Transparency, Agency, and Building a Community of Writers

If only I could articulate to my students exactly what drives my actions as a teacher. Every time I try, I feel like I’m making an awkward soap-box type speech in which we are too serious and all eyes are on me and I remain the figure of authority that I’d like to subvert a little bit, because a community of writers needs to see me as a fellow writer, not as the gatekeeper, not as the giver of grades. I really struggle with this.

And so today, inspired by the Two Writing Teachers post I linked to earlier, I tried to explain in note form to my students the dilemma I was having over giving them grades at this point, knowing their struggles with navigating new experiences and expectations. Moreover, I was completely blown away by how handicapped my students feel by the 5 paragraph essay they were taught throughout grade school, something that was made known to me through their reflection letters that were part of their Unit 1 Invention Portfolio. As one teacher friend said to me as I was trying to figure out how to respond:

This line from NCTE’s Belief’s about the Teaching of Writing made me think of you:

“Often in school… students are taught a single type of writing and are led to believe this type will suffice in all situations.”

They all can’t get past that 5-paragraph essay model because that’s all they were taught.

Which is exactly what my students have said. The 5-paragraph essay is all they know.

How do you assess writing without also boxing in a writer’s efforts? I explained that a grade is not a measure of your ability to write, that it isn’t about the quality of the writing but rather about completion: did you do the assignment? Did you do what I asked you to? But then my rubric breaks it down further: how well did you do what I asked you to? The categories are as follows: Not Applied, Needs Improvement, Applied Consistently, and Excellent. Is that a measure of quality, afterall? Am I contradicting myself here?

Unit 1 is worth 10 pts out of 100. 10% of their grade. Low-stakes, but still significant.

What happens when completing an assignment takes a student so far out of their comfort zone that it can’t be their best writing because it’s so radically different from what they’re used to? How do we take that into consideration when grading? How do I account for the fact that my students have a skill set – the 5-paragraph essay – that I don’t want to discount entirely (because that makes them feel unprepared and incapable) but rather use as a jumping off point into a more broad understanding of college-level writing (positioning them as able to succeed)?

And how can I make more apparent the difference between grading on quality versus completion? How can I convey that grades aren’t fixed entities to a class of students who have been drilled on one-and-done, high-stakes test performance for their entire education? How do I build a community of writers when, in the end, I am still giving grades?

I have so many questions.

I can justify my grades like this: If I’m baking banana bread, and it doesn’t turn out so great, I need someone (or myself) to acknowledge that it needs improvement. It doesn’t mean I’ll never make great banana bread, it just means that something didn’t go quite right this time. Being able to identify what I need to do differently next time is huge in terms of self-efficacy…if I don’t know how to improve, I won’t feel capable of trying again.

It’s also like craft. If I’m knitting a scarf and I make a mistake, I have to take it apart and go back to that dropped stitch. I have to figure out what caused me to make a mistake – are the needles uncomfortable? I used bamboo needles for a while, but the tips got so dull after a while that it was really hard for me to knit with any fluidity. Or maybe I was using cheap yarn. Or maybe I was rushing. Or maybe I’m just still learning…I haven’t been knitting very long (a few years), and I’ve never knit anything very complex. And that’s okay.

I’m not sure, though, that I would have been able to understand this as a college freshman. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to understand this even two years ago.

So back to that blog post about building community: I brought copies of the blog post to class and then we discussed together some of the connections we made with what the author had written. Most of my students wished out loud that they would have had a teacher like her, and one mentioned that having the opportunity to identify weaknesses (or areas of improvement) earlier on in his education would have really helped him along the way. Almost all of them said they felt nervous about asking for help. One student pointed out that those who determine what is taught and how have never been in a classroom as an adult, and that she wished more teachers were like the author of the post.

The author, Nicole Frederickson, had her middle school students write her a note as another form of “assessment:” “Dear Mrs. F., here’s what you need to know about me as a writer.”

I asked my students to do the same. “Dear Ms. Lonsdale, here’s what you need to know about me as a writer.” I have 24 notes from my students, and I wrote one for them:

photo (10)

But is that enough?

I handed back their grades. We moved into our unit on genre, and they made fun of me for trying to analyze rap (like, they took a picture and it’s probably already on Instagram). They probably love me right now because I didn’t assign any major homework (long reading or writing).

What now? How can I be more transparent about my thought process, especially in terms of assessment and support, and how can I continue to maintain that transfer of agency from an authoritative, top-down model to a more community-oriented, workshop-based practice?

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12 thoughts on “Transparency, Agency, and Building a Community of Writers

  1. I love this Chelsea and I love your thought process. I have to admit, hearing your students lament about how the 5-paragraph essay was all they wrote in high school and being told by doom and gloom teachers that the 8th graders I taught last year were going to get nothing but 5-paragraph essays in high school so we better get them started on them now, makes me really wish I could redo the whole year and have done a multi-genre research project with them instead of a term paper. I allowed that alarmist attitude to make me part of the problem and as a result, I think their writing suffered.

  2. A thoughtful post! I keep wondering how you build a school essay, though, without the structuring form. You can’t knit without knowing the two stitches, and you can’t bake (well) without standard measures. People who don’t teach the 5-paragraph form tend to substitute more complicated paragraph recipes, which don’t – in my mind – contribute much more than the 5P (which was based on Quintillian’s model). The problem with the banana bread and knitting analogies is that we all respect the rights of creators and critics to disagree on say, whether banana bread should have nuts or whether pink lace is appropriate for that baby blanket – but we tend not to extend that ambiguity to student writers. (We totally extend it to professional creative writers. They can mix in, leave out, reorder, run-on, fragment – whatever they want because we trust them to have a purpose and a goal, even when they might not. Business writers almost never write alone – another courtesy we tend not to extend to students.) In the absence of purpose and peer review, what do we expect students to produce?

