The Struggles of Teaching Writing in High School

I am taking a graduate class this summer which is about teaching writing.  The class got into a heated discussion last night about the differences between what we, as middle and high school teachers, need to teach versus what is expected to be taught at the college-level.  The idea of structured writing which focuses on formulaic structure with emphasis on correct grammar and spelling conventions was a hot topic, especially when Common Core Standards and standardized testing rest upon the shoulders of public school teachers around the country.  Should we focus on strictly content, or should we emphasize the correct writing conventions?  Should we allow spelling and grammatical errors to cloud the quality of the writing and lower the grade if the content is excellent?  It was an interesting discussion and here is my response to the issue:
The teaching of writing is such a subjective concept.  While one teacher or professor may love one style of writing, another could possibly hate it and criticize it, all the while cutting down the student’s confidence and killing their love of writing.  Therein lies the constant struggle as an English teacher.  When and how to grade for grammatical and structural issues within a writing piece and when to focus strictly on the content in order to give students a broad scope of the writing process so they will be prepared for most anything.  I’m not sure there is a correct answer for this problem nor will there ever be.

Having taught high school for many years, I feel I have a pretty decent grasp of how most high school students write (I would never categorize all students under one sweeping adjective since every student is different and should be recognized as such).  Many struggle with sentence structure and organization; sometimes reading a high school paper is comparable to a wild treasure hunt – trying desperately to find the purpose, the theme, the true “meat” of the paper in a sea of unorganized and random thoughts.  Most high school students need help with basic organization, so I always make sure we get the traditional essay down first, especially the thesis statement.  It may sound old-fashioned or stuffy, but I have found this essay becomes essentially “training wheels” for the students; it forces them to write in a more rigid fashion, but in doing so, teaches them the basic outline or skeleton of a writing piece and they can eventually veer from this format once they are more confident with their writing.  And, yes, on first drafts I do check for spelling and grammar issues, however, I always make sure I give positive feedback as well.  I do take points off for these issues, but I do so to ensure students are aware of them and the issues don’t undermine the quality of the writing.  Here is my take on this:  I want to be completely honest and let the kids know what it is they need to work on within their own writing because many times they are not sure or they are simply unaware of certain writing rules and conventions.  It’s the equivalent to having a big chunk of spinach protruding from your front teeth and walking around all day and having not one single person inform you of the offensive green leaf shoved unceremoniously in your mouth.  I would want to know when there is spinach in my teeth just as students should know what it is that is ails their papers.  By not telling, we are not helping to save someone the embarrassment of green teeth nor are we being honest with our students about their writing.

On the other hand, I agree that students should experience writing many different types of papers.  Simply writing the same tired and dreary five-paragraph essay over and over does not a good writer make.  We write novels during November’s National Writing Month, we write narrative pieces, we do many free-writes to start class; I really do try to mix up the types of assignments.  This is important to do so in order to play to the strengths of different learners in the classroom since I always have my left-brain students who love research and the structure of a thesis paper and my right-brainers who thrive with the creative assignments.  Balance.  If I were to describe what epitomizes an effective classroom in one word, it would be “balance”.  Kids have to work hard, learn the conventions, get upset when I give some constructive feedback, call me bad names in their heads, rewrite, edit, revise, be proud of the final draft, like me again as a teacher, gain confidence as a writer, then go out, have some fun with the writing and break the rules!  They need to be able to party with the proverbial lampshade on their heads with their writing, only after they’ve completed all the grunt work beforehand.  Then, I can send them off to college knowing that they have the confidence to write in many different ways with the freedom that they will be given outside the walls of a high school.  Image
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