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PeterPan

s/o--College/University writing instructor rants on high school writing instruction...

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...So they can't just launch into college after 8th grade. But what do they do in that time period? High school kind of fits into our public mythology of "preparing" for college. So we all dutifully send our kids there and think it's doing something. But I'm not completely sure that it is. Outside of getting kids through higher math and maybe reading a couple books what's the point? They already did history. What passes for science in many high schools is mostly just memorizing terms. Language arts -- ok, I can see reading more books, but a lot of what passes for writing instruction has to be completely unlearned in college (that could be a whole other post -- writing instructor rants on high school writing instruction).

Ok, let's run with this!  SWB has hinted at this, and someone else I know has some frustrations and bones to pick with the way we seem to think we need to teach writing.  So spill the beans!  If you've taught writing at the college/university level or know well someone who has and have gotten an earful from them, what are they saying?  :)

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I would be interested in hearing specifics too.

Ds came back from his state U commenting that his AP English class was excellent prep for his college Writing class, and it would have been much harder if he had taken gen 12th grade english which is more comprehension than analyzing.

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Here are some links to articles discussing the poor writing skills of American high school graduates (there are pages more if you simply google it)

 

http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/why-american-students-cant-write-responding-atlantic

 

http://www.theatlantic.com/debates/education

In "The Writing Revolution," Peg Tyre traces the problems at one troubled New York high school to a simple fact: The students couldn't write coherent sentences. In 2009 New Dorp High made a radical change. Instead of trying to engage students through memoir exercises and creative assignments, the school required them to write expository essays and learn the fundamentals of grammar. Within two years, the school's pass rates for the English Regents test and the global-history exam were soaring. The school's drop-out rate — 40 percent in 2006 — has fallen to 20 percent.

This is a discussion about a young man that was admitted into a program that was really a poor fit for him academically bc his skills did not match the learning environment.

http://forums.welltrainedmind.com/topic/484740-latimes-south-la-student-finds-a-different-world-at-cal-uc-berkeley/

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At the first part of the school year, my son was required to read and respond to Francine Prose's I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American High School Students Learn to Loathe Literature. This essay reflects on the common trend in English classes to ask students to write about whatever they have read and relate it to their own experiences. My kids loathe this kind of writing assignment with a passion. This was my son's response:

 

"My personal experience supports T’s observations about people sometimes not being able to relate their life experiences. Last year I was in a public school lit class, and we had spent half a semester studying the book Night by Elie Wiesel. I was given an essay assignment with the following prompt: “What kind of adversity have you faced in your life like Elie did?†This kind of prompt immediately made me angry. Not only did I not want to divulge sensitive personal information, I felt like it trivialized the plight of a holocaust victim by trying to compare it to the problems of teenage suburban life. So my options were to either write about the time I lost my cellphone or I lie through my teeth to make some sob story like a few of my classmates did.

                Prose wrote “Those who might have supposed that one purpose of fiction was to deploy the powers of language to connect us, directly and intimately, with the hearts and souls of others, will be disappointed to learn that the whole point is to make us examine ourselves†(page 96). I agree with her statement because the student, instead of focusing on the actual book, is focused on himself and precludes the possibility of any deep discussion. This self-examination also sells students short and sends the message that they are incapable of any in-depth thinking."

 

What my son wrote about is a fairly typical writing assignment across all subjects. Recently, his Health 2 class studied the 5 stages of grieving. While I was driving home from school, he told me about the writing prompt, "Write about a time you experienced loss and describe how you went through the 5 stages of grieving."

I kept my eyes on the road, but had to ask, "I don't suppose your wrote about losing your cellphone, did you?"  "Of course! In the most dramatic manner possible. The "denial" part was especially creative." :tongue_smilie:

 

Kids are way smarter than these imbecilic prompts indicate and when educators figure this out, perhaps we can improve our students' writing.

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I'm still not entirely sure what they are saying exactly.  I can remember in my first literature class in college, my professor had a mini tirade about high school writing and told us he didn't want any papers written the way we had been taught in high school.  I wasn't entirely sure what he meant then and I'm not entirely sure even to this day.  The closest I could figure out was that he did not want the essays to be circular in reasoning.  So in high school (and in 4H for public speaking) many kids are taught this format:

 

Thesis: Tell the point of your paper

supporting paragraph 1

supporting paragraph 2

supporting paragraph 3

Conclusion: Tell the point of your paper

 

So, they haven't really done much more than state a thesis and have very little discussion of the topics and do not draw any conclusion about what their thesis means in the grand scheme of things.  It's kind of like going to church and hearing an extremely boring sermon that follows the "Tell tham what you're going to say, say what you're going to say, tell them what you said" format.  We visited a few churches like that.  We didn't go back.  

 

4H where we live is particularly bad b/c many of the adults actually teach the kids to say "Today I am going to tell you..." and end their speeches with "Today I have told you..."  or "In conclusion, today I told you..."  I'm teaching my kids to be more sophisticated in their conclusions.  Unfortunately, the adult judges are so bad that most of them cannot recognize concluding statements unless they hear the words from the format.  A couple of them have even told my kids they had no summary and taken off points!  It's frustrating.  I'm sure if those same people were teaching high school writing, they would be looking for something similar in the writing.  

 

I'll look around and see if I can find comments from that professor.  He's got a lot of articles published online.  It might take me some time, but now you have me wondering again.

 

​ETA:  I also do not allow statements like "today I am going to tell you..."  My Dc have lost points for that too.  :rolleyes: 

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4H where we live is particularly bad b/c many of the adults actually teach the kids to say "Today I am going to tell you..." and end their speeches with "Today I have told you..."  or "In conclusion, today I told you..."  I'm teaching my kids to be more sophisticated in their conclusions.  Unfortunately, the adult judges are so bad that most of them cannot recognize concluding statements unless they here the words from the format.  A couple of them have even told my kids they had no summary and taken off points!  It's frustrating.  I'm sure if those same people were teaching high school writing, they would be looking for something similar in the writing.  again.

 

Yes, this.  We've done 4H public speaking too, and while I think on the whole it was a great experience, this part drove me a little nuts.

