Sunday, 16 February 2014

Frankenstein’s Essay – To improve, this letter of application needs a simile and some rhetorical questions in it.

The more I teach English, the more I am faced with difficult questions. What coloured post-its should I use in this lesson? Should I use the whiteboard this lesson? Or, should I use the interactive whiteboard? There are these questions, and then there are the bubbling questions that hide under the surface of an English teacher’s brain. Or, any teacher really. The kind of questions that make you question your sanity. They are the questions that the public would openly laugh in your face if you dared speak or share them. So, you keep these questions to yourself for fear of being a laughing-stock. The problem, for me, is that these questions never go away. They sit and sit and wait and wait for the right moment.

I had some INSET training this week about pushing A*s and two of these questions came to the front of the empty, vacuous space I call a head (trading standards would have me if I called it a mind). The training session was good, but I sat there and thought of a question, well two to be precise. Questions that challenged the common accepted norm of education. Things that everybody has accepted as being the norm. Joe Kirby and David Didau have recently done similar things in their blogs.  They have questioned about ‘fun’ or ‘entertaining’ teaching methods. I too have had similar thoughts about this topic, but when mentioning such thoughts on Twitter I was virtually pelted with eggs. It was as if I had taken kitten kicking as a hobby – I haven’t! I don’t even own a kitten. Furthermore, there are no kittens in my street. You could say that there is a deficit of kittens in my town. So, if I wanted to kick a kitten (which I don’t), I couldn’t find one. Anyway, I was shouted at by some people over this idea so like the big baby that I am I walked away from the discussion/argument.  Some people are never going to be convinced.


So what are the questions? Well, I will share one now and one at a later date. The question was about essay writing. Dull. I know, you are thinking: he spent all that time on preamble and this is what he gives us – essay writing. Now, hear me out! Shouting isn’t going to help you. Well, there’s no need to use language like that. Fine. Suit yourself. Yes, essay writing. I think this is a major problem in the education system. It is a problem for everyone, but it isn’t really addressed or approached, because we have clouded the issue.

Why do we spend all our time exploring different styles of writing when students struggle to write a simple essay?

Before you consider leaving a comment, or writing a critical comment on Twitter, listen to this. None of my students have ever gone on to write a novel. None of my students have ever gone on to work for a newspaper. None of my students have gone to write a script for a theatre. Their success has varied. They have gone on to succeed at something nonetheless. Yet, year after year I get them to write these different styles of writing. In fact, I have the market cornered in this area because I have made students write blogs, packaging, letters, radio shows, fact sheets, leaflets, charity letters, speeches, magazine articles, podcasts and numerous different types of writing. With each type of writing comes a different set of rules, techniques and devices. With each type of writing students practise different skills. With each type of writing students don’t get bored. Yet, I am not producing novelists, journalists, bloggers and scriptwriters. I do, I think, produce students who enjoy literature and who can write well when prompted, which is the result of our current approach to teaching writing.    
 
It could be argued that by writing in these different styles of writing students are learning how to craft and hone their skills. Furthermore, writing in these different styles of writing helps students to develop their reading skills of the texts. However, are we really watering down the experience of writing? Are all these different styles preventing students from writing in a formal, clear and logical style of writing? Are we doing lots of ‘whizzy things’ because teaching writing can be dull?

I am in a privileged situation as I teach English and I have been a Literacy Co-ordinator, so I have seen how writing is taught across schools. Originally, I was concerned about consistency and sharing the conventions of writing across the whole school, but now I think something monumental is needed to improve literacy: a shift away from different styles of writing and a focus on essay style writing. Currently, we have adopted a Frankenstein’s monster approach to teaching writing. In History, students might write an essay, a letter, a newspaper article and a report. In primary schools, students are taught on a carousel the different types of writing. The whole is made up of different components of writing. A short story foot. A newspaper leg. A leaflet arm. Alright, I will stop with the extended metaphor. The whole body is the issue. We keep asking ourselves: why don’t the students do what we ask them to do? The problem is our message. We are expecting students to be good at lots of things, rather than be good at the basics.

Frankenstein’s monster can be a beautiful thing. As the novel goes, the monster is a thing of beauty. It has the best of everything. The sad thing is that the monster cannot function and survive in society. Are we really doing the best for our students by giving them a diet of different types and styles of writing? Or, are we setting them up for a fall? A teenager might be able to write a great newspaper article or story, but will they be able to write a report for a manager that makes sense? Will they be able to write a letter of application that gets them a job? The might, but I tell you what: they can write a great description of a beach on a hot sunny day. You’re hired! They are experts at niche writing, but not always experts at the basics of writing.

Some people might read this and think that I have finally flipped. I haven’t: I am just raising the question. Should we be focusing on writing essays rather than other types of writing? What would happen if every department concentrated on writing essays instead of newspaper articles, factsheets and letters? Would the overall writing improve? Would standards be raised? I don’t know, but it is an interesting viewpoint. I can feel the queasiness that some people might have with this idea. Yes, it could make the teaching of some aspects difficult. However, if a student can write a good essay, it stands to reason that they can write a good letter and a good report.

