Learning to Write

When it comes to teaching writing, we have studies, data, books, articles, and complex standards. And we have a never-ending flood of each. New ones every week. It is impossible to keep up with the deluge.

It makes me think of this satirical jab by C.S. Lewis at the myopia of a focus on research:

“Hypothesis after hypothesis has been tried, and still we can’t find out. Yet we must never lose hope; more and more complicated theories, fuller and fuller collections of data, richer rewards for researchers who make progress… all this, pursued and accelerated to the very end of time, cannot, surely, fail to succeed.” (Lewis, C.S.. The Screwtape Letters. 87)

And reminds me of the unspoken plea in this from Paula Stacey:

“The truth is, the more we try to tease apart what writing is and serve it up processed and predigested, the more we either confuse students or, …deny them engagement in the messy process that is thinking. At the very least, it is a benign waste of time and empty calories in the educational diet. At the worst, it crowds out the rich and complex array of intellectual nutrients we need.” (Stacey, Paula. Ed Week. Vol. 31, Issue 04. 26-27)

Certainly there is value in measuring and tracking a student’s progress, but I want to offer some practical counterpoints to the science-lab approach to teaching writing… by simply sharing some simple quotes:

“Unlike medicine or the other sciences, writing has no new discoveries to spring on us. We’re in no danger of reading in our morning newspaper that a breakthrough has been made in how to write a clear English sentence—that information has been around since the King James Bible. We know that verbs have more vigor than nouns, that active verbs are better than passive verbs, that short words and sentences are easier to read than long ones, that concrete details are easier to process than vague abstractions.” (Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. 297)

There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft. (West, Jessamyn. Saturday Review. 21 September 1957)

And, of course, reminds me of quotes from Peter Elbow:

“I discovered that I couldn’t write when I tried to write everything right, and I could write when I let myself write things wrong.” (Elbow, Peter. “50 Years of Research On Writing: What Have We Learned”. Voices, University of California. 2006)

“Hopeful Truths

  • It is possible for anyone to produce a lot of writing with pleasure and satisfaction and without too much struggle.
  • It is possible for anyone to figure out what he or she really means and wants to say and finally get it clear on paper.
  • It is possible for anyone to write things that others will want to read.
  • When people manage to say what they really mean and to get themselves into their writing, readers tend to have the experience of making contact with the writer—an experience that most people seek”

(Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write. Oxford University Press, 2000).

“Some Premises

  • Students understand and retain course material much better when they write copiously about it. We tend to think of learning as input and writing as output, but it also works the other way around. Learning is increased by “putting out”; writing causes input.
  • Students won’t take writing seriously till all faculty demand it.
  • Writing needn’t take any time away from course material.
  • We can demand good writing without teaching it. The demand itself teaches much.
  • Students won’t write enough unless we assign more writing than we can comment on–or even read. There is no law against not reading what we make them write.
  • Writing can have a powerful communal or social dimension; it doesn’t have to feel solitary.”

(Elbow, Peter. “Writing for learning—not just for demonstrating learning”. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1-4. National Teaching and Learning Forum. 1994)

Here are select quotes by Peter Elbow from an interview with John Bush, “On Writing II” for Critique Magazine, Nov 2003:

“The most important thing a writing teacher can do is write with the students.”

“An engaging prompt is the most important factor in getting students to write.”

“Over the years, I’ve finally concluded that safety in writing is my highest priority. Or, at least, it’s a foundation that I’ve got. I must make a classroom where safety happens, but due to the lack of safety in some classrooms, student writers don’t take risks; they don’t feel safe when they write. They are trying to follow directions. But teachers like students to take risks and to be adventuresome: I’d like to use an analogy for adventuresome and risk-taking writing. We want students to jump off a diving board at twenty feet. That’s taking a risk. But if we hold a gun to somebody’s head while they’re standing on a twenty foot high diving board, they’re actually not taking a risk. They’re reducing their risk by jumping off the board in order not to be shot. The only way you can get someone to really take a risk is to build up foundations of safety. We want to get them to jump from a one foot diving board, then a five foot diving board, then gradually, until they dare, jump off a twenty foot diving board. I think safety is terribly underemphasized, and with grading, it’s hard to pull it off.”

