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What Writing Isn’t
If we teach grammar in a way that shows students how it can be an effective tool for expression, they might just grasp it and want to use it
|by Cheryl Sigmon
Regular contributor to the Gazette
March 1, 2008
My daughter called me Sunday morning. Often, Caroline’s calls cause me to brace myself and wonder just what the crisis d’jour might be. If you have at least 3 children, you likely have one like my Caroline… To put it mildly, she proudly marches to the beat of a different drummer, bless her heart (as we Southerners say as we share such family secrets). She’s twenty-five and making a career out of college. (My husband always says she’s trying to cram 4 years of school into 7!) This wouldn’t be so bad except that she has never liked school, and the feeling sometimes seems mutual. So, her calls often start with something like, “How can I possibly be expected to read that much by the next class?” or “The test wasn’t anything like what the professor told us!” or “I’m thinking about dropping this class and taking it next semester” or “This just isn’t fair! (She’s still under the delusion that life is fair…)
Well, the call this morning was a different one. Caroline’s voice was excited and upbeat. (Of course, this is sometimes cause for concern as she can have some pretty strange reasons to celebrate!) But, this news was different. This semester, she is taking her second writing class in fiction. This morning when she checked her email she had a message from her professor with a response to her first attempt at writing a short story for him.
We were both impressed that a professor would take time out on his weekend to respond personally to a students’ work and also that his response would be about 3 pages. She was eager to share his critique with me, even the parts that offered constructive criticism, sometimes embedded in a bit of comical sarcasm.
But, what thrilled her most was his encouragement about her writing talent—and she does have talent. Furthermore, this writing professor is a well-regarded writer of Oprah book club fame. Someone Caroline called a “real writer” had validated her as “a writer in training.”
Caroline has always had a knack for writing. She was apparently born with writers’ eyes—the ability to see ordinary things in an extraordinary way. Poetry is what she has loved best and has felt most comfortable writing. I still remember reading her serious poetry for the first time and thinking, “Where did this come from?” I watched her after that, maybe even somewhat dubious that the gem she had produced was a fluke. But, instead, the gems came time and time again, glistening in new and different ways.
What Caroline didn’t posses (and still doesn’t) that often worked against her was the ability to monitor conventions—or even to acknowledge them. Commas, “i’s” before “e’s,” and capital letters seemed to clutter her thoughts. They weighed her down, so she freed herself during her writing—and the results were often amazing.
When I realized Caroline’s true talent, being an English teacher, I worried about the conventions and how they might indirectly impact her talent, mainly through teachers’ comments and grades. In my estimation, almost anyone can place a comma where it needs to go or an apostrophe on a possessive noun, but few can create and capture images the way she can. I was hoping her teachers might feel the same. She did encounter teachers along the way who felt that conventions trumped creativity. But, apparently the muses smiled on her more often than not and gave her teachers who saw her potential and ignored her inability to attend to those superfluous marks and that “bee” perfect spelling.
In our writing classrooms, it’s hard sometimes to find the balance between conventions and composition. When state standards and tests mandate conventions, we feel we must demand that of our students. On the other hand, when we read a good book, we don’t find ourselves talking about how great the punctuation was or how many fragments and run-ons it had. (Can you imagine Oprah convincing anyone to read a book based on its perfection in spellings and conventions?) In fact, if you look closely at the writing of many of your favorite authors, you’ll find that even the editors agreed that some accepted conventions became cumbersome. They dispensed with many of the markings because it created a special and desirable effect.
So, how important are conventions—grammar, mechanics, usage, spelling? We know we have to teach Standard American English and the conventions that apply and that are acceptable in different situations. But, we need to recognize what produces quality writing—and it ain’t (Oops!)…isn’t grammar. Borrowing from Six Traits, Ruth Culham shares that voice, sentence fluency, ideas, organization, word choice, and conventions are necessary for quality writing. Years ago when I had my training with Culham and Spandel, creators of the approach, I realized that the trait of conventions was only 1/6 of the formula. Conventions didn’t drive writing, didn’t rule writing, didn’t define it solely…but did impact it. Without adherence to conventions, reading what is written would surely be difficult, if not impossible.
Especially as I have written more myself over the past few years, I’ve come to realize how conventions can aid my writing, clarify my meaning, and create the special effects in a way that the words themselves can not accomplish. So, I’ve grown to appreciate the markings that are available—not that I always make the best choices! (My oldest child, for example, who is a marketing specialist, tells me that I’m terribly guilty of overusing exclamation marks. Imagine that! Not that I’ve given up their use now, but I’m more cognizant after she accused me of using more than my fair share of them. Maybe it’s just my nature to be more passionate in my written expression.)
If you’re looking for hard and fast research to defend why you shouldn’t unnecessarily burden students with conventions or overemphasize their importance in relationship to good writing, you need only read the research of Hillocks and Smith (2003) in their meta-analysis of the study of grammar instruction. They unequivocally concluded that the instruction of grammar in isolation has little if any impact on the quality of students’ writing. In some instances, it even has a negative impact on writing. If we, however, teach grammar in a way that shows students how it can be an effective tool for expression, they might just grasp it and want to use it. Caroline, for example, will use commas in her poetry, short sentences when she’s quickly pacing her character, and longer more complex sentences when she’s slowing down and analyzing the character. When grammar, punctuation, and usage are seen as valuable tools, we want and need to use them.
If you’re interested in taking a new direction in your writing instruction/grammar instruction, be sure to read some of my favorites—Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm’s Getting It Right, Fresh Approaches to Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Correctness, Ruth Culham’s 6 + 1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide (and maybe even one of my Just-Right Writing Mini-Lessons books to see how to contextualize your lessons!). We can turn these writing classrooms around and put the emphasis where it belongs. You might even want to print this article and share it with your students for their response. Now, that would be interesting for a debate!
When I ended my conversation with my daughter on Sunday morning, would you believe, she said she was going to start another story that day. And, it was a glorious, sunny day in Charleston, South Carolina. Instead of heading for the beach, she was inspired by the encouragement of her teacher. We can do that for all of our students and for our own children—inspire them to want to learn. Let’s hope we all look for the uniquenesses that our students posses and that we know when and how to encourage them. From this mom, thanks to one professor who did that late on his Saturday night!
Happy reading and writing! -------Cheryl