    • I think we still need to teach a structure form, but we teach the general structure of intro-body-conclusion rather than emphasizing that they must have only three supporting body paragraphs like the five paragraph form; then we can elaborate on how the introduction-body-conclusion has variations in different genres.

  3. God bless you!! Just yesterday, my students were asking how long their persuasive paper must be before printing. My answer was, “Until you have persuaded the reader.” They all just stared at me. One finally, boldly, stated: “So 5 paragraphs.” I cringed and growled.

  4. I myself teach Students at foundation level how to write a five -paragraph essay on cause and effect, problem -solution and argumentation. I try to give them the guidelines(map) of their essay which should contain introduction with clear thesis statement, three supporting body paragraphs and a conclusion. Reminding to include spices (transition words) Actually, I stress it over and over because I teach project-based learning (projects) which is overlapped with writing process especially for introductions and conclusions. Also, it is related to problem-based learning to finally suggest or recommend or predict .

  5. 1. Consider yourself lucky that most of your students are so familiar with the 5 Paragraph Theme. I have taught classes with college freshman who had never heard the concept (or chose not to absorb it when taught previously).
    2. I agree with mgarcia that the structuring form of the 5 paragraph theme is crucial to understanding how to write an academic argumentative essay, and it has served me well from high school all the way through my PhD dissertation. The general concept of the 5 paragraph theme is the basis for everything I write, and everything I write is a variation on that 5 paragraph theme. If the 5P is structured as upside-down triangle (general to specific thesis), three squares (evidence analysis paragraphs), and right-side up triangle (restate thesis, generalize out from there), it is a solid basis from which to start a more complex argumentative essay. But sometimes those triangles should be broken up into two or more pieces; you can include many, many squares as evidence; you’ll probably have to throw in a circle (historical context) or star (vivid description) or hexagon (transition), etc, along with your squares. And the bottom of that triangle should probably be inserted regularly throughout.
    I teach/reinforce the importance of that basic essay they know as a starting point, but emphasize that it’s not always (actually quite rarely in college writing) an adequate finishing point.

    • I completely agree with this.

      I also have my students do different types of writing and require different formatting for that writing. For example, when doing a definition argument, the five-paragraph structure works perfectly. You establish a term and criteria, then you go about proving those criteria in each paragraph. However, for a proposal argument, you’ll have more paragraphs, the paragraphs will focus on different things so you can’t lay out a three-part thesis, but you still have to prove your claim that the proposed solution works.

      Then, there are the assignments that I say, “Okay, this has to be single-spaced and you need to bold this or that, and the paragraphs do this or this” or “Do a creative response, enter a page break, and then do a two-paragraph analysis.” Sometimes I have them write one or two paragraphs and tell them not to write a conclusion or introduction paragraph and it throws them off, of course, because they ALWAYS write conclusion or intro paragraphs. And I take off points if they don’t because it doesn’t matter what they always do, it matters what I asked for.

  6. Apparently, students in high school are not taught how to write a summary, either. Paraphrasing remains a mysterious skill as well–a word they’ve heard but cannot explain or apply. These writing skills are basic to most college-level writing, and part of the problem is that high school students “know how to read” but don’t actually think much about what they’ve read.

    I start by having students write short assignments (summaries and paraphrases). You can’t move on towards analysis and such if you haven’t told your reader what it is you are analyzing.

    I definitely try encouragement first, though, by acknowledging the structural importance of the 5p essay and the 3-pronged thesis. The first paper is usually acceptable if the student uses those formatting skills. I tell them they have to move beyond the basics rapidly, however, and I assure them they are capable of that movement.

  7. I enjoyed this immensely. I am currently teaching AP English as well as seniors, and it’s difficult to explain that quality is much more important than quantity. However, it is very difficult to encourage colleagues to embrace alternate options for essay formats because they are under the impression that the “good ‘ole” 3×5 essay is what will get kids through college. Thank you for offering a perspective with which many of us can relate.

  8. Pingback: Transparency, Agency, and Building a Community of Writers | Sequentur Verbe

  9. I love this post and am going to share it with the instructors with whom I work, too. When I work with students, we work a lot on finding the appropriate form for the writing that they are producing — which requires them (and me!) to think about audience, purpose, and context. This idea that everything — form, content, style, even syntax — follows ‘function’ (analysis of purpose, audience, and context) is often very new, as many of these posts have suggested. But I also find that the more students go to tried-and-true school-invented modes (5 paragraph, compare-contrast, description, etc.) the less they think about analyzing the specific expectations of *this* context (whatever those are) and think about how they can draw on what they know to meet those. We also talk a lot (!) about seemingly straightforward actions like paraphrase and summary — since the ways that evidence is used within different disciplines/within different context varies so widely — it all loops back to that analysis. And back to the *original* subject of the blog entry – it is tricky to work with students to navigate these new ways of thinking which, to them, are very “troublesome.” On the other hand, once we find paths through the troublesomeness, there’s a lot of growth — which is great!

  10. Pingback: Debrief | the parable maternal: a blog on education, literacy, and writing instruction.

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