May 20th, 2011

Saturn Ring Blues

We Don't Teach Writing in High School

Not really.  Just sort of.

While I was doing the last post about how a writer improves, I realized I barely touched on my job in the composition classroom.  Really, I don't teach "writing" much in the sense I meant it in the last post.  High school composition classes predominantly teach conventions and forms.

That's it: conventions and forms, because conventions and forms can be taught, and they can be evaluated.  Creativity, originality and authenticity we have a tough time teaching, and we certainly don't evaluate them, although those topics are mostly what I was thinking about when I talk about a writer getting "better."

What we do teach is a pretty short list:
  • vocabulary
  • grammar
  • sentence structure
  • writing conventions (capitalization, paragraphing, punctuation)
  • writing modes (description, narration, persuasion, explanation, analysis)
  • writing forms (comparison-contrast, definition, thesis-driven argument, constructed response, research paper)
  • tone/voice as it relates to audience

We talk about valuing unique expression, personal insights and moving an audience, but these are difficult to teach and nearly impossible to evaluate.

Our teaching goals are quite modest (although by no means easy to attain--look at how may adults can't meet these standards):
  • clarity
  • coherence
  • completeness
  • correctness of expression
It's a 4-C course of study.

What we hope to graduate are students who can communicate effectively with other human beings through their written expression.  That's a fairly low bar we push our students to clear.  I'm not trying to denigrate or trivialize an English teacher's job, but anything above the bar, the work that verges into genuine self discovery, authentic insight, and grace are not a mandated part of the curriculum.

It's little wonder that so many writers who strive for "art" complain that their high school classes were not helpful.

I imagine an XKCD-style cartoon.  A teacher holds a paper in front of a quivering student.  The teacher points at the paper and says, "Do you see this misplaced comma?  You will never be a writer!"

I'd laugh if I hadn't heard conversations just like that in school.  I'd laugh if it wasn't so tragic.