“[The traits in most writing rubrics] seem to me the dullest and least useful questions we can ask about a paper. There are so many more interesting questions—what does it say? How does the reader react? What is it almost saying? What is the structure? All those are non-evaluative questions. Anyway, of all the things I’m interested in, I’m not interested in trying to lay down guidelines of what constitutes an A. I’m much more interested in those other questions than I am in (I have a little litany here) how good or bad it is, what the strengths or weaknesses are, and how we make it better. Yeah, we have to do that sometimes, but there are so many more interesting questions.”

Maybe teaching writing need not be a mad scramble for the latest research, for the latest magic bullet, for the latest great instruction. Maybe we already have what we need.

Maybe teaching need only be teaching helping student. Human to human.

If you want to go deeper into teaching writing, here is a one hour video titled, “50 Years of Research on Writing: What Have We Learned?” (Shocker… Peter Elbow is one of the panelists.)


The Second Dirty Secret Of High School

Yesterday, I talked about “The First Dirty Secret Of High School”.

Today, I will expose The Second Dirty Secret Of High School. Here it is, whether you’re ready for it or not:

Success is elusive.

The kind of success that popular culture values; the kind that students dream of; the kind that teachers and parents directly or indirectly promote with our talk of college and career, college and career, college and career… That kind of success is elusive.

These charts make the point. (Click any chart for a larger version.)

Info - High School AthletesInfo - College AthletesInfo - Olympic Athletes

Info - MIllionairesInfo - Billionaires

Info - Publish a BookInfo - DoctorateStarting a Business

The charts show that the kind of success high school students fantasize about, the kind of success in the stories we use to inspire the students, is essentially unattainable. Not only that, but success is impossible to predict, and the arena of success is impossible to force.

Individual classrooms are an example of this. Not all students will “get” every subject, or even all the material in any subject. Some students love academics; some students have embraced (or never questioned) the game of hoop-jumping that schooling can be; some students are lucky to have a physiology that not only does not get in the way of sitting or learning, but that helps them succeed in school… but not every student.

Academic success is elusive—not as rare as the endeavors in the charts above, but still not achieved by all who are compelled to attempt it.

Even our top military schools, which have carefully-chosen students and extremely strict standards, fail to produce potential generals in any higher percentage than public school produce stand-out successes.

Everyone knows this. It is not news.

But no one talks about it. The elusiveness of success is so obvious that it is baffling that it is kept out of every conversation about education, even though both the students and the teachers are aware of it. And, if we all were honest, we know that we suppress and avoid it. But it is at the edges of the student’s thoughts about the future, and at the edges of the teacher’s advice and encouragement about the future. The inescapable reality of it makes our educating incomplete at best and dishonest at worst.

The education initiatives handed down from governments brazenly ignore the “secret”. And they probably have to. How do you quantify and measure future success? But that is one reason that the initiatives end up as impotent and as political posturing. Recent federal mandates require that each group of students perform better than the previous year’s group. This means, for example, that more of this year’s sophomores must meet standards than last year’s sophomores. Expecting this year’s sophomores to perform better next year than they did this year makes sense. But that is not what the law requires.

Back to the charts: not only does that level of “success” require more work than most people are willing and motivated to give, but a person’s physiology might betray them. Look at the chart of Olympic Athletes. For every one that makes it to the Olympics, there are 300 that get injured or sick or have a bad day at trials. 300 that we never hear about.

Furthermore, as we march forward with competition and training and analytics and drugs, the price of admission to success gets higher and higher.

I have touched on the difficulty of achieving “success” before:

So…what can we do with this secret? Do we continue to ignore its reality? Do we resign ourselves to it in defeat? Can we resolve it for ourselves and our students?

The good news is that there is a final answer to this universal secret. There is solution to the problem. We simply need a true definition and measure of success. And we have one:

“Success is a peace of mind, knowing you did your best to become the best you can be. Don’t try to become better than anyone else, but never cease becoming the best you can be.” – John Wooden

That’s it. That’s everything.

Will it be hard to accept this definition and to become the best version of yourself?

