Monday, May 6, 2013
"I Hated It" (I Don't Blame You)
Yesterday in a coffee shop, I ran into a student I'd taught a few years ago. She was home for the summer from college (already!) and looking happy to be in a summer mode. We chatted briefly, and then she told me she'd hated her freshman writing class, just completed. Nothing but standard essays, she said. It was boring.
I've written before about how--in this test-obsessed era in education--we reduce the curriculum to things that seem easy to measure, easy to test. And so for a complicated thing like an essay, we simplify, simplify, simplify, teaching our students an essay form (often five paragraphs long--and only five paragraphs long) that exists nowhere else but in schoolrooms. I read lots of essays--in newspapers, magazines, journals, collections. No one uses that format--no one anyone else wants to read, that is. But we pound that essay form into our students, year after year after year, principally because it's easy to assess.
Does it have an introduction? A thesis statement that identifies the topics to follow? Topic sentences perched atop each paragraph--topic sentences that refer to the thesis statement? At least three or four good examples in each paragraph? A conclusion that revisits--yet again! (are readers stupid?)--the topics mentioned in the thesis? Check! Check! Check! A good essay!
No, a boring essay. A bad essay. I used to tell my students that the only thing worse than having to write one of those ugly things was to have to read fifty of them in a row. It's mind-numbing.
By the way, I am not arguing that we ought to eliminate simple exposition from the writing curriculum--there's a place for it (a small place). But in the great universe of writing, the five-paragraph essay is a tiny island on a tiny planet in a tiny solar system in a tiny galaxy. Why do we act as if it's all in all?
Real essays--actual breathing, living, animated essays--are fun to write and read. Readers can see the writer figuring out a problem, can follow his or her route(s) through the tangled wood, can arrive at a surprising place, a place that may be beautiful and sunlit, dark and disturbing, wacky and wonderful, funny or emotionally wrenching, ... and on and on and on and on. Along the way, we listen to the writer's voice, that unique whisper. Unique.
I wasted a lot of time in my teaching career shoving the five-paragraph essay down my students' throats. For a number of years, I thought that's what writing was (the form was in textbooks for English teachers); for more years, I did it because I had to. It was official policy; the kids had to pass a writing test in the spring. And so--year after year--I taught lies about writing.
The last few years of my career, I got sneaky. I limited that essay form to but one marking period with my high school juniors--the marking period right before they had to take their test. Before and after? We wrote more personal essays, essays that connected them in direct ways to what they were reading. They wrote pieces about their families (we were reading plays about the American family); they wrote about their relationship with Shakespeare (we were reading Hamlet); they wrote about a favorite book from childhood (they had to go find it, re-read it, see how it affected them now); they wrote about parties in their lives (they were reading The Great Gatsby); and so on. I wanted them to connect their pieces in direct ways to what we were reading and talking about, but I did not want them to write uniform pieces that could have been written by anyone. A good piece of writing is something that no one else could have written. It has a unique whisper.
I know that it's a losing battle nowadays. The Test Kings and Queens are firmly on their thrones across the land, and they will not willingly surrender. And they are pounding standard essays down the throats of students everywhere.
But if you force something down someone's throat, you really shouldn't be surprised by what comes out at the other end.