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For example, we might make improvements to standardized tests, but we don’t question enough if standardized tests themselves aren’t the problem. For a long time, I used a band-aid approach to teach writing.Instead, we make incremental changes to things that don’t work. When students had trouble adhering to the 5-paragraph structure, I scaffolded my instruction to make it easier for them to follow.No wonder when I started to teach 11th and 12th grade students that they struggled with writing and thinking beyond what the teacher required.
First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year.
“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students.
After all, I had other things to worry about, like reading all the books I had to teach and managing a classroom of skeptical teenagers. It’s much easier to check if a student’s essay fulfills a template than it is to approach each student essay as its own unique piece of writing, with its own form, structure, purpose, and voice. When students don’t understand something, I try to remember that it’s not only their first time learning something new, but my first time, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about something I heard educator and author Will Richardson say at a conference last spring (and in this TED talk).
To approach writing instruction sans formula is messy. Last year, when I decided to try a different approach with my ninth graders, there were many days I went home feeling like the worst teacher in the world. As one of my mentors often tells me, “Be forgiving. Richardson argued for urgency in our approach to the challenges schools faced.
For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her.
Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn.This suggestion, however, has never felt right to me.It seems like a good compromise: we’ll keep the 5-paragraph essay and just add other types of writing.But what looks like compromise is just more work—more work doing something that 1) may be ineffective, and 2) most teachers simply don’t have time to do.In practice, we prioritize the 5-paragraph essay (which we never do), we tell ourselves we’ll teach other forms of writing (which we really don’t).When I ask a follow-up, “What’s the difference between Didion’s essay and the ones you just described? During our discussion, I admit to students that I’ve been guilty of (over)teaching the 5-paragraph essay.” a student says, not-so-quietly, “It’s well-written.” His classmates laugh. I also tell them, however, that the longer I teach, the more I realize that some of my former teaching practices weren’t always best practices, though I didn’t realize it at the time (former students: my apologies). Some students seem surprised to hear a teacher admit such a thing, but it’s all about having growth mindset, right?Shouldn’t that be how we approach writing, how we frame essays?As a way of getting to because of three very specific reasons outlined in a thesis statement found at the end of an introduction.