Writing In Spite of…..

Much of the discussion today around writing at the secondary and community college levels focuses around remediation or developmental writing (aka getting students ready for “college-level” writing). Never mind (for now) that there is much debate within higher education over what college-level writing actually is. Too many people, even within the teaching profession, equate good writing only with having technical proficiency in using grammar conventions.

We reinforce this emphasis on technical correctness through high-stakes testing and more recently by increased use of essay grading software. Sadly, the result of this overemphasis on conventions has been a marked decline in students’ actual writing proficiency and a simultaneous crucifixion of their desire to write.

Thankfully, pushing through these thorns are examples of writing, good writing, by our students, in spite of our misdirected policies.

I recently had opportunity to see and celebrate such budding talent at our Mississippi Community College Creative Writing Association Annual Conference. Along with some very helpful advice from professional writers (who also served as the judges of the student writing competition), the conference featured inspiring examples of students’ poetry, stories, plays, and essays.

like most teachers of writing, I plow through my share of poor writing, half-hearted attempts, and stolen works. The payoff, however, comes in watching people often intimidated at first by the prospect of writing for an audience, learn to develop pieces that are not just functional, but beautiful.

When that happens, I remind myself that I am not here just to produce people who know where to put the parts of language on an assembly line of mediocrity, but rather to help real people learn how to communicate with a world that has often pre-determined that they have nothing of value to say.

Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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  • BradenWelborn


    Renee, I appreciate this post—both as a past teacher of writing (for hs and college students) and a current writing coach (for teachers). And as someone who considers herself a writer.

    I will admit that I have never seen essay grading software in action—so what I am about to say comes from the gut rather than experience with the technology. (And that is a dangerous place to speak from!)

    I just don’t think essay grading software can be trusted for much more than mastery of mechanics and perhaps vocabulary level or syntax complexity. But I am eager to hear from teachers who have used this kind of software—especially those who have found it helpful. 

    Also, after spending many years in academia, I am realizing that “academic writing” (of the five-paragraph essay nature) may be far less relevant than online writing. Composing a good email, effective online article, or even a lively tweet may ultimately be of greater value to today’s students than mastering the genre of the five-paragraph essay. What implications does that have for today’s writing teachers?

    • ReneeMoore

      Software and Mixed Signals


      Most of the essay grading software currently in use (and there are really only a few such programs), are still fairly superficial. They can be useful as teaching tools (like some of us do with spell check or grammar check in word processing programs), or to do a quick sort of student writing at the surface level (which is what happens in large scale testing or placement programs used at many colleges now). 

      But they are a long way from being useful to really helping writers. First, many of them don’t even catch the grammar and mechanics issues; second they cannot address the contextual or style matters. 

      Beyond that, though, is the larger question: What is college writing?  There’s been lively discussion of that topic around NCTE in the secondary and college affliates, and there should be much more.  Most college instructors will tell you we despise the five-paragraph essay model and spend much time trying to un-teach it to our freshman writers, There is not a consensus among college faculty of what constitutes college level writing, although there is some consensus about certain features. Proficient control of grammar and mechanics is usually taken as a given–something students should just have when they arrive at the door of higher ed. Of course, this is often not the case. Hence the hand-wringing and finger pointing at K12 colleagues. On the other hand, freshmen (often former high school honor students or those who took AP courses, etc), who arrive with a fairly strong grasp of the mechanics of writing, too often submit writing that is perfectly punctuated, impeccably spelled, and intellectually anemic.  There are, thank God, wonderful exceptions, but we could be doing so much more to help advance student writing if we (teachers at the secondary and college level) spent more time collaborating with each other. 


  • marsharatzel

    A couple of thoughts

    First and foremost…..thanks for posting this.  We are pounded every day with “Get them ready for college”, “Do this so they will be ready for college”….so it’s good to hear what they really need from the perspective of a college teacher!

    I also think, having just witnessed impressive differences in ELA classes and how much positive impact CCSS is having on writing instruction at the middle school, that eventually you’ll see this improvement come through the system.  I don’t know that they’ll be able to do creative writing any better….but I know they’ll be better able formulate positions and support those positions with evidence.

    I think “education” will be better off and students will become better writers if we are more inclusive in who teaches writing.  But here’s the huge stumbling block.  Content teachers (and I’m thinking chemistry, physics, government, Calculus, Algebra 2, Computer Science, American history) don’t necessarily want to become writing teachers.  And ELA teachers are nervous (and in my opinion resistant to embracing this more technical, higher level content).  Where’s the middle ground?

    Where is the sweet spot of collaborative instruction that allows the ELA teachers to do what they do best and the content teachers do what they do best?  To my  mind’s eye, that means developing projects that require the cooperation of both parties.  What if that unit on how to integrate geometry with algebra (using the Pythagorean Theorem and algebra) included writing that was evaluated by both teachers?

    What if we imagined ELA class, at some point, not as a class but a writing workshop?  At least for some of the time….and students could go and conference with their professor about the writing.  I know philosophy professors that drop down to 1 day of class per week when a paper is due….and use the other two days of class time to coach and workshop midterm and final papers?

    We just have to think about time differently, it seems to me. I see things that K12 can do better and I also see things that higher ed can change. Do you agree?  Do you think I’m off and have missed the point?