Writing Outside the Box

Writing Outside the Box


Most U.S. public school writing instruction is based on the Common Core standards. There are guidelines for mastery in every subject, some more specific than others. Some lucky students attend schools where these standards are taught creatively, but many schools have stopped at five paragraph essays, teaching basic poetry forms, and making PowerPoint presentations, exercises and assignments that do not fully prepare students for success. Our students’ worlds look very different than when many of these curriculum staples were established. They now need more than one-size-fits-all strategies to approach their next phases of life, whatever that may be. This is possible within the framework of Common Core, but we need to break out of our old comfortable patterns to truly change and grow our curriculum and our students. This includes building a workable portfolio of documents that helps them apply for employment and higher education, and providing a rich past of writing experiences that prepares them for whatever path they pursue post-graduation.

The Five Paragraph Issue

The most common writing assignment across all grades and subject areas is the five-paragraph essay. This standard format automates the otherwise overwhelming process of organizing thoughts and arguments into logical paragraphs. Unfortunately, the benefits of this method stop at its ease of use. Almost everyone knows how to write a five paragraph essay by the time they reach high school, but no one enjoys writing them, and teachers don’t enjoy grading them. Assistant Professor of English Composition Kathleen Dudden Rowlands argues in her essay Slay the Monster that the “form first” five-paragraph writing instruction undermines a student’s ability to focus on the true elements of argumentation - the author’s purpose, the audience, and the content. Instead of learning to adapt the structure of their writing to best suit these three main elements, students learn to force ideas into five paragraphs with little regard for why.

Though they will write papers in college that require them to organize their thoughts logically, they are often unfamiliar with other alternatives to the five paragraph format, which results in, as Dudden Rowlands points out, college students turning in twenty page papers with only five paragraphs. Due to limited exposure to other ways of writing, they are unable to transfer their knowledge effectively to new formats or situations. Oftentimes, compare and contrast papers, media analysis, argumentative, persuasive, and cause-and-effect essays are reserved for upper level and AP classes only. Some colleges are even having to provide students with guides on how to write college-level essays, a lesson that seems much more appropriate to have before college starts. By forcing our students to write predominantly in a standardized form, we are limiting their ability to develop their own style and flexibility of argument that has value far beyond writing a good paper.

It also suggests to students that writing must be formulaic and devoid of authorial voice, two things that are not only untrue but are fundamentally damaging to a writer’s passion and desire to improve. High school English teachers have the unique window of opportunity to help developing minds give voice to their thoughts and opinions. In my experience as a teacher and a student, when given the opportunity to express themselves in a genuine medium, students have so much to say, and with such passion. We must demand more from our students because they are capable of it. No one wants to be told to do something just because. For many students, writing a five paragraph essay to receive a grade is not enough motivation to put in any effort, especially if using the five paragraph form means not having to perform any real analytical thought. It is no surprise, then, that many students become disillusioned with writing and eventually lose their taste for it altogether.

For students planning to go to college, essay writing is a necessary evil. However, for students planning to enter the workforce immediately following graduation, up to a third of all high school graduates, a five paragraph essay will not likely help them find employment. Even for students attending college, they will likely never write another five paragraph essay after high school graduation. They need experience in writing that has practical applications to their lives, and the essay forms I mentioned earlier could help achieve that. When trying to convince their parents to let them go out on the weekend, they do not speak in "topic sentence, reason-one, support-one, reason-two, support-two" format. They often use logos, ethos, and pathos without knowing the technical terms for them. They anticipate and acknowledge dissenting opinions and rebuttals to those opinions. Their arguments build logically to a final appeal or call to action. We should use these ingrained forms of argumentation to our students' advantage.

On top of all that, in a world increasingly hostile to fact-based arguments, our students need to know how to discern truth from fiction and how to share that information with others. Have them write a letter to their representative, offering their position on a current issue supported with research. Create public service announcements for their classmates. Set up a mock courtroom and have students argue for or against a fictional character in the book they’re currently reading. Year-long projects like multigenre papers integrate many writing styles under one theme, allowing students to experiment and explore within a larger topic of their choosing. Pushing our students beyond the five-paragraph format not only prepares them for diverse writing experiences, but also acknowledges a fundamental issue at the core of English writing instruction: if our students hate to write these essays, and we hate to read and grade them, maybe the problem is the essay and not the student.

Be Creative, But Not Like That

On the seemingly opposite side of the writing spectrum from five paragraph essays is creative writing, but these are often approached more similarly than one might think. Creative writing instruction varies by grade, but often includes poetry and short story writing and not much else. The advantages to these forms are obvious: they are easier to teach in short units, and poems, at least, often follow specific structures that can be taught through direct instruction. Reading and writing poems and short stories give students access to creative writing on a small and manageable scale, and this exposure to a variety of genres certainly has value. Just like with the five-paragraph essay, however, creative writing oftens stops short of truly pushing students to think creatively. Students are forced to conform their thoughts and ideas to predetermined structures instead of creating new structures to best express their ideas. This is not to say that there isn’t a rightful place for poetry and short stories, but this is an area of English instruction that could potentially be the most transformational for students if approach a little differently.

Our students consume creative writing every day. In fact, our students listen to, watch, create or read creative writing when they are supposed to be doing their “real work.” Comic books, movies, television, and song writing are all just creative writing by another name. We should be bringing these examples into the classroom, analyzing them, and asking students to create their own. When I was an English teacher at a recording arts charter school, I saw my disengaged students come alive when asked to respond to a prompt with lyrics instead of paragraphs. They demonstrated understanding of figurative language through use of elaborate metaphors and similes. In another instance, students who hated to write turned in intricately drawn and captioned comic books clearly demonstrating their ability to use specific detail and follow a constructed story structure. They watched videos of slam poets and created their own pieces full of intense emotion and depth. By refusing to expand our ideas of what qualifies as “educational creative writing,” we are limiting ourselves and our students.

