“I Wish We Had a Template”

I like to take time for mid-course reflections as a way of assessing how kids are doing. I’ve found they tend to be more honest at this point in the course after having a few papers assigned and returned and after being around me (and realizing that while some of the rumors about me being tough are entirely accurate, other rumors are probably not). Today, I asked them what they aspects of their writing they felt positively about, what they wished we could spend more time doing and a suggestion about how to improve the remaining classes (about 2.5 weeks worth).

One student wished we could use a template more for writing assignments. These kids are relatively skilled with formulas as they prepare to enter their junior year. They know, generally, that if they can plug an analysis into five paragraphs, do some integration of quotes and have a decent thesis, they’ll typically receive a good grade. As another student noted, “The writing criteria and expectations here [are] totally different from my school so it kind of threw me off when I would write something.”

I don’t eschew formulaic writing. In fact, I learned how to do it and can draw on that knowledge when I work with younger writers because they have some general understanding of it. But, what happens when kids can’t move past the formula? I ask them to stretch their writing. I am demanding (but a warm demander): I want more analysis beyond a summary or a pat so what. I want nuance. I want counterarguments. I want to be moved. And I tell them all of this and we write and revise and revise until we approach or exceed those expectations, but it’s often not a linear movement. Instead, I often look at something they’ve written and rework it with students because (usually) I didn’t explain it correctly or clearly, or I’ve noticed something else about their writing that needs attention.

I don’t provide a template. Don’t get me wrong: I used to provide templates and the kitchen sink. I was doing waaay too much for the kids and they didn’t really have to put that much work into their writing. I was young and didn’t have a full handle on real writing.

This entry isn’t complete. I’m still turning over what it means to take away the template and to teach writing to kids in ways that matter, ways that don’t conform to five paragraphs, and ways that are about something.

This summer course always is the place that these ideas begin, get turned around, reformulated…yet another reason why I love the summer.

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