Monday, February 11, 2013

Finding the Balance in Writing Instruction

This week, I read a passage from a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, including her chapter on the meaning of discipline. She writes: "Without discipline, we simply don't have the support we need to evolve...The discipline is to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose--between not too laid back and not too rigid. Within this structure, we proceed with compassion."

What does this have to do with writing instruction, you ask? Well, a few days ago, I emailed one of my former professors who is famous in the field of writing research, and I  asked him if there was any evidence for the "natural process" approach to writing. This approach asserts that students should write about what they want, and teachers will conference with them about what they have written. Many advocates of this approach, such as Donald Murray (1980) have asserted that teachers should not explicitly teach students the 'rules' of writing, such as organizational patterns or ways to combine sentences, because this approach can stifle the natural process of writing.

My professor told me that there was no research suggesting that this more 'open' approach to writing produced positive results. In his words: "The research basis supporting writing workshops is anecdotal, selective, and highly dubious." 

At the same time, however, I have also worked in a middle school in which teachers were required to adhere to the "Jane Schaffer" model of writing, in which almost every sentence is prescribed in the famous (or should I say "infamous") five-paragraph essay. For example, every introductory paragraph needs a thesis, then every following paragraph should include a topic sentence, with evidence, followed by explanations of how that evidence supports the topic sentence, which supports the thesis. This approach, too, failed miserably in the middle school I observed, which had the one of the lowest writing exam scores in the district. The students hated it and felt it stifled their expression.

Which brings me to my original quotation from Pema Chodron. She says that in life, having discipline means establishing structures for ourselves, but not clinging to these structures too loosely or too tightly. By analogy, the same is true for writing instruction. Research has shown that students benefit from some structure, but too much structure can become formulaic and can shut down ideas.

Where is the line? I think that it depends on the class, the teacher, and the writing assignment. I think as human beings, we tend to want answers, such as "just give me the method that works." But, in my personal philosophy, life is more contextual and shifting than that. Consequently, reflective teachers have to walk the path of "not too loose and not too tight" for each writing assignment, identifying how they can provide structure for their students while still giving them a degree of freedom. Lastly, don't forget: proceed with compassion.

P. S. As a teacher, I want to add a disclaimer that I don't intend for this posting to be an endorsement of Buddhism, nor am I against Buddhism. I said in an earlier posting that I was a wanderer, which means I read works from different world philosophies. It just so happens that Pema's quote hit me this week as I was thinking about writing instruction. :)

1 comment:

  1. I really liked the quote that you gave! It really gave me a lot to think about as a future teacher! I don't want to be one of those teachers that it is my way or not way at all, but I don't want to leave it all up to the students as well. The question that I have to ask myself is how can I incorporate the line between teacher and student learning in my content area. It is something that I feel won't come all at once, but it will come as I continually am teaching and learning! I really want to be that teacher that allows my students to be able to make their own path, but at the same time stays within the path. So, I personally need to find the balance of "not too loose and not too tight."
    Thanks for this post it has really given me a lot to think about in my teaching!