Uh, yeah…

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – e.e. cummings

But it will be less difficult then pretending to be someone you are not. It will be less difficult than dealing with the frustration and restlessness that comes from pretending and trying to be what someone else thinks you should be.

A good number of people drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke cigarettes, are addicted to some addictive behavior, or take unsafe risks. It is reasonable to assume that not all of them do it because they like the taste of alcohol, or like what cigarettes and drugs do to their body, or like the consequences of poor decisions. Many of them do it because they need something that will silence the restless, nagging voice that says they are not being true to themselves–that at one time they wanted something else or something more out of life.

Sure success is elusive, and the fantasies we were conditioned to believe were unrealistic. But that is the nature of dreaming. And it can be healthy.

The answer and resolution to The Second Dirty Secret Of High School is to embrace John Wooden’s true definition of success. Write it out. Post it on your bathroom mirror. Talk about it with your fellow life-conspirators.

It is no longer a secret now.

The First Dirty Secret Of High School

I’m just going to come right out and tell you, whether you’re ready or not.

The first dirty secret of high school is: seniors are the most terrified of any of the grade levels.

We think of freshman as being the most scared because they are small and might get stepped on or accidentally put in a backpack. And they don’t know many people yet, and they don’t know the building, and they don’t know the teachers or the inside jokes. Or which kids are nice and which are only acting nice.

But the reality is that seniors are the most terrified of any of the grades, and the reason is: the senior question. You know the question. It’s the one that seniors get asked every single day of their final year of high school.

“So… what are you going to do next year?”

It is a generic, default, thoughtless question. Even though the people asking it are mean well and likely genuinely care about the student, there are probably other, more useful ways to address the situation and decisions that seniors face.

It is a reasonable question, considering the circumstances. It is similar to asking a pregnant woman when she is due.

It is a good question. It is important to think about goals and what changes you want to make and how you will face surprise changes.

But it is a question that no one can answer. Even the person asking it.

Statistics tell us that only 3% of the population make goals. In other words, 97% of people never set goals. Based on the numbers (and observation), it is not a stretch to say that no one makes goals.

None of the adults asking the question would be able to answer it, except that they can say, “The exact same thing I’m doing today.”

But seniors don’t get to say that… for the first time in their lives. A significant life change has been forced upon them, and that would cause each of us great trepidation.

The question induces fear. A deep, abiding fear of the future. Peering into the unknown, unformed future, or casting our hopes into it, only echoes back uncertainty. As noted, few of us (except seniors) ever try to gaze and plan into the future. Fear of the future is a common, and deep, fear.

The Senior Question often causes anxiety and is often a catalyst to depression. It seeps and paralyzes like a neurotoxin from a poisonous bite—barely noticed at first, but slowly spreading until paralysis and panic set in.

Sure, there is a typical answer: “Go to college.” This is answer that is shoved upon the student. It is a good solution. But it is not the answer for everyone. And it is an answer that does not resolve the question, and everyone knows this. It makes students suddenly aware that there is a follow-up question: “So, what are you going to do after college?” The fear, paralysis, and panic are prolonged.

So, what is the answer to the senior question? What is the solution to the problem?

Two things of equal importance. And both are of immeasurable importance.

First, the Zig Ziglar goal-setting system. This should be required work for all students. And all people who are already out of school.

Second, Joseph Campbell’s immortal statement: “Follow Your Bliss”, which I suggest is the greatest thing ever spoken or written.

“Follow your bliss” means, find what it is that brings you rapture and then keep doing it. It does not mean: do what is easy. Because finding the thing that brings you rapture will require tremendous work (or luck). And staying with it will require tremendous work. And following it will, at times, be scary.

What Campbell means is, find what brings you rapture and work at it and go where it takes you, wherever that may be. You will not know where it leads when you begin. Even if you think you do. Even if you have a plan mapped out in your head or on paper. Twists and turns and surprises are how life works; how all great journeys work.

Here is an example: Joseph Campbell loved mythology, and it lead him into teaching and writing books and changing the world. How many people can you think of that have at least seven documentary about their life, one of which is 10 hours long?

But a love of mythology led George Lucas into filmmaking. And it might lead someone else into painting. And another person into writing novels.

