Teaching writing and thinking – can you do both?

I’ve been grading my students’ essays, and they’re not great. That’s about par for the course, though. At least they’re not outright terrible.  To be honest, however, it might be my fault that they’re not great.  It’s certainly not entirely my fault, and there are definitely some good essays in the mix, but I’m going to take my share of the blame here.

You see, I asked my students to write a reaction essay because that’s the chapter in the book we’re supposed to cover (my frustration with textbooks shall be discussed at a later time).  The textbook offers examples of reaction essays that are pretty dumb, if I can be blunt.  One essay responds to a boring picture of an hourglass.  Another essay responds to Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”  Yeah, like I’m going to teach my students how to analyze poetry.  That’s right up there with spending 3 weeks teaching the correct use of prepositions as “biggest waste of time ever.” In my humble opinion.

So, I asked my students to respond to one of two articles about whether mothers should stay at home or work.  I chose this assignment because I remember writing essays like this in college, so I think it might be a useful assignment.  I chose the topic because I knew it’s a topic everyone’s got an opinion on.  And I chose the articles – one from Salon.com and the other from The New York Times.  This is advanced writing class, but even so, those were some tricky articles.

I’m not unreasonable, of course. I gave them plenty of time to read the articles. We discussed the topic in class. I encouraged them to bring questions about the articles.  And, naturally, they all waited until the day before the essay was due to begin reading the articles and writing their essays. That’s why I can say confidently that their bad essays are largely their fault.  They had plenty of time to prepare these essays and ask me questions.  They chose to wait till the last minute.  You write in a hurry and you get a crappy essay. That’s a fact of life.

But what I’m also seeing here is a complete lack of understanding the articles and the assignment in general.  Despite the significant amount of class time I dedicated to preparing them for this essay, their essays still reflect a certain confusion about the assignment.

Some of the best advice I ever got as a teacher was: “Handle one difficulty at a time.”  In other words, the first time you try to teach your students to identify fact and opinion statements, don’t make them read an article about greenhouse gases and the ozone layer.  They’re practicing a new skill while getting exposed to completely new vocabulary. They can’t do both at the same time, so they’ll wind up doing neither very well.  Teach fact and opinion statements with an easy article and work up to more complex readings.

Yet, here’s the problem with teaching advanced students writing: I’ve also got to teach them to start thinking the way their university professors will expect them to think, right?
We talked about mothers as the breadwinners of the family, and my students respond with ridiculous generalizations like, “Men don’t know how to take care of children.  Women were created for housework.”  You just can’t say stuff like that in an American university class. You’ll be laughed out of the classroom.

So, I pick challenging articles that force them to think – this mother stayed at home, but now she’s divorced and can’t get a job because she has no relevant skills. What are your thoughts on that? But it seems like when they’re forced to think a little harder, the writing suffers. I’d get better writing if I chose an easier topic, but I’d miss out on an opportunity to prepare them for the challenging topics they’ll encounter in their university classes.

It feels like writing and thinking is an either/or situation – you can’t have both.  So, I choose thinking. I don’t know if that’s the right choice or not, but it’s the one I pick every time. It’s the one I wished my French professors had picked when I was studying writing. (Those French university classes were hard, and my good grammar didn’t make up for the fact that I couldn’t seem to think like the French.)  It’s the one I think will most benefit my students. So, I guess I’ve got to stop complaining that their grammar sucks.  It’s partly my fault, anyway.

One thought on “Teaching writing and thinking – can you do both?

  1. This is going to be a mercifully short reply to your very important blog entry. I believe that the first and possibly also the second time through a cycle of reading-to-writing activities like this, you could use class time to go through the articles all together, by handing them one or two pages at a time and doing short silent reading of paragraphs or sections, followed by discussion and thinking questions, and perhaps switching to something else the rest of that class period and picking up the ideas again the next day by sharing the continuation of the article and some variation on the reading-discussion activity, and don’t be afraid to do some reading aloud, where you interrupt with thinking questions at places where you feel that stopping to dwell on something in the reading is sharing with your students some insight into how English users or how college level readers think while they are reading.
    By the same token, the essay writing can be broken up into a series of steps, mostly in class, and possibly interspersed with and parallel to progress through the reading of the articles and discussions of the two sides of the issue you are looking into. You might even bring a visitor or two to class and show the students a very short, spirited debate on the topic, or if you have spread these activities and this theme across 5-8 days of class meetings, you may run across (in fact, it usually happens that one does run across…) a recorded conversation or short audio report or you tube or whatever, or they can play with the topic on their blogs and continue the discussion outside of class time. Then, by the time you have taken them through the steps of pre-writing, outlining, organizing their ideas, etc…, under your close supervision, they are going to have essays that better reflect the thinking they are capable of doing. Then, maybe the second or third time through something like this, you can start to remove some of the supports and give them more of the college experience they are going to face without step by step guidance…
    By the way, I do think that Dylan poem is a strong one and would be well worth getting into. It’s not necessarily the quantity of words or the completeness of sentences always that counts, but how much we can add to the semantic mapping process….
    Hope what I have said doesn’t sound like it’s out of left field. Take what you need and leave the rest…

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