On Being an English Teacher and Using Formulaic Writing



Teaching is a tough job and not for the weak.  I don’t necessarily mean physically, but more mentally.  Most days I come home exhausted after talking with over 100 students a day, problem-solving, grading papers, multi-tasking, creating engaging lessons, worrying about my challenge students, changing lessons, fielding phone calls from counselors and administrators, counseling students, oh, and teaching!  After coming home each day, I need a half hour to just sit, watch bad television (thank you, BravoTV for the really bad reality shows you provide-they do help me to escape and make me feel like a better person-do people really act like that?) and drink a cup of tea so I can go on with the second half of my day, which includes cooking dinner, cleaning, laundry and running kids around.  Sound familiar, all you hard-working teachers out there?  I know I’m not alone.

I am an English teacher, or a teacher of writing.  Writing is extremely difficult for students to grasp, or for me to teach, especially when it comes to informative or argumentative writing pieces.  Creative writing comes easily to students; most of the time they write about their most familiar topic-themselves-so it’s easier to find details and information to put into their pieces.  Informational and argumentative writing, where they are being asked to read other resources, pull out relevant information and put it all into a coherent and organized piece of writing, is an entirely different story.  I struggled with this concept for years, until it finally hit me that I was never really taught how to teach writing.  I was always fairly good at writing and it was something which came naturally to me, aiding in my decision to become an English teacher.  So, I intrinsically knew how to write well and knew what needed to be in a solid piece of writing, but as I look back now, I see this as an obstacle to good teaching.  What I mean is, sometimes when you know how to do something instinctively, it is harder to relay that information to another because you expect them to just be able to do it as well.  But having an arsenal of writing strategies to share with students was not something I was taught in my teacher ed classes.  I could create lesson plans, recite the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, use differentiation, utilize backwards assessment, etc., etc., but I did not know how to teach writing to struggling students.  Until I embraced the idea of formulaic writing, which took me a very long time to appreciate and is something I still find myself wrestling with, always justifying it in my mind.

The writing I’m talking about is what is called “Chunk Writing” and it was introduced to me by my colleague and friend with whom I taught at Hiram College.  She and I were teaching together at the Weekend College; I taught a Level 1 Writing Course and she taught Level 2.  She used this method of “Chunk Writing” because she discovered, even at the college level, students struggled with the same issues high school kids found difficult-incorporating quotes, using transitions, citing sources, stating a topic sentence.  When she first showed me the “Chunk Writing” Method, I was not sold at first; my liberal-arts educational background wanted to protest and allow the students to “just write freely”.  But soon, I was completely sold because I saw impressive results once the students started using it, so I brought it to my high school students as well.  And within a year or two, all of the English teachers in the department began using it, with a few tweaks and adjustments here and there to fit their individual teaching styles and writing assignments.  But what I’ve found is that students have improved drastically with their informative and argumentative writing assignments and I attribute part of that to a commonality of language amongst teachers.  When a student hears “Chunk Writing”, they know they are going to have to write a topic sentence, add a main point with a transition, add a relevant quote to back up the main point and add commentary to explain the importance of the quote.  They know it because they’ve been doing it for two years in our career-tech high school and it’s something they take with them when going to college or taking their writing portion of the ACT.  It works.  Not everyone agrees with the format and I’ve had some college professors question my use of it, but my philosophy is, “You have to know the rules to break the rules”.  My students don’t always know the rules, so it’s my job to teach them the rules so they can take the “Chunk Writing” Method and make it their own after gaining a sense of confidence in their writing abilities.  I compare this method to training wheels; once comfortable with riding (or writing), take them off, explore and develop your own style.  But students need the foundation and we as English teachers have the responsibility to teach them the foundations and give students the tools for success.  I now have an arsenal of writing strategies, and I feel it’s made me a better teacher of writing.

I have a public folder with my “Chunk Writing” Resources in my Google Drive.  It includes the following:

  • Chunk Writing Template for my General English Class

  • Chunk Writing Template for my Dual Credit/Honors Class (addition of one “Chunk” and quote)

  • Information on how to write commentary after the quote using “They Say/I Say” Templates (check these out online as well-great resource)

  • Information on integrating and introducing quotes in the paper

  • Sample Chunk Paragraphs for both General and Dual Credit/Honors Classes

  • Sample Essays using the Chunk Writing Template

Feel free to use and take any of these resources for your own teaching if you think this may be something you’d like to use.  Here is the link: https://drive.google.com/a/tctchome.com/?tab=wo#folders/0B-CBIFvkp1wrUzBTM25CNDFtdHM

As a final note, “Chunk Writing” has a few unexpected benefits in terms of grading.  First, the template makes it very easy to grade because certain aspects must be included or students have not completed it correctly.  It almost becomes a checklist for the teacher and streamlines the grading process (add the use of the wonderful online grading tool, “Essaytagger” and you’ll not dread grading again.  Check it out-it was created for English teachers by an English teacher who feels our grading pain:  www.essaytagger.com. Best thing since sliced bread!).  Second, I have not had a problem with plagiarism since incorporating “Chunk Writing”; this method is not widely used, so students cannot find essays online which have been written in this format.  Bonus!

Again, I know formulaic writing is not for everyone and you may use it and find it’s not for you or your students.  But it has honestly changed the way I teach writing and has given confidence to students who felt they just couldn’t write well.  My students tell me all the time that they hated it at first, but now really like it because they have never been able to put their thoughts down on paper in an organized way.  And that is like music to a tired English teacher’s ears…