Teaching Meaningful Writing: Ditch Lit-Crit and the Five-Paragraph Essay
Part One: Process Analysis
A few years ago, I received an e-mail from a teacher at another school in our district. She would be teaching AP English Language and Composition for the first time and sought my advice (as I had developed a reputation as a knowledgeable and effective teacher of writing and had taught the course for close to a decade, delivering several professional development sessions in the district along the way). I felt honored. I also probably overwhelmed the poor teacher with my brashness and abundance of advice—as if I could come close to taking my experiences and insights and fitting them into a single e-mail. I wish I could revisit that email, and give her something simple, something that would have served as a starting point in a continuing conversation.
With that in mind, I am not going to try to cram what I have learned as a writer and a teacher of writing into a single post. I will keep some of the boldness, though: You need to be a strong, confident writer if you expect students to learn from you. Unfortunately, many English majors-turned-teachers are competent at one genre: literary criticism.
More disappointingly, they teach students a strict format that students use as a crutch for way too long: the five-paragraph essay, or as Janet Emig derisively called it in her seminal 1971 monograph, “the Fifty-Star Theme,” a universally taught structure that did little more than “oversimplify” (98) writing. Emig, in examining writing instruction for twelfth-grade students, noted the disconnect between real writing and what instructors taught. She stated that, consequently, the students resented writing instruction, greeting it with “inward hostility and cynicism” as their teachers focused on “spelling, punctuation, penmanship, and length” (93).
It is worth noting that each of these elements is easily graded, and that teachers can, therefore, justify their final verdicts upon student papers by counting errors and deducting points accordingly. These educators make writing a chore, an occasion for students to expect punitive and oppressive feedback. Why do they do it? Maybe because they do not know any better. Their pedagogy might be lacking. Their knowledge of writing might also be limited. What is good writing? For them, the answer could be best stated by Justice Potter Stewart’s famous words on obscenity: “I’ll know it when I see it.” But how do we teach it?
I suggest starting simply and expanding one’s repertoire to genres that comprise “real writing” in the eyes of students. Face it; only a tiny, tiny minority of students will need to write literary criticism in their college careers. Teach those few (and the rest) to be good writers first, and they’ll pick up the conventions of that genre when the time comes. I will touch upon two genres that I find essential for students. In this blog, I will describe the process analysis, a genre the students learn at the beginning of the term. The second, reflection, I save until the end, for reasons that I will explain in the next post.
Every time we watch a do-it-yourself television show or YouTube video, we are watching “process analysis.” The writers of the show have presented a larger task, usually one that seems daunting taken as a whole—renovating an old home, for example—and made it doable by showing and explaining the purpose of each step along the way. Hence, they convey a process, and they analyze each step’s contribution to the whole project.
Audiences like watching these, and readers enjoy them as well. Honestly, readers like nearly anything with a list or a ranking, and while there is no ranking involved in the process analysis, the list of steps provides a tidy way to for writers to organize their work for the readers’ convenience. I teach this early in the semester for several reasons. For one, the students choose their own topics, typically within arenas they already know (for example, a student on the school’s swim/dive team might write about how to do an inward dive or someone who loves cooking might explain steps in baking a red velvet cake or, the more creative types, might explain things like “How to convince your parents you’re really a kid—even when you’re not,” a paper a student really wrote). Second, the genre demands clear writing and tight organization: matters that will be part of our work throughout the semester.
For teaching the process analysis, I have my own process that I will, well, analyze briefly.
- As with any new assignment, I provide brief instructions on the characteristics to notice before looking at models of the writing. For the process analysis, this is quite simple. There will be (usually) chronological steps or stages towards a greater end goal. Each step requires a description and an explanation: What needs to be done? How is it done? Why do it? As with any writing project, a strong introduction that provides the piece’s context, importance, and a preview is desirable. Usually, a summary conclusion is sufficient, though alternatives are certainly viable.
- Next, I start with popular models, for example, video footage from the series Man vs. Wild. We watch as Bear Grylls explains how to survive being stranded in the Mojave Desert. He explains steps like finding water (and why that is step one), ensuring water is drinkable, avoiding the traumas of sun exposure, preventing overheating, etc. As they watch, students must identify two or three stages of his progress and analyze these stages through his explanations. They are learning analysis by watching analysis, and they should be noticing the practicality in the skill.
- With this visual demonstration (full of practical knowledge, I might add), students are more prepared to read models. Favorites include Lars Eighner’s “On Dumpster Diving” and Jessica Mitford’s “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain.” I personally like Ben Ehrenreich’s “The End: What Really Happens After You Die?”, though it may be better-suited for more mature, more advanced classes. He brings vivacity to an unpleasant topic—what happens when a person dies in Los Angeles. Or just go to a used book store and find a college composition book, the type used in English 101; it will most likely have a section of process analyses. I like the aforementioned titles because they take the students a little out of their comfort zone, but also because they are so different from the plain-Jane fare of high school text-books. The writing is real.
- As inspiration, so to speak, I read my own process analysis. I am a firm believer in being able to do any assignment that I expect a 16-year-old kid to complete. I also reinforce that writing is important to me as more than something to teach and that adults, even an adult they know, rely on good writing skills.
- By this time, the students have most likely started to form their own ideas. Regardless, I encourage them to use at least one of our freewriting sessions to brainstorm or to develop what they already have in mind. Invention is a vital part of the writing process, but one that is not easily taught, one that is often neglected. If students struggle with freewriting for this assignment, they can simply list things they like doing or that they have to do (washing the dog, for instance). I let them know that if they choose something that is mundane on the surface—like washing the dog—they need to make it unique with their voice or with personal insights.
- The students take turn reading their papers out loud. I only require a process with at least four steps and ask the students to keep their writing fairly short. This is an informal paper in the class, one that I will not grade (or even read). They receive credit for writing the paper and having the courage to read in front of the class. This is an idea I borrowed from Peter Elbow.
Why the read aloud? If I am able to read everything they write, they’re not writing enough. They write for a genuine audience: their peers. As they read, they notice things about their writing. For example, if they are out of breath, maybe they need to work on their syntax. If they stumble over words, maybe their diction is not reflecting their real voice. If they feel like their sentences have a redundant cadence, they probably do. If a sentence makes little or no sense as they read it aloud, then they know they need to revise more carefully in the future. As the rest of the class listens, they need to pay attention to what works and what they might use in their writing. If the piece kept their attention throughout, what elements helped? How did the introduction accomplish its goals, for example. If they grew bored, what caused this? What could have helped the piece? To paraphrase Elbow, the students are doing a lot of learning while I am doing very little teaching. I have found that read aloud assignments are among the students’ favorites, and the days when they hear each other read become some of the most memorable days in class.
I have described some basics for teaching the process analysis. As I wrote, it is wonderful as a beginning-of-the-year assignment. It also serves as a springboard to other papers that will require more analysis. In the process analysis, they take apart something they should already know; in their next paper, they usually do a rhetorical analysis of a president’s speech and, thus, must take it apart and see how its elements work.
Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power, 2nd Ed., Oxford University Press, 1998.
Emig, Janet. The Composing Practices of Twelfth Graders, NCTE, 1971.