As an English teacher, I find this all tricky. Engrained in English curriculums across the country is the chunking of writing styles into units of work. This term we are looking at writing to persuade. This term we are looking at writing to inform. The titles might change but they are still the same thing. An essay can be a thing of beauty. Ultimately, it is form that allows people to form and develop their ideas. It helps them think and communicate. One of the criticisms of an essay based curriculum, as opposed to a Frankenstein’s curriculum, is that is prevents students from finding their voice. But, the essay allows for a student to develop a voice in an uncluttered form. Stories are cluttered by narratives. Newspapers are cluttered by bias and sensationalism. The essay is about explaining and developing and extending an idea.  It is about showing a person’s thinking on paper in a clear and precise form.  

I am currently preparing my Year 11 for the AQA GCSE exam and the Unit 1 exam is the equivalent of six essays in two hours and fifteen minutes. They struggled with a recent piece of controlled conditions assessment. It is entitled: The Oscar goes to… They struggled with it because they hadn’t a clear form to focus on. I said to them: ‘It is like an essay and you are persuading them.’ Cue a lot of vacant looks. This is partly linked to David and Joe’s idea of teaching not always being fun. The essay isn’t fun, exciting and engaging for students.  Stories, newspapers, blogs and other types of writing seem so much more fun. Surely, putting essay writing at the heart of what we do will raise standards.

When planning our new curriculum for our subject, maybe we need to consider the role the humble essay places. By all means, invite Frankenstein’s monster to the table, but do consider if his inclusion comes at a price.  Why do we spend all our time exploring different styles of writing when students struggle to write a simple essay?

If I get time, I will share my other question next week.


Thanks for reading,


Xris

P.S. No kittens were harmed in the writing of this blog, but a few Frankenstein’s monsters have had a kick in the unmentionables.

15 comments:

  1. Well, after spending about 8 years giving poetry workshops to adults I came away with the opinion that people who could write good poems were generally good writers. Make of that what you will as well. Being able to "make" written language in precise ways stands people in good stead. Attention to detail and focus on what the words actually mean as well as their resonance and inevitable mutability coupled with a fair deal of life experience tied to that - harnessed in fact - helped a lot. But hey, that's andragogy and may not be relevant here. I do have to say that close analysis of poetry and the meanings inherent helped people improve but then you would have had to have read a LOT of poetry and maybe that is also the case in this instance. Most people who had facility with writing had read an enormous amount of books - do people audit this with their pupils? How someone teaches is irrelevant, really, if it doesn't detract from learning. Individuals will teach in different ways and if you tried rigidly to proscribe what ways that would be heinous in my opinion. Maybe, as you say, people should concentrate on the what but not the how?

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Leon. I enjoy poetry in all its forms and I agree with you to an extent. I am raising the question and not an advocate of change. As an English teacher, I still want to include poetry writing and analysis. My issue is with the whole idea of making students writers of everything. Poetry is not under attack here. I still think it has a place in the English curriculum. I am questioning the idea, in schools, that we ask students to be good at all types of writing (some forms are bizarre) yet we haven't got them focusing on making them really good at one form of writing first. The form of the essay would make a good starting point. Once they have mastered the essay form, they are more likely to succeed with other forms of writing.

      An essay is an expression of ideas. So too is a poem. A poem is an essay boiled down to the most effective words. A poem is a concentrated form of an essay. A poem is pure thought or pure emotion.

      If they write better essays, they stand a better chance of writing better poetry. It is all about the expression of ideas.

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  2. It's definitely an interesting viewpoint, and I'm broadly agreement.
    Like with so many things, I wonder if we focus too much on breadth before securing the basics, and so end up filling kids' heads with too many discrete concepts that have too little cohesion.
    That said, as a primary teacher, we can't start teaching essays from y1. What would you perceive as useful structures and genres tackle before KS3?

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  3. Thank you for the comment. I would simplify things and go for stories, arguments and poems. Concentrate on writing a few things really well. I think essay writing should be kept for KS3 onwards but certainly developing a persuasive argument can be developed in primary school.
    Thanks

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  4. From the perspective of a primary teacher I think I generally disagree.

    My class know that there are certain principles necessary in EVERY piece of writing such as a planned and organised structure, punctuation and a variety of sentence type/ openers etc. However, I feel that they also need to know the different text types, not because they may one day create them, but instead they need an awareness of purpose and audience. No matter what they're writing they need to be able to adapt their style accordingly and without practise this is an almost impossible task. This feeds very closely into reading - when we're discussing a text: what has the author used? Why is this different to another text? All of it acts to create an awareness that we do not write in the same way to everyone we address - just as we don't talk to everyone we meet with the same vocabulary and mannerisms.

