How not to teach writingJune 6, 2008
The March 2008 issue of English Journal includes an article by Alec Duxbury, a teacher at University Prep in Seattle. It’s called The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement, and it’s basically a well-reasoned rant against the way writing is commonly taught in high school:
The error in pedagogy that governs the essay is built on the sanctity of the thesis statement and the insistence that formula will produce quality writing. Teachers ask students to find a thesis statement first and to organize the content of their writing around that thesis statement. Most students encounter this set of rules in the general category of the five-paragraph essay, a form that students know exactly how to produce by the time they leave middle school.
I once was one of those students. Like many others, I mastered the five-paragraph essay in middle school. So why did my peers and I spend most of high school writing more and more essays in this same general format? Weren’t we ready for some new challenges? Didn’t we deserve a bit more artistic freedom?
Alec suggests that writing is taught this way in part because it makes grading easy. “The assessment of most thesis-first writing assignments,” he says, “is accomplished by checking the introduction for a three-part thesis statement, counting the number of examples, checking for topic sentences, and noting the repetition of the three-part thesis statement in the concluding paragraph.” But if the assignments don’t serve a useful pedagogical purpose, why bother?
There are appealing and effective alternatives to the thesis-centric mindset. At a summer camp I attended when I was 13, I penned many dissimilar types of essays: a personal narrative, a compare-and-contrast piece, an extended definition of a commonly misunderstood word, a satire, a movie review, and so on. I received thoughtful feedback that focused on important rhetorical issues, such as my relationship to my audience, rather than my ability to adhere to a rigid template. I learned lessons that have stayed with me to this day, some obvious in retrospect (don’t satirize Miami Vice unless you’ve actually seen it) and others less so (think of a review not as a list of likes and dislikes, but as an evaluation of the creative choices made by the artists).
By the time I finished high school, however, I was so immersed in the “support a single overarching thesis with a slew of examples” mode of writing that I found it awkward to do anything else. Even worse, this thesis-driven writing style started to affect my reading style. I approached each piece of literature with the goal of discovering its “one true meaning,” and I tended to ignore aspects that couldn’t be packaged into a tidy, concise interpretation. Once I reached college, my English 101 professor had to spend an entire semester convincing me that sometimes authors meant to be ambiguous and that I should reflect upon this ambiguity rather than ignoring it.
For students to learn the art of writing, certain conditions must be met within the classroom. Teachers must be ready to respond to the writing their students produce. To do this, teachers must be willing to write themselves, to risk the making of meaning with their writing, to provide a probing response to the writing their students produce, to engage student writing in a conversational manner, and to qualify — not quantify — the work they receive from students. The students themselves must be allowed to begin with a question on a topic or book, to seek its answer, to write themselves into a position of strength, to weigh and question the meanings they find in books, and to begin a piece of writing without knowing where it will end.
I hope that teachers around the world — including those at my old high school, who are outstanding in many respects — will take these words to heart.