I’ve heard Donald Graves speak many times. I even hugged him once. I believe most of what he says like that of the other Durham Don, Donald Murray, to be gospel, but it’s his statement to a roomful of teachers that we should write our assignments with our students as “it saves a lot of stupid writing” that’s been on my mind a lot lately.
Last week I sat with a very recent former student, who when asked what I might do differently with my future students, advised me to spend more time on writing. I sat forward, puzzled. We had in fact spent a great deal of time writing. Did she love it so much that she wanted more? Sadly, no. What she thought I should have done is given her the formula to good paragraphs that her social studies teacher provided for her. “You know, I wish you had told us that every paragraph should have between seven and eleven sentences, and the order we should put the sentences in…”
I was flabbergasted. I tried to be diplomatic without undercutting my well-intentioned colleague. After all, here was a content teacher trying to teach writing, not merely assigning it. “Well, I disagree philosophically with that practice, but if that’s helpful to you, great.” We moved on to other matters.
This weekend I worked with a close family friend on a four-page research paper. Four pages doesn’t sound very daunting, but this articulate, well-read junior who rises at six on weekend mornings to begin working on homework sat stymied. Her English teacher had set so many parameters around this particular assignment down to detailing how many sentences should be dedicated to each of seven different objectives in her introductory paragraph alone that they overwhelmed this excellent student.
Like the history teacher I mentioned earlier, I believe the teacher who created this assignment and the one hundred fifty notecards it required to be equally well-intentioned. They want their students to write well, to prepare them for college and beyond, but are going about it all wrong. If they follow Don’s advice and complete their own assignments, they’d quickly see the error of their ways.
I’ve followed this advice and found to be wanting several times. Whether it’s not allowing enough time to complete the task well or commanding too many unnecessary preliminaries, each time I either revamped the assignment before I assigned it to them or did so as we went along with egg on my face. Either way we were both spared inauthentic and painful writing. I can assure you these missteps will not be my last, but at least I recognize them now.
Recently I wrote and submitted two grant proposals. Each required you to follow a format, detailing what material should be covered in each paragraph, word length, etc. While I appreciated having guidelines, I felt constrained as I argued why my particular projects deserved funding. I wanted more latitude to develop my case before the grantors. I’ll find out soon enough if I was sufficiently persuasive to earn the grants. If I don’t, I’ll always wonder whether my words or my projects weren’t strong enough.
I’ve written before on the necessity of teachers of writing to be writers themselves (see www.ncte.org/journals/vm/issues/v11-2 for the article if you’re interested), so I won’t go into that now. But if you can’t or won’t commit yourself to this, at least attempt your own assignments. You’ll discover what you’re really asking your kids to do.