This post was contributed by Dr. Matt Luter.
At our first faculty idea-share of the year in August, I shared with some of you how much I have been influenced recently by the writing of John Warner. His two recent books, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice, have shifted my thinking a great deal when it come to my general approaches to teaching writing.
Warner encourages teachers to build for students “writing experiences”—not just assignments—that result in student work that is less standardized than that produced in many contemporary educational settings (like high-stakes tests). Such innovative writing tasks require students to work with more flexibility and originality than some formulaic assignments might allow. (Ahem, see Warner’s title above, or in this citation coming up?) The best writing experiences, he argues, also grant students “room to exercise choice and engage their intrinsic motivation”—powerful experiences both (Why They Can’t Write 153).
For the last several years, I’ve gradually been moving away from having the traditional argumentative essay be at the center of my class’s written work. Sure, I still assign such tasks on occasion, but I’ve been working on innovating through hybrid “creative-critical” writing experiences too. One that I assigned in November drove home to me all that is positive about the approach.
It seems like nearly everyone who’s been to high school in the U.S. has written an essay about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, right? On symbolism, or guilt, or hypocrisy, or redemption. Something along those lines. Instead, as a writing experience culminating my classes’ study of that novel, I had students assume the persona of a 17th-century Boston resident of their choice and write Hester Prynne’s eulogy. It’s still an argumentative assignment: students had to build a claim regarding how we ought to think of this woman’s life (a cautionary tale? a mistreated saint? someone who got what she deserved? or a prophet?), and the speaker they chose had to support that claim with evidence taken from the novel, cited properly.
The resulting essays (can I call them that?) were among the most successful and surprising writing about literature I’ve seen from high school students. I’m convinced that’s because the task required them to position themselves as writers with real rhetorical situations: people speaking to people for a defined purpose in a specific context—even if a fictional one—as opposed to apprentice writers trying to “sound academic” for a nebulously-defined audience (often a teacher and no one else).
And I saw progress in some nuts-and-bolts writing skills too. Since it wouldn’t make sense for a 17th-century speaker to introduce a quotation by saying “Hawthorne writes,” students had to find more creative and elegant ways to incorporate evidence. One more bonus: at least for now, I’d admit, this assignment is basically unplagiarizable.
I value traditional academic writing to be sure: I aim to produce new literary knowledge via my own scholarship, after all. And I know that my students need awareness of many conventions of the academic writing they will experience in college. But I’m increasingly certain that I do my students a disservice if I don’t also ask them to exercise more flexibility and creativity as they hone those foundational skills. As Warner puts it, “every piece of writing is a custom job” (Why They Can’t Write 29)—I’m beginning to see that every writing experience I construct for my classes can benefit from being made a custom job too.