 

And I do think this kind of thinking carries over to high school writing.  My kids are in ps high school now, and their thesis statement is required to be the last sentence of the first paragraph and it has to include the three supporting points!! :huh:   Man, we briefly did a program for elementary program called Pattern-Based-Writing that gave little formulas, and one was the "Secret A-B-C" thesis statement where you could imply your three supporting points instead of writing them each out explicitly.  Apparently we're not that far. :glare:

 

I do feel some sympathy with the high school teachers, though.  I have a strong feeling that the reason they do this is that they have literally hundreds of essays to correct each time, and the only way to sanely correct them so that they still have a life (teachers do have families too....) is to have things all in the same place so that they can check the spot, make a check mark, and move on...  I saw an online article by a college prof ranting about the sad state of high school writing, and he said something similar.  That in college he has a fraction of the students a high school teacher has, and also often someone to help grade.

 

ETA: I've told my kids to follow the rubric for now, but that this "formula" is for the teacher's benefit, and not a writing style they should emulate after high school!

 

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  Man, we briefly did a program for elementary program called Pattern-Based-Writing that gave little formulas, and one was the "Secret A-B-C" thesis statement where you could imply your three supporting points instead of writing them each out explicitly.  Apparently we're not that far. :glare:

 

​I'm facing this type (thesis has to contain the 3 supporting topics) of teaching currently since Dd is taking an IEW class this year.  I haven't decided yet if it's okay to give them this crutch as they begin writing or if it is a handicap.  I am teaching the high school level of IEW, so this topic is of particular interest to me. I am running into a lot of issues with some of the format IEW teaches.  The worst is that I am having trouble convincing some parents that the format is not the goal in these essays and that every single 'rule' or requirement IEW teaches can (and probably should) be broken by good writers.  I'm changing assignments left and right.  I find the type of thesis writing you are describing to be extremely awkward and clunky.  IT can be done without sounding bad, but usually not by 11 year olds.  I helped Dd write hers for a biographical essay about Mark Twain.  I couldn't bear to let her use the horrible thesis she came up with based on what was taught in class.  I was afraid she would think that was good writing!  So, I guess part of the problem is that teachers give kids crutches to use that are supposed to lead to good writing later, but the kids don't realize they need to progress.  They think if they've followed the format they're set.

 

I am using the IEW curriculum very loosely at this point and throwing in a lot of resources from other books, websites, etc.  I've taken the goal away from the checklists and made it reflect goals of quality writing that is not painful to read, has a flow, makes strong points, and draws important conclusions.  I'm still exploring what makes for good writing instruction, but it's so closely tied to what makes good writing.  Both are difficult to pin down. 

 

I do feel some sympathy with the high school teachers, though.  I have a strong feeling that the reason they do this is that they have literally hundreds of essays to correct each time, and the only way to sanely correct them so that they still have a life (teachers do have families too....) is to have things all in the same place so that they can check the spot, make a check mark, and move on...  I saw an online article by a college prof ranting about the sad state of high school writing, and he said something similar.  That in college he has a fraction of the students a high school teacher has, and also often someone to help grade.

 

I can see this point.  The grading is driving me crazy.  Really looking carefully at a student's paper and making appropriate suggestions takes me a long time.  I know teachers in b&m schools cannot possibly spend that kind of time on every paper.  And, now, I have to get busy grading papers.

 

Edited for clarity and to correct the autocorrect!

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Several years ago, I got to know the head of the writing department of our local university.  He said that a large percentage of freshmen were unable to pass the English 102 exit exam and move on with their college studies, which was hurting the university.  He mentioned that not only did the students enter the university unprepared for college level writing, but most of them could not get to that level in one year.

 

One of our children went to that university, and although he needed help with his English courses, which I expected because of his LD's, he did very well and passed the exit exam without any problems.  Nothing that he learned at home was tossed out at the college level.  In fact, his profs were thrilled with his prep, which consisted of IEW followed by Bravewriter courses.  Over a decade later, we are still using her materials.

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What I've heard is that many students are taught in high school that there is a formula for good writing -- be it the 5 paragraph essay or whatever. That if they just follow this formula, all will be well.

 

What they fail to realize, or were never taught, or had beat out of them in the teaching of the formula, is that good writing is about communicating. It's thinking about what your audience knows and doesn't know, and leading them by steps to what you want them to know.

 

Generally, the formulas, whatever they are, seem to do more harm than good for most students.

 

While they may work great for getting a high writing score on the ACT or SAT, they aren't real writing -- the student spends more time worrying about whether they've filled all the boxes rather than asking whether their writing gets their point across.

 

Some students do rise above these formulas. Others don't.

 

The college writing instructors I know all say that if they could do ONE THING to improve high school writing instruction, it would be to ditch the 5 paragraph essay. Although they haven't come out and said it, I suspect the issue is that students don't think, they just write the 5 paragraphs. Then they're surprised as heck when they don't get the expected A that they always got before.

 

It's also obvious which students took the 5 paragraph essay to heart when grading exam essays. Some kids will go on for exactly 5 paragraphs, without saying anything.

 

I wouldn't go so far as to completely ditch the 5 paragraph essay. I did show it to my kids, with the explanation that an awful lot of high school writing is expected to be in this format. And that the ACT writing test would likely be best in this format. I made them write one essay in that format. Unfortunately, my kids ignored my advice and just learned how to write. They did, well, kinda bad on the ACT writing test. However, my oldest aced her honors college composition class (while watching all the 5 paragraph essays get bad grades). My 2nd did even worse on the ACT writing test -- and got a personal note from admissions counselors that her admissions essay was by far the best they'd read in years.

 

My best advice for learning to write is to read a lot. And then spend some time thinking about whether a particular piece did its job in convincing the reader. And why it did or didn't. And what would have improved it. I suspect a lot of kids do this naturally while reading stuff on the web (news articles, forum posts etc), but when they're in an academic setting, they do what got them A's in the past. They fall back on the formula. And it gets them into trouble if they're in a situation where the grader is expecting actual thinking.

 

First and foremost, writing is a reflection of the thinking process. The ONE thing that would improve writing is to get kids to actually think. This isn't something that a formula will do.

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Several years ago, I got to know the head of the writing department of our local university.  He said that a large percentage of freshmen were unable to pass the English 102 exit exam and move on with their college studies, which was hurting the university.  He mentioned that not only did the students enter the university unprepared for college level writing, but most of them could not get to that level in one year.

