Why I Taught Formulaic Writing

Obviously, I am a writer. Obviously. You’re reading something I wrote right now. I write a wide variety of works, everything from poetry to book reviews. I’ve published a novel and create unique curriculum resources. I even write in the world of fan fiction. I will be the first person to champion free-form, creative writing. In fact, I am not a huge fan of strict structure in most writing (have you ever actually tried to write a sonnet?). So, why would someone like me resort to teaching formulaic writing in my classroom? I’m not talking about “beginning, middle, end” structure. I’m talking about essentially fill-in-the-blank templates for students. It might seem counter-productive. I’ve even had other teachers side-eye me when they hear or see what I do. Heck, I’ll be honest, the first time I saw this type of writing instruction, I side-eyed it.

formulaic writing side eye.gif

But I have my reasons. I have taught 7th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade ELA (in that order). Every single grade level I have taught I kept hoping it would get better. I kept hoping that my students would come to me as good writers and I could take their writing and help them soar. I wanted to take them from good to great. I wanted them to enter contests and win scholarships. I wanted them to score straight 6’s on the state writing test. But for 3 years, my 7th graders demonstrated over and over their inability to form a coherent paragraph (some even struggled with a coherent sentence). When I moved up to high school, I was sure the students would have more basic skill. I was wrong. I started my formulaic writing in middle school and continued it in high school for 1 simple reason: I had to.

formulaic writing desperation.PNG

I taught low-performing, low-achieving students. I won’t pretend that I had any sort of Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds experiences, but I had students routinely performing at level 1 and level 2 (level 3 is considered proficient in my state) and in remedial reading classes. I had ESE students in my FUSE classes. I had scores of students who either couldn’t write, thought they couldn’t write, or didn’t want to write. I would give writing prompts and watch as students put their heads down on their desks without writing a single word. Over and over I would try to get to the root of the problem. “Why aren’t you writing?” I would ask. Over and over I would hear some variant of the same answer: “I don’t know what to write.”

formulaic writing student head down

Well, finally, I said enough was enough. No one should not know what to write unless they’re halfway through a novel and can’t figure out how to relate a once-vibrant subplot to the theme. The prompts that the vast majority of my students were asked to write on were no cause for this answer. They didn’t require endless wells of creativity. They required some basic grasp of the main writing traits: structure, conventions, and ideas (I know there are 6 writing traits, but for students who typically hand in a blank sheet, even just getting 3 three under control is a major accomplishment). The vast majority of my students will not only likely never be published authors, but also don’t have any desire to be. I just had to figure out a way for them to live within their reality. I had to figure out a way to help them demonstrate some sort of mastery of the basics. If I could do that, then I could consider myself successful.

formulaic writing success

And so my formulaic writing was born. I began with my lowest students and created the skeleton essay. This is where I put every structurally required element in for them and they only had to come up with quasi-coherent content. I began with the three basic paragraphs: introduction, body, and conclusion. I skipped the hook (because face it, you can have a functional essay without one) and wrote the thesis statement for them. I wrote all the transition words and the blueprint for the body paragraph as well as the conclusion paragraph. I started with easy questions. Inflammatory questions. Questions that are in no way related to the higher-order thinking prompts required on state writing tests and SAT and ACT writing portions. But you know what? That’s okay. Starting with the hackneyed, “Should there be school uniforms?” is okay when you’re trying to get a kid from blank-page-head-on-the-desk to turning in something with meaning – something that shows him/her writing is something s/he can do.

formulaic writing argumenet

I started with blueprint, formulaic writing with insanely basic prompts and allowed anecdote after anecdote for “evidence.” I fostered the mentality that “no one cares if what you write is true; the reader cares if what you write is reasonable and related.” Once my students knew the formula and felt “allowed” to (essentially) make up evidence, they had no excuse. There was no room for “I don’t know what to write.” Because now they had a blueprint. They had a formula. They didn’t have to figure out how to start. I began having students who would write absolutely nothing turning in multi-paragraph essays. Not grade-level vocabulary or even sentence-length, but they felt like they had accomplished something.

formulaic writing happy student

I’ve learned over the course of my teaching career that I have to meet and teach students where they’re at. If I asked my 4-year-old to do Calculus, he’d hop down from the chair after less than a minute and want to go play. He wouldn’t care if it was state-mandated that he demonstrate mastery. He wouldn’t be able to do it. I have had to let go of the idea that I could get every kid performing at or above grade-level over the course of the year. I have seen time and time again that if I teach a student where s/he is at, engagement is higher, motivation is higher, and that student’s achievement is higher. Have I made up for years’ worth of deficits? No, but have I prevented yet another wasted year? I like to think so.

If you’d like to see (and perhaps try!) some of what I used to improve my students’ writing, come check out my mini-lesson on writing thesis statements or my writer’s workshop!

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