Teaching writing as ‘5-paragraph formula’ is a recipe for joyless mediocrity

As a part of my parent volunteer duties, I assist in elementary school writing classes. I won’t candy coat this. I’ve been a professional writer my whole adult life. It was painful – really painful – to watch how the students were being taught to write.

I witnessed first-hand writing instruction as a formula – kind of like what’s in this YouTube video on the five-paragraph essay. The recipe-type structure may make the process easier for the anxious student, yet I know that too much emphasis on formulaic writing is also a sure route to never becoming a competent writer.

Writing is a critical skill needed throughout one’s education, adult life and career. And there are very few instances in life where a formula is provided when we need to communicate effectively. Usually, writing is about experimenting, getting your thoughts down and then editing and rewriting more than any writer cares to admit.

In 2011, the most recent data available, the National Assessment of Educational Progress —known as the Nation’s Report Card — found that only about one-quarter of 8th graders and 12th graders tested were proficient in writing. The NAEP writing test, taken on computers for the first time, gauged how well the students could write to persuade, to explain and to convey an experience. The dismal stats means the majority of kids might enter college writing at a remedial level. Worse, they may enter adulthood without being able to craft a letter explaining why they’re the best person for a job, why an insurance company should pay for a necessary treatment or why they believe their city counsel shouldn’t bulldoze a landmark.

Robin Reagler, executive director of the Houston-based nonprofit Writers In The Schools (WITS) program, says part of the problem of teaching writing is that we expect too much out of our teachers. “Most English teachers say their strong suit is reading or decoding a text. They usually don’t feel as confident as writers because writing isn’t their specialty.”

It takes a significant investment in time for anyone to learn how to write and edit effectively. There are plenty of people in academia who write overly formal, obtuse prose not because they aren’t intelligent and capable of communicating, but because they haven’t invested the time to learn how to write effectively.

When I volunteered in the writing classroom, I stood awestruck and applauded wildly when one young student read aloud a short story about a girl he loved – completely ignoring the class topic and the rules of the assignment. Alas, he was the class trouble maker, the one sent to the principal on a daily basis. But he was also something else – one of the few kids who wrote for the pure joy of it.

Fortunately, Reagler’s organization has figured out how to teach writing with joy and not get kids sent to the principal. When Reagler started with the organization in 1995, there were about five WITS programs nationwide. Today more than 30 cities have WITS and about four or five new groups are added each year. WITS marries professional writers in communities with classroom teachers to co-teach a year-long writing enrichment class.

“It feels like a great moment in all of this,” says Reagler. “Writers are excited about working with kids and schools are starting to understand how powerful it is to teach students to be true writers.”

The WITS program is different from a traditional writing program. “If you want children to be actively engaged and to care about a subject, you have to teach it in a way that gives them ownership. They have to have control over material. That’s what makes any activity joyful,” says Reagler.

So no essay formulas. And they focus on intense engagement. One WITS session might involve a writer bringing in a pineapple and reading aloud Wallace Stevens’ “Poem Written At Morning,” which involves a pineapple. Then the class might compose a group poem. They might change the fruit to a starfruit and try to come up with a few lines reminiscent of the way Wallace Stevens describes the pineapple in his poem. The class has an experience and then learns how fun it can be to capture the experience in words. That’s part of the magic of storytelling and writing. WITS also offers an educator training program, a writing summer camp and a host of different creative writing programs.

My personal solution to the school writing pain was lame. I signed up to volunteer in the math class this year.

Talking with Reagler, however, inspires me to see how much writers can do for kids and schools. By the way, WITS is also a job creator – employing some of those thousands of MFA grads that colleges turn out each year. Next year I plan to be back in the writing class, advocating whenever I can for the messy, non-formulaic process that makes a true writer.

I might even bring along a pineapple.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. She’s completing her first novel, a family drama set in the Midwest. A child of working class poverty with parents who quit school before finishing eighth grade, Victoria is especially proud of her experience as a long-delayed graduate student and now a part-time professor of communication. Her husband and she have two sons, a middle schooler and a kindergartener. Victoria has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, cooking and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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