 

One of our children went to that university, and although he needed help with his English courses, which I expected because of his LD's, he did very well and passed the exit exam without any problems.  Nothing that he learned at home was tossed out at the college level.  In fact, his profs were thrilled with his prep, which consisted of IEW followed by Bravewriter courses.  Over a decade later, we are still using her materials.

Interesting.  I have not looked at Bravewriter.  Is the approach less constricting than IEW?  I like the fact that IEW teaches many different techniques, I would just prefer that the kids learn when to use them and when not to instead of being required to use so many of them in every single paragraph.  Also have the concerns mentioned in my previous post, that they learn a formula and don't move beyond it. So that would be interesting if Bravewriter is less confining and your Ds moved beyond the formula as a result.   Not that I want to turn this into a thread about which curriculum leads to solid writing for college.  

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What I've heard is that many students are taught in high school that there is a formula for good writing -- be it the 5 paragraph essay or whatever. That if they just follow this formula, all will be well.

 

What they fail to realize, or were never taught, or had beat out of them in the teaching of the formula, is that good writing is about communicating. It's thinking about what your audience knows and doesn't know, and leading them by steps to what you want them to know.

 

Generally, the formulas, whatever they are, seem to do more harm than good for most students.

 

While they may work great for getting a high writing score on the ACT or SAT, they aren't real writing -- the student spends more time worrying about whether they've filled all the boxes rather than asking whether their writing gets their point across.

 

Some students do rise above these formulas. Others don't.

 

The college writing instructors I know all say that if they could do ONE THING to improve high school writing instruction, it would be to ditch the 5 paragraph essay. Although they haven't come out and said it, I suspect the issue is that students don't think, they just write the 5 paragraphs. Then they're surprised as heck when they don't get the expected A that they always got before.

 

It's also obvious which students took the 5 paragraph essay to heart when grading exam essays. Some kids will go on for exactly 5 paragraphs, without saying anything.

 

I wouldn't go so far as to completely ditch the 5 paragraph essay. I did show it to my kids, with the explanation that an awful lot of high school writing is expected to be in this format. And that the ACT writing test would likely be best in this format. I made them write one essay in that format. Unfortunately, my kids ignored my advice and just learned how to write. They did, well, kinda bad on the ACT writing test. However, my oldest aced her honors college composition class (while watching all the 5 paragraph essays get bad grades). My 2nd did even worse on the ACT writing test -- and got a personal note from admissions counselors that her admissions essay was by far the best they'd read in years.

 

My best advice for learning to write is to read a lot. And then spend some time thinking about whether a particular piece did its job in convincing the reader. And why it did or didn't. And what would have improved it. I suspect a lot of kids do this naturally while reading stuff on the web (news articles, forum posts etc), but when they're in an academic setting, they do what got them A's in the past. They fall back on the formula. And it gets them into trouble if they're in a situation where the grader is expecting actual thinking.

 

First and foremost, writing is a reflection of the thinking process. The ONE thing that would improve writing is to get kids to actually think. This isn't something that a formula will do.

I can't 'like' this enough!  

 

I keep getting the question about how many paragraphs the essays I'm assigning 'have' to be.  My standard answer is "as many as you need to communicate your points to the reader".  Unfortunately, I've got Ds who then takes that statement and wants to turn every assignment into an essay the length of a research paper.  He has to learn how to write within the confines of an assignment and eliminate some of material he is dying to use.

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I've not taught writing, but I'm taking freshman writing courses. Last semester was rhetoric, this semester is research. I read some bad essays for peer reviews. No flow, bad grammar, poor sentence structure. It's like they had been taught to fill words, not content. 

 

This week our assignment was to write sentences about an article with the source as the subject and an interesting verb to match. He pulled out a few sentences for review and at least two had improper subject and verb. Most of the sentences he used had some grammatical error. 

 

Another issue for some students has been that this professor doesn't use a textbook. He pulls assignments to fit the class, which is good imo. Last semester it took me a few essays to really learn how to read him and understand what he was asking for. Other students had a hard time too, one even leaving a comment on rate my professor. What I found was that I had to read his instructions again, underline WHAT he asked for, and HOW he wanted it approached. He was very open about questions and office hours. I read and applied the feedback from him I got on my essays, this made a difference too. 

 

So,I would think knowing how to read a teacher and know what they're asking you to do, and how to ask questions if none of that is clear. 

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With IEW, we work through Units 1-7 of the core curriculum during elementary and middle school because I think it does a good job teaching introductory style and organization.  Many mothers become dissatisfied with IEW because they see it as restrictive and get stuck on those first units, but that material is supposed to be used to teach foundational skills. Then, the student should move on using the skills/techniques as they need.  As regards the 5-paragrah essay, which has been discussed in other threads, I see that as a starting point.  After a student can write an good 5-paragraph paper, they can expand on what they have learned.  Julie Bogart, the owner of Bravewriter, does use the 5-paragraph paper in her high school courses, but she helps the student develop insight so he can move past the dull writing produced by many high school students and even college students.  Our son used what he learned from Bravewriter in all of his college courses, and even used a college text Julie suggested for some of his papers instead of the class text.  I, also, don't want to turn this into another writing curriculum thread since we've had plenty of those.  However, for the high school level, Bravewriter does an excellent of job of bridging the gap between typical high school writing and the expectations of college. 

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With IEW, we work through Units 1-7 of the core curriculum during elementary and middle school because I think it does a good job teaching introductory style and organization.  Many mothers become dissatisfied with IEW because they see it as restrictive and get stuck on those first units, but that material is supposed to be used to teach foundational skills. Then, the student should move on using the skills/techniques as they need.  As regards the 5-paragrah essay, which has been discussed in other threads, I see that as a starting point.  After a student can write an good 5-paragraph paper, they can expand on what they have learned.  Julie Bogart, the owner of Bravewriter, does use the 5-paragraph paper in her high school courses, but she helps the student develop insight so he can move past the dull writing produced by many high school students and even college students.  Our son used what he learned from Bravewriter in all of his college courses, and even used a college text Julie suggested for some of his papers instead of the class text.  I, also, don't want to turn this into another writing curriculum thread since we've had plenty of those.  However, for the high school level, Bravewriter does an excellent of job of bridging the gap between typical high school writing and the expectations of college. 

