Students should know how to identify the parts of the sentence by the time they reach high school, right?
They should know how to formulate paragraphs into full papers and essays, right?
Students should have mastered the arts of description, plot, theses, how-to’s and persuasion, right?
This is a common misconception about the average student today, and I am appalled by the number of students who grace my classroom without the slightest idea of how to write. My children could write short stories by the time they were six – thanks, in part, to my own tutorial – but I’ve met high school seniors who cannot write a proper sentence.
Of course, this article isn’t a commentary on the condition of our public school system, but rather a call to action for English and Literature teachers. The problem is that teachers by themselves cannot change the school system or the adequacy of former instructors. Instead, they have to work with what they’ve got, and try to teach the writing process before students head off to the colleges of their choice. In college, there is no hand-holding, no coddling, and certainly no toleration for abysmal papers. For that reason, I have constructed my own way of teaching the writing process.
1. The Overview
Every one of my students receives a grammar packet on the first day of school. It details the definitions of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on, and it breaks down the parts of speech and punctuation into easy-to-understand examples. Many of my students groan when they begin to look through it, but I never make the mistake of assuming that they know what a noun is, much less a misplaced modifier.
Before we begin our first paper of the year, we go over the packet and I write examples on the board. Each one of my students is required to break down the structure of a sentence correctly before we move on to the paper. Students who have trouble grasping the concept come to my classroom during their regular home room and we go over it again and again until they understand.
This serves several purposes. First, students who do know the parts of speech receive an overview, and I can trust that the information is fresh on their minds. Second, students who have never been taught – or failed to retain – the information are spared the agony of being left behind. And third, I am spared the frustration of having to return to the basics when we should be moving on to more complicated material.
2. The Lecture
Most teachers assume that because students understand the basics, that they can turn around and apply them to a lengthy research paper. Knowing that at least a quarter of my students are in new territory with the definition of a noun, I in no way fall under the delusion that they are ready for our first research paper of the semester.
Instead, we work our way there. For the past few years, I have used the same topic, but the subject is really of no consequence to the exercise. For two full days, I show my students exactly how to write a paper. In order to add a little bit of humor and to generate lively discussion, I use the title Which Came First: The Chicken or the Egg?
From that topic, my students choose collectively which side they want to use, and we write a paper. My students throw out ideas as we write the introduction, the body and the conclusion, and I form their ideas into sentences on the overhead projector.
When we are finished, I make copies of the essay we wrote (which usually comes to around 1,000 words) and I write comments in the margins to remind them of why we chose particular wording or structure. Each student receives a copy, and we move on to the research paper assignment.
Although they were supposed to have done this in the sixth and seventh grades, my students and I take a “field trip” to the library just after we write the Chicken or the Egg paper. In the library, we pull several books off the shelf and we learn how to write a bibliography. We also learn how to use the computerized card catalog, the microfiche system and the periodical section. We talk about viable sources versus inviable sources, and we discuss how to research a paper.
This is usually more of an informal discussion than a lecture, as my students invariably have questions and want to learn more. They also don’t want to return to class, which is quite a motivator.
After our unit on research papers, I insert a unit that is technically not part of our standard curriculum. In this unit, we discuss the writing of prose, and each of my students writes a short story of their choosing.
Our school does have a creative writing elective, and some of my students choose to take that in their senior year, but I want all of my students to learn how to write prose. This, like many of my other practices, serves several purposes:
a. It gives my students a chance to explore their creative sides. In many cases, I am handed some extremely interesting stories by my students, and I invariably discover that I have talented writers in my classroom.
b. It shows my students that writing can be fun. Although they choose their own topics for research papers, looking up information on a topic is not nearly as exciting as crafting one’s own story.
c. Prose is a different kind of writing process. The same rules – such as length, structure and grammar – don’t apply. I allow my students to start sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’ and they can use fragmented sentences for effect. I allow them to choose the genre they want to write about, as long as it isn’t pornographic or offensive, and they usually have a lot of fun.
d. Many students are curious about how writers come up with their ideas and about how stories and novels are written. Encourage this thirst in your students by giving them the opportunity to write themselves.
Writing prose is much different from writing research papers. You might also want to expose your students to poetry and other types of writing.