The way we approach creative writing, in particular, can stretch far beyond a student’s grade in our class. Creative writing differs from other kinds of writing, in that the experience of reading or writing creatively can profoundly change how a person sees the world and themselves, and this is a fact that should not be taken lightly. We should ask students to reflect on their own experiences and share those with others; they can build confidence in themselves, make connections with their peers, and come away with the lifelong skill of using language to their advantage. But it isn’t enough for us to make our students express themselves the ways we want them to; we have to approach creative writing as a privileged exchange between teacher and student. Give students the ability to keep their work private, have them read works from diverse authors, and expose them to as many types of writing as possible. Let them tell their stories as a comic book, a song, a movie script, a short film, or a monologue. For students increasingly faced with mental illness, homelessness, violence, and stress, writing can be a refuge and a megaphone in one. By expanding our ideas of what creative writing has to look like, we increase the likelihood that our students will find one that helps them understand themselves in a way they never could before.

PowerPoint Problems

After five paragraph essays, the next most overused part of current writing curricula is the PowerPoint presentation. This is another example of something students hate to make, everyone hates to listen to, and teachers hate to grade. Most of the time, these presentations are used as a (slightly) technologically advanced form of essay writing, but it falls victim to the same traps. Presentations are often crafted with little attention to the purpose, audience or content. Students read slides verbatim with their audience focused on anything but them. The energy level during PowerPoint presentations of any kind drops palpably over time, and this includes presentations given by teachers to other teachers. Grading rubrics focus on things like number of photos and slides instead of the thoroughness of the argument or whether or not you actually managed to change anyone’s mind or teach them anything. Instead of a multimedia opportunity to include videos, talking points and other interesting visual information, they become pixelated poster boards. This, of all the types of writing instruction, is one of the greatest missed opportunities.

Presentation is a skill that must be carefully developed. Forcing students to get up in front of their peers can be a vulnerable and potentially damaging experience. Students should be given the opportunity to present in small groups or individually to build up confidence, instead of destroying it with forced public speaking. We are helping them discover and decide what they can and can’t do in terms of presenting themselves. Public speaking is a large fear for many people, especially those with anxiety disorders, and we have the opportunity to guide them thoughtfully through this vulnerable process; by helping them build confidence in their speaking abilities, we are helping them build confidence in themselves. PowerPoints are a valuable tool that allows students to convey information in the way that makes sense to them. However, it is even more valuable to teach someone how to convey information in a way that makes sense to their audience, a skill that will benefit them throughout whatever higher education or job situation they find themselves in.

Our students, whether or not they go on to college, will need to give presentations. Many jobs may not require students to plug bullet points into a slideshow, but the skills PowerPoints should be building and displaying are essential regardless. In a job interview, students will need to present information about themselves to convince the hiring committee. They will need to draft and present project proposals or ideas to management. They will have to convey research findings or data in a clear and concise way to investors, coworkers, bosses, or potential clients. All of these skills could be honed using PowerPoints, but not the way they are currently used. Students need to know how to create visual representations of information that make things easier to understand. In order to give good presentations, they have to see good presentations. Students need to see a speaker that is well prepared and confident, using the PowerPoints only to highlight key points or provide additional information. High school students, more than any group I’ve seen, can quickly suss out inauthentic speech. We need to push our students to analyze speeches and speakers, figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and using those observations to guide their own practice. Instead of reinforcing the idea that presentations need to be boring, we can foster public speakers who use proven techniques to effectively reach a variety of audiences.

Preparing ALL Students

Even if they graduate knowing how to craft the perfect five paragraph essay, write a limerick in exact form, and add seamless transitions to PowerPoints slides, many are still unprepared for all the demands of post-graduate life. In all of the Common Core standards and traditional curriculum I studied, nowhere does it require us to specifically prepare our students for post-graduate life. Nowhere in the standards is there a section for resume, cover letter, CV, or interview preparation. Yes, all of the standards are written with college and workplace preparation in mind, but we are missing a crucial piece many students cannot find on their own - writing the documents necessary to get them a job in the first place. Most schools do not emphasize editing and combining writing samples into a usable portfolio, ignoring the reality that many students have to or choose to get jobs while still in school. We ask our students to produce volumes of work for a teacher to grade and expect that to be enough motivation to produce quality work, but they would likely be more motivated if this was done within the framework of their own eventual success.

Throughout their whole adult lives, they will need to create, edit, add to, and prioritize their experiences and skills in the best way possible. Not only are these essential skills for workplace and educational success, but they point directly to Common Core standards that we require of them already. Students could form hiring panels for interview preparation, combining public speaking skills with collaborative discussions and constructive feedback. Resume writing is rife with opportunities for revision, formatting, and attention to spelling and grammar conventions. Cover letters provide the perfect platform for demonstrating persuasive writing techniques. All of these exercises require attention to grammar, punctuation, word choice and consideration of audience and tone.

By doing this, we will leave our students feeling prepared and qualified, instead of damning them to a life of googling “how to write a resume” at midnight or filling in the blanks of cover letter templates. Our students are capable of complex writing in a variety of genres, and we owe it to them to make sure they know as much as they can before they leave our classrooms.. College will demand that they take good notes, give compelling presentations, and use all types of writing genres to best convey their ideas and synthesize the ideas of others. Not only that, but when we teach limited scopes of writing, we are further disenfranchising students who do not plan to or are unable to go on to higher education. We should be preparing our students to write their way through all possible situations, because good writing will be necessary in all scenarios.

Abby Rosen is a former English high school teacher, former small business owner, and current freelancer who specializes in topics of education and mental health. You can find more examples of her work on her Contently page.

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