Yes, that is my understanding too.  In my class, the trouble is not all of the kids have had the IEW foundation in elementary years.  Then I also have parents who don't understand moving away from the checklists and using skills as warranted.  They want to keep requiring every skill/technique in every paragraph every year, year after year after year.  

 

I'm definitely not trying to run down IEW.  It's a tool, and like any other tool, results depend on how it is used.  Back to college writing discussion.

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I do feel some sympathy with the high school teachers, though.  I have a strong feeling that the reason they do this is that they have literally hundreds of essays to correct each time, and the only way to sanely correct them so that they still have a life (teachers do have families too....) is to have things all in the same place so that they can check the spot, make a check mark, and move on...  I saw an online article by a college prof ranting about the sad state of high school writing, and he said something similar.  That in college he has a fraction of the students a high school teacher has, and also often someone to help grade.

 

 

Bingo!  I recently read a book written by a former high school English teacher (Stories from a Teacher) and one of the chapters in the book covers this.  He says that he teaches five class periods a day with approximately 30 students in each class, so 150 students total; meaning when he assigns an essay, he has 150 of them to grade.  He would like to spend at least 15 minutes grading each essay in order to give proper feedback, but in reality he only has six minutes...that barely gives enough time to read it, much less critique it.  Six minutes per essay is ten essays graded per hour, meaning it takes 15 hours to grade all of the essays!  He has to put in almost full-time hours on Saturday and Sunday grading essays so that they can be handed back to the students on Monday.  If he gave the necessary 15 minutes to each essay it would take 37.5 hours just to grade the essays, and with lesson plans that need to be organized and other homework to grade, to say nothing of sleeping, there aren't enough hours between Friday and Monday to fit it all in.

 

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First and foremost, writing is a reflection of the thinking process. The ONE thing that would improve writing is to get kids to actually think. This isn't something that a formula will do.

 

 

I've not taught writing, but I'm taking freshman writing courses. Last semester was rhetoric, this semester is research. I read some bad essays for peer reviews. No flow, bad grammar, poor sentence structure. It's like they had been taught to fill words, not content. 

 

This week our assignment was to write sentences about an article with the source as the subject and an interesting verb to match. ...

Ok, here's a beef I have with college writing classes.  What elegantlion is taking is being CALLED rhetoric, but it's composition and grammar.  What flyingiguana is referring to, to me, is rhetoric, the ability to think and develop arguments.  I researched rhetoric here on the hs board in the past, but I didn't end up with anything that was in the realm of wow super practical to implement.  I don't feel like I have a need to replace college level writing, but I also don't have a need to take my dd who DOES think and shove her into formulas.  It seems like rhetoric, actual rhetoric, would answer that.  

 

I thought the WWS sequence was going to be the solution, but WWS2 is so gaggy I just couldn't make her do it.  We've got it.  I might make a younger student go through it, but a really bright 9th grader mid-year?  I don't know.  You just look at it and go PLEASE, CUT TO THE CHASE!!!  So something for rhetoric that is age-appropriate, tidy and efficient, is it so much for a woman to ask?  And we don't want to do it this year anyway.  We're having way too much fun doing creative writing and learning to think by analyzing essays.  You know, that might even be a back way to get there, to take published essays, analyze them, then attempt to imitate their structure with another topic of interest.  Of course that might blow her mind, lol.

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High schools often talk about "writing across the curriculum" but I am not sure that this is the case.  Delegating writing to literature classes does a major disservice.  Engineers, for example, rarely work alone. Oral and written communication and project documentation are as necessary as math and science acumen in engineering.

 

I would like to share a relevant anecdote from a friend who is a history prof. In his previous job at a regional state uni, he often encountered transfer students from the area's community college system.  While composition courses--including a research writing course--were required for the AA, students were not writing in CC history courses at the level expected by professors at his university.

 

This is where I think homeschoolers have an advantage.  Even if our students are not always writing, we are having conversations with our students at non-superficial levels.  We can help them see beyond multiple choice answers and guide them through complex connections.

 

By the way, my son's LAC, a writing intensive school, does not require students to take English 101.  Instead all incoming students take a writing intensive first year seminar in the discipline of their choice.  My future archaeology major took a first year seminar in music; later he took a research writing course (another requirement for all students) in the geology department.  I believe that these types of courses are becoming more common at the college level.

 

 

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I haven't taught college writing--I teach finance and economics, but I have my students write.  A few semesters ago the papers were SO BAD, I handed them back and I told the students:

 

"Place a line under the subject of each sentence and a double line under the verb of each sentence in your paper."  Only about 5% of the class could fairly consistently identify the subject and verb of a sentence they wrote.  Sometimes the problem was that they did not have a subject or verb.  These were examples of what students underlined as the verb:  very, in the store, the bank, high interest rates, because interest rates rose, lower.  Many of the students I see have not had enough basic grammar to be able to write well.  They started creative writing (and inventive spelling) in kindergarten and are still doing that in college.  

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Ok, here's a beef I have with college writing classes. What elegantlion is taking is being CALLED rhetoric, but it's composition and grammar. What flyingiguana is referring to, to me, is rhetoric, the ability to think and develop arguments. I researched rhetoric here on the hs board in the past, but I didn't end up with anything that was in the realm of wow super practical to implement. I don't feel like I have a need to replace college level writing, but I also don't have a need to take my dd who DOES think and shove her into formulas. It seems like rhetoric, actual rhetoric, would answer that.

 

I thought the WWS sequence was going to be the solution, but WWS2 is so gaggy I just couldn't make her do it. We've got it. I might make a younger student go through it, but a really bright 9th grader mid-year? I don't know. You just look at it and go PLEASE, CUT TO THE CHASE!!! So something for rhetoric that is age-appropriate, tidy and efficient, is it so much for a woman to ask? And we don't want to do it this year anyway. We're having way too much fun doing creative writing and learning to think by analyzing essays. You know, that might even be a back way to get there, to take published essays, analyze them, then attempt to imitate their structure with another topic of interest. Of course that might blow her mind, lol.

I think the use of model essays is a great idea. This is a method sometimes associated with Benjamin Franklin.

 

One of the gripes I have about college profs who say no more teaching the five paragraph essay is they don't often describe what they think a good model product would be instead.

 

I've not taught in college but I do have an English degree and have taught lit in coop. What I saw in coop is not that students haven't moved beyond 5 paragraphs, but that their paragraphs and sentences don't make sense.

