I recently read a book that I’ve been thinking about often and sharing with anyone who will listen to me: Why They Can’t Write by John Warner. I found myself shaking my head in agreement and laughing out loud sometimes as he spoke about writing issues – including the five-paragraph essay, grammar, technology, rigor, grades, and more. My book is filled with underlines, dog-eared pages, brackets, stars, “Yep!”, “Wow!”, “Hmmm…”, and even the occasional sad face.
My initial idea for this post was to be more of a book share than anything else. The problem is that many of the issues that Warner points out regarding writing instruction have come rushing at me in real life. One time was with my daughter who is a senior and who shared her Common App essay with me. And again with my older daughter who is in her second year of college, who shared an essay this past week for an ‘Intro to Diversity’ course. Both girls are struggling/have struggled with how to approach their writing requirements. I thought of them as I was reading the book and about the writing they’ve done in school. Honestly, I thought about my own experiences in middle and high school where I was taught to follow a structure and could write a five-paragraph essay like nobody else. The problem was that when I got to college, I didn’t know how to think or to write while conveying my own ideas.
There are many things in Why They Can’t Write that are important for writing educators today to think about. I’m struggling to come up with just a few nuggets to share, but based on my personal connections, I chose a few as some next steps that teachers could ponder (this is only in Chapter One called “Johnny Could Never Write”):
- “Writing is hard” (11). I think I’ve said this three times to classes full of students this week and at least four times with my colleagues. It isn’t supposed to be easy. The growth and learning come as students struggle. When we over-scaffold or provide structures at every turn, will our writers ever have to work hard? Warner equates a structure – such as the five-paragraph essay – to training wheels on a bike. If we take the struggle out of writing by providing a structure, will our students learn how to write well and independently?
- “Writing is a skill, developed through deliberate practice” (12). I think teachers know this. I know that football coaches do and so do dance instructors and violists. Writing teachers know this too but there are things that keep us from giving students the practice they need: large class sizes (150 pieces of writing to look at), deliberate practice time set aside IN CLASS, and thoughtful, purposeful writing tasks that seem too difficult to model or plan for. How do we move forward and allow our students this practice time? I think teachers have to be mindful of feedback versus assessment and what is and what isn’t graded. There are ideas in this book but there are also giants in the ELA world that offer suggestions, like Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Lucy Calkins, and others. What can they offer that we can put into use in our English classrooms?
- “We overestimate our own proficiency at writing” (13). I am almost 50 years old and don’t consider myself a good writer. (In fact, as I reread this, I noticed that I sometimes don’t make much sense.) I’m trying but I still send emails with mistakes – even if I’ve read it over and over again. What if teachers wrote beside their students all the time and were judged on the same standards we are judging students on? That makes me nervous just thinking about it.
- “We overestimate our past proficiency at writing” (13). I imagine that at one point I thought I was a good writer – back when I was getting solid A’s in high school English. I was NOT a good writer which my college professors would attest to. But I am trying and I challenge all teachers of writing to try. How do we know what our learners are going to struggle with if we haven’t tried it ourselves?
- “We hold students to wrong/unreasonable standards” (14). Correctness seems to be what many students – even middle school students – are most worried about. Is this spelled correctly? How many sentences does this have to be to get an A? Will I get all 4’s on the rubric with this narrative? I think we have to figure out, as educators, what our goals are for our writers and keep that in the forefront of our minds as we plan and invite our students to write. I think we also have to think about how we communicate the expectations to students and how we use our minilessons and our small group/individual instruction to teach students how to independently reach those standards.
If you can’t tell, I enjoyed Why They Can’t Write. It brought up a lot of emotions for me. It has suggestions on how to think about writing in a classroom – even if you don’t teach College Comp in high school or college. It addresses grammar which is often “the elephant in the room”. It challenges the status quo of writing instruction. It is a book that will make you think.
The remainder of Warner’s quote from the picture at the beginning of this post is “…an act where we determine what we mean to say by attempting to say it” (16). This is exactly what I experienced as I created this reflection. I wrote in order to respond to my strong reaction to the book and to explore the feelings and teaching ideas that sprung from it. I figured out what I wanted to say as I wrote and revised and leaned on the expertise of my writing group to cut out what I didn’t need and to elaborate on what I did need. What an amazing exercise I’ve had as a writer! Hopefully, we can think about how we continue to allow our students this important opportunity.
Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. 2018.