Thirty years ago, I talked on a phone with a long cord that I could carry from the kitchen into the living room and even the bathroom. I bought my first microwave and worried about radiation. I gave my son a "portable" computer to take to college: a Kaypro II that weighed 26 pounds and was about sixteen inches long while the screen couldn’t have been more than 10 inches wide.
In my high school classroom those 30 years ago, on Monday I assigned students topics for their five paragraph essays, collected them on Friday and spent Sunday night grading like mad so I could hand them back the next day. Knowing the reputation of the red pen, I corrected those run-ons and punctuation errors with a green felt tip pen, softening the demand of “get your writing right!”
And then thirty years ago in the summer, most of my colleagues in Thornton High’s English department spent two weeks with Colorado Writing Project. We wrote on topics of our choice, shared our work with each, received smart feedback from our mentor, Judy Gilbert, and studied Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Dan Kirby’s Inside Out. We fell in love with writing and the teaching of it.
And together the next few years we figured out how to bring choice, time to write, a variety of ways to respond to drafts, and teacher modeling into the classroom. We devoured Tom Romano’s Clearing the Way and Zemelman and Daniels’ A Community of Writers. We mined Donald Murray’s wisdom and taught our students about the myriad decisions writers make.
We figured out what a writing workshop looked like in a high school setting.
And our classrooms shifted but not completely. Some of us held on tenaciously to practices that we were convinced also mattered.
Meet the five paragraph essay.
In the 10th grade Introduction to Composition, we taught the comparison/contrast essay, the cause/effect essay, and the precis. Sure, students selected their topics, and we worked on strategies for generating ideas, but the structure was a given: first paragraph had to hook the reader and end with the thesis, the next three paragraphs had to support the thesis, and then that closing paragraph had to pull it all together. Simple! So students created webs or free wrote to generate ideas. We had choice, and, yep, response. Every Wednesday students brought drafts to their workshop group, and I modeled. Yep – I wrote those god-awful essays side by side with them.
A couple of years passed. I applied for a sabbatical leave to work on my masters and took the year off to study. Borrowing my son’s old Kaypro II, I headed to Fort Collins to further my studies in writing pedagogy. One of the first books we read in Bill McBride’s Theories of Composition class was by Knoblauch and Brannan, and in that book, the researchers slammed the five paragraph essay as an artificial structure that existed no where outside of school. Knoblauch and Brannan were my nemesis. “Why,” I argued over and over, “can’t we have lively writing within the five paragraph essay? What’s the deal here? After all, students need to learn the structure of an essay.” Even as I worked at synthesizing what I was learning from Ken Macrorie, Linda Flower, and Peter Elbow, I fought with Knoblauch and Brannon. If I’d had an email account, I might have sent them an angry missive, but email was rare then.
I still remember the great epiphany – the moment it hit me that the formula was outmoded and ill-conceived and that Knoblauch and Brannon were right. It was after dinner and while studying another chapter of their book when that proverbial lightening blot hit me. I had to stop privileging form before ideas, and writing didn’t begin with structure unless it was a limerick or a sonnet.
Again my high school classes changed. In Intro to Comp, we kept a writer’s notebook, learned strategies for drafting and revising, experimented with structure, and read each other’s work. We played with organization and experimented with leads and closings. We played, worked hard, and celebrated our work.
Sometime about then I bought my first cell phone though I rarely used it and thought about buying my first Apple. I no longer feared my microwave and set up my AOL email account and wondered about buying a fax machine.
No longer did my classroom look the same as a few years earlier. Students sat in small groups and collaborative work really required the thinking of all students. I wrote along with them: stories, poems, essays, biographies. I chucked those formulaic assignments along with the overheads that described the opening paragraph and listed transitions to start each of the body paragraphs.
Over the years my writers workshop evolved. Genre shaped the curriculum, and mentor text grew our craft. We wrote for a broad range of audiences, from the principal as students argued that they had earned the right of an open campus to their senators when some disagreed with our entry into the Gulf War.
Today I rarely use my landline (didn’t even know that’s what it was called a few years ago). I carry my cell everywhere so I can check emails and recipes and snap pictures. Not too long ago I ditched my fax machine. It no longer served a purpose.
And yet this is what this essay is about.
Thirty years ago our high school English department learned about writing processes and the writing workshop. For a decade or more we studied what it meant to grow the adolescent writer and figured out how to teach grammar in context. So given the long history and the research base about teaching writing, why is it that when I walk into high school classrooms across the nation and, literally, the world, I watch hard working, smart teachers assign an essay topic, explain the structure of the five paragraph essay, and grade those essays on Sunday night, sometimes in red ink, sometimes in green, and sometimes online? Why is that I see students’ eyes glaze over when their teacher explains once again the importance of having a strong thesis before moving forward with drafting? Why is it that I see learning targets that urge writers to "wrap up their essay in a tidy package and bring it home to the reader"? Why is it that I don’t see students writing side by side with their students? Why am I not seeing writing workshop as the norm and instruction in the multiple processes for composing?
What is there about our profession that keeps us the same so that even as teachers use “TurnItIn.com” and No Red Ink and text message students on their phones, their classrooms look like mine did over 30 years ago? Was Seymour Sarason right when he complained that the school system itself creates an “intractability to significant reform and change”?
Does each generation need to learn anew? Do we really grow as a profession? Why was it easier to move from the ditto machine to the print option on laptops than it is to move from a teacher-centered writing classroom to a writing workshop?
A phone with a long cord, anyone? I've got one somewhere in an attic, one I used over 30 years ago.