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I think the use of model essays is a great idea. This is a method sometimes associated with Benjamin Franklin.

 

One of the gripes I have about college profs who say no more teaching the five paragraph essay is they don't often describe what they think a good model product would be instead.

 

No, they don't!

I've not taught in college but I do have an English degree and have taught lit in coop. What I saw in coop is not that students haven't moved beyond 5 paragraphs, but that their paragraphs and sentences don't make sense.

Yes!  They are not logical.  The sentences do not build upon one another.  This is the issue I have with a checklist approach.  I've got kids making a game out of seeing how many stylistic techniques they can fit in a paragraph and they can't see that they are writing a bunch of nonsense that does not make their point and is not relevant to their topic.

 

I haven't looked at it in quite some time, but I remember Smarr's writing instruction first has the student write, then instructs him to go back through the writing to look for verbs that could be made stronger, sentence variety, etc.  I think when students have a checklist or format they can get so hung up on it that they forget about meaning.

 

Elizabeth-- Lost Tools of Writing is somewhat what you are looking for.  I would never in my wildest dreams call it tidy and efficient though!

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I haven't taught college writing--I teach finance and economics, but I have my students write.  A few semesters ago the papers were SO BAD, I handed them back and I told the students:

 

"Place a line under the subject of each sentence and a double line under the verb of each sentence in your paper."  Only about 5% of the class could fairly consistently identify the subject and verb of a sentence they wrote.  Sometimes the problem was that they did not have a subject or verb.  These were examples of what students underlined as the verb:  very, in the store, the bank, high interest rates, because interest rates rose, lower.  Many of the students I see have not had enough basic grammar to be able to write well.  They started creative writing (and inventive spelling) in kindergarten and are still doing that in college.  

 

Yup!  And I've got parents who don't think grammar really needs any attention in a writing class.  How can a student check subject verb agreement, understand passive vs active voice, understand dependent and independent clauses and proper punctation,  and more without understanding basic grammar?  It is difficult to speak intelligently about ways to improve their writing if they don't know the difference between a subject and a verb. 

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Oh Elizabeth,

 

For what you described, we have used Lost Tools of Writing, the progym (Classical Composition), and Bravewriter "Help for High School."   I realize it's not one source, but each of them offer something different and valuable, at least that has been true for us. Lost Tools could easily be done in a semester or less going through all the lessons with one novel.  H4HS can also be done in less than a semester.  The author of CC has taken older students through most of CC in one summer as prep for entrance to his classical school.  All of these boost the ability to think and develop arguments.  They are age-appropriate except for the first two levels of CC, which older students don't need to do if they can rewrite fables and narratives.

 

 

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I haven't looked at it in quite some time, but I remember Smarr's writing instruction first has the student write, then instructs him to go back through the writing to look for verbs that could be made stronger, sentence variety, etc.  I think when students have a checklist or format they can get so hung up on it that they forget about meaning.

 

Elizabeth-- Lost Tools of Writing is somewhat what you are looking for.  I would never in my wildest dreams call it tidy and efficient though!

For many of the college students I see, the problem is much more basic than this.  They are not to the point of making decent, clear, correct writing better.  They do not need to make OK writing great writing.  They are writing "sentences" without subjects or without verbs; or, if the sentence does have a subject and a verb they do not agree.  

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Ok, here's a beef I have with college writing classes.  What elegantlion is taking is being CALLED rhetoric, but it's composition and grammar.  

 

 

 

 

Actually, my professor did a nice job of teaching actual rhetoric. He used some Aristotle, rhetorical terms,  and pulled relevant exercises from modern constructs. There was no grammar instruction. In the honors class he teaches, they actually read Aristotle's Rhetoric. I was a little bummed not to be in that class. 

 

Most of the other teachers use the book "Everything's an Argument".  

 

Students have to place in these classes with ACT scores or a placement test. Unfortunately, there are many more sections of the remedial writing class, that would be a composition training class. Also, the remedial class doesn't count toward graduation credits or fulfilling general ed requirements. At close to $850 for tuition and book, that's a hefty price for a composition class. 

 

As my son would be considered a remedial writer, this is one issue I am checking at the universities he is considering. I don't want him to need a remedial class by college time. I'm checking requirements for general ed Writing, what books they use, what ACT scores he'll need to avoid them, or if he can place out with placement test. 

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The college writing instructors I know all say that if they could do ONE THING to improve high school writing instruction, it would be to ditch the 5 paragraph essay. Although they haven't come out and said it, I suspect the issue is that students don't think, they just write the 5 paragraphs. Then they're surprised as heck when they don't get the expected A that they always got before.

 

 

Honestly, I was shocked when I first heard of the 5 paragraph essay.  Definitely teach an essay structure with an introduction, development and conclusion.  But don't try to squash every series of thoughts into 5 paragraphs!

 

L

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Looking back at the enormous deficiencies in my own writing education, a few are obvious.  Logical structure is something I was never taught.  Having models of good essay and report writing would have been a huge, huge benefit, both for structure and for language use, particularly key words and phrases that set apart the various pieces of the argument.  I think that would have been much more effective than "only" reading literature.

 

My personal struggles with learning to write at that age stemmed from not having anything significant to say.  Later, as an adult learning to write professionally, the trick became knowing what I wanted to say (how do we win the argument substantively, often an intellectual task) and then honing it and translating it into the right words, which got much easier with practice.  Clear, concise, efficient communication of the argument was the goal, rather than what I deem to be fluffy, flowery talking around a point instead of straight through it.  There was a thread a very long time ago in which, thanks to Ester Maria, I finally understood that real literature analysis wasn't something I had ever been exposed to in high school.  Not having had the appropriate education in that, personally I'd much prefer teaching writing in the context of a content subject (science, social studies, etc.) just to have meaty ideas to be discussed in the writing.

 

With real, substantive ideas to write about, in an argument setting it may be much easier to distinguish between clearer and less-clear sentences.  When you have an opposing side ready to rip apart your argument in writing, that has a way of crystallizing where both the substantive and the language weaknesses are in anticipation of such attacks.  The need to persuade, to win by clear communication that your substance is more correct than the other guy's substance, is a great motivation for including clarifying clauses and choosing more-accurately descriptive nouns and verbs rather than over-reliance on adjectives and adverbs.  Vagueness is to be avoided.  Thinking out loud, I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to replicate having an argument opposition in a homeschool setting, except perhaps by standing over the student's shoulder, talking through it.  I'd love to hear ideas how this could be accomplished - have the student argue against himself?  (A typical argument schedule involves an argument, a response opposing that, and then a reply to the response.)  I don't think that would be as effective as having someone else oppose.  Maybe the parent-as-writing-mentor, standing over the shoulder or sitting next to the student with red pen in hand, is the only way?