“So, what are you doing next year?”

“Who knows. But now I’m working through the Zig Ziglar goal-setting system and paying attention to what brings me bliss, happiness, delight, rapture.”

The first dirty secret of high school, and the solutions to the question and it’s problems, have been exposed. Tomorrow… the second dirty secret of high school.

West Salem High School

This is mainly about Ed John.

I must start by saying that the current principal will do a fantastic job. Ken Phillips is intentional and committed. He is not there to climb some career ladder; he did not take the position as an ego trip. He cares about students and cares about leading a top-tier school. I am convinced that he will do a remarkable job of leading, building, and propelling the school ever forward.

But let me get back to Ed John. I want to share three observations. I do not know if Mr. John intended these things, but I continually noticed them, and I suspect that if they were so apparent, they were intentional.

First, it seemed to me that Mr. John had a clear, specific, laser-focused vision for the school. Nothing is as important as a clear, focused vision. And nothing is harder to come by.

Mr. John’s vision seemed to be: To create a positive atmosphere. It seemed to me that almost everything he did was towards that end. From the way he interacted with students, to the people that he hired, to the day-to-day decisions that he made. He seemed to choose to be governed by a singular purpose and stick tenaciously to that purpose.

And I doubt that he could have chosen a better purpose. The positive atmosphere that he strove to establish and maintain had a remarkable effect on the school. I can trace the school’s many successes back to that purpose. The students achieved impressive things; the athletes achieved impressive things; the teachers achieved impressive things; the band, choir, Mock Trial teams, drama department, service initiatives, etc all did impressive things. And all of those success came in a relatively short time; they were not built over decades or by a series of leaders with various strengths. Mr. John had no predecessor at West.

I heard a rumor during West’s first year. The rumor was that Mr. John had wanted and accepted the job at West because he wanted to establish an atmosphere and experience from the ground up, without having to fight or undo any unwanted traits or diverging missions that can creep in. His achievement in accomplishing that goal is as impressive as anything the rest of the school achieved. Although he would never say that. He deflected all praise, every bit of it, to those who worked for him.

The second noteworthy thing that I observed about Mr. John was the way he handled problems… which was: immediately, in person, and without getting upset. And the whole of his job often seemed to be handling problems. Student problems, personnel problems, parent problems, budget problems, community problems, facility problems, unexpected problems, etc. Such is the job of leadership. Anyone can guess the result of this: his staff and students trusted him. They knew they could go to him with any problem and leave his office, not feeling berated, but feeling capable and relieved. It also earned him a reputation for being patient, wise, fair, available, and someone who could help you resolve your problems and was in control of himself. It also was a powerful example to model.

The third thing I observed about Ed John was his remarkable skill at mentoring leaders. (He mentored Mr. Phillips.) Here are just two quick examples:

On Tuesday afternoons, during their lunch time, Mr. John would meet with his administrative staff, and he would often start the meeting by saying, “Well, only 12 more hours to go.” referring to how long the administrators would likely be at school each day. For administrators, there are always school events that need supervising, attending, leading. With his understated humor, Mr. John reminded them how demanding the job of administering the school can be, and at the same time reminded them that they can do it, that they are in it together, and to choose an intentional, positive attitude.

Here is another example that shows he was a master at mentoring leaders: The vast majority of his vice principals later became head principles, and usually in a very short amount of time. He would delegate to them, challenge them, and tell them they could do it when they felt anxious or in over their heads with some new responsibility. Each year, one of his vice principals would come to Mr. John and sheepishly say that they’d been offered a head principal job next year and might be leaving. And each time, Mr. John’s response would be, “Congratulations. You deserve it. How can I help you?”

He is tactful, wise, patient, experienced, skilled, and tireless. He did the small, unnoticed things—like learning the names of every student, greeting the students at the door each day, encouraging individual staff. And he did the big things—like handling major decisions, publicly celebrating staff, masterfully delegating. Watching him closely was a valuable class in leadership.

Plus, he is a fantastic person with a wonderful family.

I consider it an honor to know him, let alone to have worked for him.

Here’s to Ed John and West Salem High School and continued successes. We were, and continue to be, in good hands.