The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

P.S.Writing is an Art, Not a Technical Skill

Having written about my own theory of how to teach writing earlier this week, I will take this opportunity to add a P.S.

 Just yesterday I read an advertisement for a seminar offered by someone well recognized in the field of teaching writing. It introduced her as “an engaging “speaker who has a vast amount of experience in the field of children’s writing and is a published author.” Then it listed her major teaching strategies “appropriate for all grades.”

  1. Use the traits to dive deeply into student writing.
  2. Use writing folders to practice revision and editing skills.
  3. Use reading to improve writing.
  4. Use warm-ups to scaffold writing practice
  5. Use RAFTS to inspire strong writing in the content areas
  6. Use the modes to clarify the purpose for writing
  7. Use focus lessons to develop targeted skills and strategies

Huh? I have no idea what she means in strategies numbers 1, 4, 5, and 6. by using the words “traits.” “diving deeply” warm-ups’ “RAFTS” or “Modes”. Couldn’t she, as a recognized expert in the teaching of writing, have used language that was more meaningful to the teachers who might be interested in taking her seminar?

Although I could also describe the teaching strategies of other writing experts I’ve met or read about, I don’t think they would be much better. From my experience they would be likely to emphasize focus on improving vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation and revision and not succeed in improving students’ writing much at all.

The problem is that is that writing is taught today as if it were just a group of technical skills, when it is really a wide range of artistic abilities, comprised of different forms suitable for certain purposes and audiences. Students, as they go through the grades should have experiences with many of those forms, their purposes and how they differ in structure, language, tone, etc. Since students read pieces of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, business writing, and political speeches as they go through the grades and in their personal lives,  shouldn’t they also have opportunities to learn how to write most of them? In my opinion becoming adept in  many different forms of writing is as important as anything else in preparing students for college, careers and their personal lives.


Teaching Writing More Realistically than Prescribed by the Common Core State Standards

Today’s post may seem aimed at teachers, but my purpose in writing it is to remind readers to speak out against the Common Core State Standards once again.  Although I have often said before that the CCSS was too much focussed on rigor and not at all on vigor, it remains the basis for determining the reading and writing curriculum in our public schools. 

In writing about writing today I had planned to begin by quoting the descriptions provided in the introductions to The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for reading and writing in all grades. But when I looked them up once again, I saw  them so stuffed with elegant language that they would have filled up this page and left many readers uninformed. So, for your sake–and mine– I will try to give you a shorter, more understandable interpretation:

The CCSS expects K-5 students to improve their writing skills each year while reading  longer and more difficult stuff. It expects Grade 6-12 kids to do the same

Instead, I have a far different opinion about what is reasonable to expect from students of different ages, grades, and abilities. I say that they should read a wide range of age-appropriate professional writing, and then be encouraged to use their topics, structures, styles, and vocabulary as supports for their own writing.

Such was our philosophy of teaching writing in both schools where I was principal. And it worked very well. In our classrooms writing experiences started with students reading a piece of professional writing they could understand and appreciate . As a group they discussed it’s features and then each person decided  which ones to use in his or her own writing.

One piece of professional writing I have referred to before because it was–and still is–very popular with primary grade teachers is “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No good Day” by Judith Viorst. Students are told they should use as much of its structure, style, and language as they need to describe a day of their own experience, one that was bad, good, funny, boring, or just worth remembering. Not only did almost all the pieces students wrote turn out to be well crafted, but also many of them were highly original, using only the base story’s structure for support.

Teachers at higher grade levels used the same ways to get students to connect their writing to the things they were studying.  They might be asked to produce poems, business letters, descriptions of historic events, or scientific observations, each based on a piece of professional writing they had read.

Earlier, as a high school English teacher, I had used a similar approach to help students write well, but I was careful not to propose pieces that were clearly beyond their reach. For instance, my students sometimes read works by Shakespeare, but I didn’t ask them to produce elegies or poems or use the language of his time. Instead a typical assignment might be to write diary pages for a character in a piece of fiction students were reading or to produce a speech on the same topic a famous person had chosen. An even more common assignment was to respond to a news article we had read and discussed in class.

To summarize, the principles I advocate for teaching writing at any grade level are to have students read pieces of professional writing they can use as guides and support for their own writing. Pardon my egotism, but I think this approach is  far more effective for teaching writing than the CCSS, which focus solely on making reading and writing more difficult and boring every year.


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