 

Eta, in case it isn't obvious, IMO the need for a good understanding of grammar is critical.  The context of argument writing is an opportunity to solidify that good understanding and make it great.  I had one other important thought and I lost it...

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Formulaic writing comes from a formulaic approach. Requiring students to make an outline/web prior to writing is unnecessary, in my opinion.

 

I completely understand that the teacher wants to see the thought progression, but they just don't work for everyone. I was always one to write te essay and THEN do the outline/web, simply because it was a required part of the grade.

 

I think the 5 paragraph essay is great as a starting point. But expansion upon that bare bones approach is necessary for college writing, I would hope.

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Another question I have is how much analytical writing do most students read in a day, week or month. We have had newspaper subscriptions and magazine subscriptions as long as I can remember. The boys read columns on the opinion page of WSJ or in the commentary columns in the Economist.

 

But there are also book and movie review (if you move beyond the one paragraph synopsis blurb or catalog of every possibly offensive detail or comment). There are pro and con opinion columns in USA Today (and even in my son's quarterly swim magazine).

 

But I think serious questions need to be asked about what sort of quality and quantity students are reading. (Common Core has it partly right. Students do need to be able to read informational texts. But they need to be piled up, heaped on and overflowing the literature reading. Don't cut vivid imaginative text in favor of air conditioning manuals.)

 

It's like taking a bunch of kids who subsist on hot pockets and ramen and asking them to cook beef Wellington. They have no frame of reference to know if they are seasoning things right because the target is so far out of their experience. Start them cooking and eating some simpler dishes and many of them will be able to make the leap to complex fare.

 

And on that note I'm off to sort my literature class shelves and see if I really need both copies of Sound and Sense.

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Another question I have is how much analytical writing do most students read in a day, week or month. We have had newspaper subscriptions and magazine subscriptions as long as I can remember. The boys read columns on the opinion page of WSJ or in the commentary columns in the Economist.

 

Hey this is a good idea - assign a written response to a published argument, of course choosing the topic (and the published argument) carefully so that the substance is within reasonable reach of the student's content knowledge.

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Hey this is a good idea - assign a written response to a published argument, of course choosing the topic (and the published argument) carefully so that the substance is within reasonable reach of the student's content knowledge.

I think you could even start with analyzing and critiquing the original.

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Now I remembered the extra thing I wanted to add above.  For argument writing, a conceptual understanding of logic is everything.  This is the reason IMO geometry proofs are so important even for those not interested in math.  A real written argument is a proof.  I feel very strongly about this; not that every piece of writing is an argument, but arguing can be an efficient way of developing writing skills.

 

 

Formulaic writing comes from a formulaic approach. Requiring students to make an outline/web prior to writing is unnecessary, in my opinion.

I completely understand that the teacher wants to see the thought progression, but they just don't work for everyone. I was always one to write te essay and THEN do the outline/web, simply because it was a required part of the grade.

I think the 5 paragraph essay is great as a starting point. But expansion upon that bare bones approach is necessary for college writing, I would hope.

 

I think formulaic writing can be a starting point for structure.  Models that expand from there would be very helpful for showing structure.

 

IMO outlines are critical to know how to do as they are the skeleton.  Obviously they wouldn't need to be assigned every time for every essay, but the more complicated the subject matter, the more important an outline will be.  For a web approach, IMO it would be important to know how to turn the web into an outline.  

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By the way, my son's LAC, a writing intensive school, does not require students to take English 101.  Instead all incoming students take a writing intensive first year seminar in the discipline of their choice.  My future archaeology major took a first year seminar in music; later he took a research writing course (another requirement for all students) in the geology department.  I believe that these types of courses are becoming more common at the college level.

I've heard this from other people too!  So how does this changing expectation of immediately applied writing that fits their major, rather than generic writing, change how you view high school writing instruction?

 

I haven't taught college writing--I teach finance and economics, but I have my students write.  A few semesters ago the papers were SO BAD, I handed them back and I told the students:

 

"Place a line under the subject of each sentence and a double line under the verb of each sentence in your paper."  Only about 5% of the class could fairly consistently identify the subject and verb of a sentence they wrote.  Sometimes the problem was that they did not have a subject or verb.  These were examples of what students underlined as the verb:  very, in the store, the bank, high interest rates, because interest rates rose, lower.  Many of the students I see have not had enough basic grammar to be able to write well.  They started creative writing (and inventive spelling) in kindergarten and are still doing that in college.  

:eek:  :svengo: 

 

 â€‹Don't know what to say.  That sorta leaves me speechless.  I probably can't do worse than that.   :thumbup1:

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I've heard this from other people too!  So how does this changing expectation of immediately applied writing that fits their major, rather than generic writing, change how you view high school writing instruction?

 

Elizabeth, I happened to pick up The Dyslexic Advantage at bedtime last night and opened it up to where I left off (a year ago? LOL).  The section was discussing gist (under the "I" chapters of the MIND acronym).  It described perfectly how I think and how that thinking can be harnessed for writing (I dunno, maybe that second part was in my mind rather than in the book LOL).  The gist is the outline/logic.  If your dd likewise happens to be on board with this "gist" way of thinking, IMO that could be harnessed to good effect.

 

Anyway, I missed Jane's post above until you quoted it.  I think it goes to the importance of substance for the student to write about.  Writing within the major makes *total* sense to me.  I still didn't really know how to write senior year of college, but the best paper I wrote was within my major on an interesting subject (a specific antitrust situation).  My roommates mocked what they called the "see spot run" language of my paper, but I believe it was the clear and logical presentation of really substantive ideas that got me the A (fortunately I was using some logically-organized resources on the topic).