    When they do eventually get their jobs, doing whatever that may be, hopefully they will be equipped with the skills to look at other examples of what they're creating and use that to inform themselves of the appropriate structure. Whether it be letters to parents, reports to a boss or a script for a TV show, they will be able to look at what someone else in the same/similar role did and use that to inform their own writing style. I don't think this will be because I've drilled into them a set of 'rules' but because they can consider the building blocks of a text for themselves and in their opinion.

    I would also like to add that we don't teach solely for the fact that they might one day do that job. You say you've never had someone go on to write blogs or scripts or stories - do you really know that? I know that several of my children have got their own blogs at the age of 10 (with parental permission) to share the writing that they do. As well as this, a Physics teacher could argue they have never taught anyone in life who went on to solely be a Physicist but we do still teach those skills!

    I understand your worries and perspective - there is a line between having little knowledge about lots compared to lots of knowledge about a little, but it is all about balance.

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    1. Thank you, Sway. I agree with you about the purpose and audience of writing. Students do need to be made aware of these, but do they have to be taught to explicitly write to inform? The whole process of text types in reductive. It is reducing a complex writing process into a simple label. All texts on some level are to persuade and entertain, yet we have to define them as inform, describe, advise, etc. Good writing is good writing. Looking at models is great, but you learn from them that there are no set rules for writing particular genres. There are the perceived rules, but most writers flaunt the rules. A lot of the time, we are teaching students stereotypical features of a genre and not the real thing. I have often had to write something, but it doesn't fit in with the general rules of that genre.

      Essay writing is writing at its most basic. It is the skeleton to which all writing is built on. Learn to write essays and then the rest comes together.
      I think we are getting are students to do too much too fast,

      I am not proposing that primary schools focus on essay writing. In fact, far from it. I think argument texts would be a great basis for building the skills. Taking an idea and exploring and developing it.

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  5. I like the idea of essay writing as a persuasive genre and usually teach it that way: answering a question in a convincingly supported way. Like you, I think it's the basis of many other forms of writing, not an add-on. And while I'm here I'll mention a bugbear of my own - the way that students get half an hour to do a piece of writing in an exam such as a letter or article or description that no self-respecting writer would EVER dash off in such a casual manner. And we're expected to train them to write in this way, as though it were a good thing?

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    1. Thank you, Fran. I agree. The writing tasks we are expected to get students to do are ludicrous. ; )

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  6. Great thought provoking article. I can see the need to enable students to produce good essays, they will certainly need it. I would worry about dismissing other forms because. "no previous students have gone on to be journalists or novelists", just because none have, doesn't mean none will.

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    1. As an English teacher I am not avoiding some forms. I am just saying that wouldn't it be better to start with a foundation of essay writing first and then come to other texts later. We seem to be getting students to be good at everything, rather than experts at one thing first.

      I don't think the way we teach writing at the moment is supporting novelists and journalists. I think it is doing the opposite. Getting students to write a newspaper article in all lessons will not, I think, promote the skill of journalism. It creates unrealistic views of writing news. It reduces the whole process.

      If we look at how English used to be taught, it was open and vague. Today, the teaching is precise, endless tick lists and clear genre features. Look at the current novelists. They are a product of a different kind of English teaching. I think we have simplified writing to the detriment of creating life-long writers.

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  7. The current system seems to assume that Year 10 students will know how to write essays without having been taught, and that it is reasonable for those essays to count toward the final mark. I have always found this mind-boggling.

    Having said that, I didn't need to be taught how to write an essay, back in the day. But what I was expected to do was to read a great deal from various textbooks; I now realise that this is where I got my mental model of the structure and terminology used in essay writing. These days many children will have read almost no nonfiction whatsoever before Year 10. No wonder they struggle.

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    1. You are so right. We assume too much about essay writing. Students are expected a lot of the time to learn to write them by osmosis. Of course, some teachers help them, but there is a danger that we are neglecting essay writing because of other 'interesting' text types.

      Thanks

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  8. I'm in broad agreement with you, Chris. It's something that's been troubling me for some time. I feel like we're often muddying the waters, creating a false sense that writing is segregated into discrete and specific packages, rather than clarifying the point (that we simultaneously crow about when thinking about cross-curricular literacy) that all writing is writing. With year 10, at the moment, I'm trying to cement just 'writing', focussing on accuracy, clarity and logical structure. See how it goes...

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  9. Roberto Martinez12 August 2014 at 19:56

    I find the topic discussed very interesting. I´m from a Spanish speaking country, I teach English at college level. Even at such level, most of my students can’t write the most basic of essays, which is a shame. Although I have to admit Sway has some valid points, like the fact students need to know different kinds of writing, The basics are…well… the basics, It’s more difficult to try and write something more advanced when you don’t have good foundation, like trying calculus when you´re still struggling with additions and subtractions. In my view, the basics should be covered in great detail and practiced a lot. Then students could be introduced to more advanced writing, even if they never use it. Knowledge will give them an opportunity to check what’s available and choose specific kinds of writing they find useful. Trying to get students to learn all of the writing styles in a short period of time would be too much, it often results in students learning nothing at all.

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