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snip

 

My personal struggles with learning to write at that age stemmed from not having anything significant to say.  Later, as an adult learning to write professionally, the trick became knowing what I wanted to say (how do we win the argument substantively, often an intellectual task) and then honing it and translating it into the right words, which got much easier with practice.  Clear, concise, efficient communication of the argument was the goal, rather than what I deem to be fluffy, flowery talking around a point instead of straight through it.  There was a thread a very long time ago in which, thanks to Ester Maria, I finally understood that real literature analysis wasn't something I had ever been exposed to in high school.  Not having had the appropriate education in that, personally I'd much prefer teaching writing in the context of a content subject (science, social studies, etc.) just to have meaty ideas to be discussed in the writing.

 

With real, substantive ideas to write about, in an argument setting it may be much easier to distinguish between clearer and less-clear sentences.  When you have an opposing side ready to rip apart your argument in writing, that has a way of crystallizing where both the substantive and the language weaknesses are in anticipation of such attacks.  The need to persuade, to win by clear communication that your substance is more correct than the other guy's substance, is a great motivation for including clarifying clauses and choosing more-accurately descriptive nouns and verbs rather than over-reliance on adjectives and adverbs.  Vagueness is to be avoided.  Thinking out loud, I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to replicate having an argument opposition in a homeschool setting, except perhaps by standing over the student's shoulder, talking through it.  I'd love to hear ideas how this could be accomplished - have the student argue against himself?  (A typical argument schedule involves an argument, a response opposing that, and then a reply to the response.)  I don't think that would be as effective as having someone else oppose.  Maybe the parent-as-writing-mentor, standing over the shoulder or sitting next to the student with red pen in hand, is the only way?

 

 

I love this.  This is a very clear articulation of what I've realized this year.  Clear, insightful writing requires and reflects clear, insightful thinking.  When I give my child trivial and immature writing assignments, she gives me trivial and immature papers.  When I ask her to write about something she knows and cares little about (a la WWS), she drags her feet and her writing seems vague and fluffy.

 

When she spends time reading and taking notes about a content subject, and then we discuss it, and then she organizes and writes, and then we discuss more and she gets feedback, and then she edits and revises, the end result is something completely different: something she is proud to have written and that I am happy to read!

 

I'm just going to leave it at that, because wapiti already said better what I keep trying to say next.  This is another wonderful thread!  

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Yes!  They are not logical.  The sentences do not build upon one another.  This is the issue I have with a checklist approach.  I've got kids making a game out of seeing how many stylistic techniques they can fit in a paragraph and they can't see that they are writing a bunch of nonsense that does not make their point and is not relevant to their topic.

 

I haven't looked at it in quite some time, but I remember Smarr's writing instruction first has the student write, then instructs him to go back through the writing to look for verbs that could be made stronger, sentence variety, etc.  I think when students have a checklist or format they can get so hung up on it that they forget about meaning.

 

Elizabeth-- Lost Tools of Writing is somewhat what you are looking for.  I would never in my wildest dreams call it tidy and efficient though!

Ok, this is terrible, but I showed up at the LToW booth the first time they came to Cincy.  I was there the first night, beeline, specifically to talk to them before they got busy.  The guy in the booth (not Kern) could NOT explain the program.  I pretty much gave up on it at that point.

 

Cothrin's Rhetoric program seems, in theory, to be what I want.  I just haven't bought it to sit down and dig in.  Even then, I'm not sure. He did a talk in Cincy where he went through it, and it at least seemed tidy and rational, something you could implement in sort of a toolbox approach.

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For argument writing, a conceptual understanding of logic is everything.  This is the reason IMO geometry proofs are so important even for those not interested in math.  A real written argument is a proof.  I feel very strongly about this; not that every piece of writing is an argument, but arguing can be an efficient way of developing writing skills.

 

I am in full agreement with this!

 

I've heard this from other people too!  So how does this changing expectation of immediately applied writing that fits their major, rather than generic writing, change how you view high school writing instruction?

 

In my son's situation, it was not necessarily a case where he was writing only to fit his major.  Through homeschooling and in college he has been able to write about things that interest him.  That first year writing intensive course was in the music department (not his major).  He wrote about the use of visuals in stage productions and videos--quite interesting stuff. Most importantly, the subject matter interested him.

 

My son has never been told in college to write a paper on a narrowly specific topic,  Yes, he has been assigned papers on a work of literature but he has never been given a specific prompt to compare and contrast blah-blah-blah. I think this is part of the problem with high school writing.  Students are not engaged by what some teachers think should captivate them.  Nan and I have written often about how our boys would argue about the stupidity of an assignment--and in most cases they were right.  I would extend leverage to your high schooler to find topics of interest in any subject that he or she is doing.  Perhaps she'd like to write about the latest research on DNA sequencing some gut microbe.  If that is interesting to her, go for it.  Or perhaps she is more interested in original instruments for which Bach wrote.  I don't think that every high school freshman needs to write about To Kill a Mockingbird, even if it is a very fine book indeed 

 

And scrap the five paragraph essay. The only time it is used is on standardized exams when writing a timed essay!  What a waste.

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Yup!  And I've got parents who don't think grammar really needs any attention in a writing class.  How can a student check subject verb agreement, understand passive vs active voice, understand dependent and independent clauses and proper punctation,  and more without understanding basic grammar?  It is difficult to speak intelligently about ways to improve their writing if they don't know the difference between a subject and a verb. 

Now see for me, having been through what I've been through with dd, I don't think the issue is a problem of grammar (though sometimes it is, ugh) so much as LACK OF CLEAR THINKING.  Dd's best writing comes when she knows what she's trying to say and it's all very clear in her head.  Using the mind maps of Inspiration (the software) is really fascinating, because it allows you to get all those thoughts out and then have them take those 8 concepts and compact them into 3-4 high quality sentences.  Then they actually SEE it and are THINKING CLEARLY before they ever start to write.

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My best advice for learning to write is to read a lot. And then spend some time thinking about whether a particular piece did its job in convincing the reader.

 

The main complaint I hear from my colleagues in the English department is that the students do not have sufficient reading comprehension, with 25-30% of incoming students not having sufficient reading comprehension for college.

It seems obvious to me that somebody who can not read at an adequate level would not be able to write well.

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For many of the college students I see, the problem is much more basic than this.  They are not to the point of making decent, clear, correct writing better.  They do not need to make OK writing great writing.  They are writing "sentences" without subjects or without verbs; or, if the sentence does have a subject and a verb they do not agree.  

Yup, and that's what's bugging me.  They still CALL the class rhetoric, and at that point it's NOT.  It jips the more capable students who go into college THINKING they're going to get rhetoric (based on the course title) and don't.

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Honestly, I was shocked when I first heard of the 5 paragraph essay.  Definitely teach an essay structure with an introduction, development and conclusion.  But don't try to squash every series of thoughts into 5 paragraphs!

I had never heard of the 5 paragraph essay before I started homeschooling. I have never in my life written one; the format is not taught in my home country.

It's a crutch, of very limited use.

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Now see for me, having been through what I've been through with dd, I don't think the issue is a problem of grammar (though sometimes it is, ugh) so much as LACK OF CLEAR THINKING.  Dd's best writing comes when she knows what she's trying to say and it's all very clear in her head.  Using the mind maps of Inspiration (the software) is really fascinating, because it allows you to get all those thoughts out and then have them take those 8 concepts and compact them into 3-4 high quality sentences.  Then they actually SEE it and are THINKING CLEARLY before they ever start to write.

 

I'm just quoting this because liking it isn't enough!!! 

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Formulaic writing comes from a formulaic approach. Requiring students to make an outline/web prior to writing is unnecessary, in my opinion.

 

I completely understand that the teacher wants to see the thought progression, but they just don't work for everyone. I was always one to write te essay and THEN do the outline/web, simply because it was a required part of the grade.

 

I think the 5 paragraph essay is great as a starting point. But expansion upon that bare bones approach is necessary for college writing, I would hope.

Ok, since I'm a little farther down the road, I can chuckle with this.  I would have said the same thing 20 years ago, because I was you (literally!).  What's really going on with people who don't outline formally is that they have the brainpower to pre-think everything.  It's all pre-digested, organized, conquered, edited.  I'll bet you pretty much turn in your first draft, don't you?  That works for some people.  

 

Fast forward 10-15 years and get a child who DOESN'T have that brainpower.  My kid is one of those, and she pretty much HAS to use software or something to slow her down and help her get all those thoughts organized.  

 

I totally agree that writing classes that require everyone to do the same outlines and same whatnot the same way or oriented more toward efficiency than teaching individual students what they actually need to do to succeed.  However that doesn't mean there isn't a segment of kids who REALLY BENEFIT from that.  I've posted pics of the map my dd made using Inspiration software when she was writing her documentary for National History Day last year.  It was a wonder to behold, very complex, with all sorts of ideas all over.  The software could take her thought process (webs of relationships) and turn it into an outline which she was then able to write from.  You or I could have done the project without the software, but she couldn't have.  And many middle of the road students would *benefit* from the process, simply because it would help them get their thoughts more clear.  One of the ironies is that dd actually has more sophisticated thoughts and sees more relationships than the average bear, so she needs a lot of extra help with that external RAM and processing to get it all out.

 

But I guess that's just your neuroscience lesson for the day.  :D

 

Um, seriously, what frustrates me in that sense is that I've got someone who is used to communicating, used to organizing thoughts using the software and really having something to say.  I just want to take it to the next level with more complicated analysis.  WWS2 is trying to do that, but it's just...  :svengo: 

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Clear, insightful writing requires and reflects clear, insightful thinking.  When I give my child trivial and immature writing assignments, she gives me trivial and immature papers.  When I ask her to write about something she knows and cares little about (a la WWS), she drags her feet and her writing seems vague and fluffy.

 

When she spends time reading and taking notes about a content subject, and then we discuss it, and then she organizes and writes, and then we discuss more and she gets feedback, and then she edits and revises, the end result is something completely different: something she is proud to have written and that I am happy to read!

 

To add to this, for some kids, I think the more complicated the subject (as long as its within their reach), the better.  More complicated means greater need for specific, clear articulation that differentiates the point one is trying to make from other points that one is *not* trying to make, the need to distinguish the close-but-not-quite ideas using careful, artful-but-clear language.

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Another question I have is how much analytical writing do most students read in a day, week or month. We have had newspaper subscriptions and magazine subscriptions as long as I can remember. The boys read columns on the opinion page of WSJ or in the commentary columns in the Economist.

 

But there are also book and movie review (if you move beyond the one paragraph synopsis blurb or catalog of every possibly offensive detail or comment). There are pro and con opinion columns in USA Today (and even in my son's quarterly swim magazine).

 

But I think serious questions need to be asked about what sort of quality and quantity students are reading. (Common Core has it partly right. Students do need to be able to read informational texts. But they need to be piled up, heaped on and overflowing the literature reading. Don't cut vivid imaginative text in favor of air conditioning manuals.)

 

It's like taking a bunch of kids who subsist on hot pockets and ramen and asking them to cook beef Wellington. They have no frame of reference to know if they are seasoning things right because the target is so far out of their experience. Start them cooking and eating some simpler dishes and many of them will be able to make the leap to complex fare.

 

And on that note I'm off to sort my literature class shelves and see if I really need both copies of Sound and Sense.

Yes, yes, yes!!!  This is where I am, or at least have grown into philosophically.  Totally agree on the influence of what they read and how it affects how they write.  I have a pile of back issues of the Economist that I got from the library to use with her in some fashion.  I know in theory this should work, but what exactly do you DO with them?  I grew up in a trailer in VA.  We never read the Economist.  ;)  

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Hey this is a good idea - assign a written response to a published argument, of course choosing the topic (and the published argument) carefully so that the substance is within reasonable reach of the student's content knowledge.

Someone (not on here) told me she was using the WSJ online opinion blog articles for analysis.  You can apply SWB's topoi approach to it, no problem.

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IMO outlines are critical to know how to do as they are the skeleton.  Obviously they wouldn't need to be assigned every time for every essay, but the more complicated the subject matter, the more important an outline will be.  For a web approach, IMO it would be important to know how to turn the web into an outline.  

Inspiration software converts the webs to outlines for the student.  It helps kids who are very visual or spatial in their thinking get their ideas into linear fashion.  Honestly, when  you see the software do it, it's so marvelous it seems like a miracle.  The kid can just be all over the place in his thoughts and connections, and boom suddenly it's linear and easy to write from in a tidy way.  It gives you a visual way to discuss WHY that one point is out there alone and whether it should stay that way or not, whether your map is balanced overall or needs to be split up a bit, etc. etc.

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