The mega stack of Fahrenheit papers graded. Finally. Some of them oh so painful to read. In fact, I only gave two A’s. Yes, these were written just a few days before the winter break. Yes, we were all ready for a well-deserved break. And yes, I definitely have some issues with the prescriptive five paragraph essay format. But really. Why were some of these papers so hard to read? Some of these painful papers were written by smart kids, some of whom seemed to have had a greater handle on this novel in conversation than they certainly had on paper. I know writing is hard. Especially the kind of analytical paper this assignment was.
At the end of the year we read To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus, the father of the narrator and lawyer extraordinaire, gives his daughter the advice, “‘First of all,’ he said, ‘if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'” I am beginning to think that this is the key. The reason that students don’t always write well or thoughtfully is that they have a difficult time putting themselves in the reader’s shoes. Many of the papers I read had shallow and brief introductions which did not provide good overviews of the book. This powerful way to gently lead the reader into their papers and set up some context for their ideas to be shared and to make sense was discarded though we discussed it at length in class. The thesis statements were often very general, broad, and without detail. Something else we talked about in class. The topic sentences in some of the papers were chronologically constructed plot points rather than idea-driven. Not enough context was provided which would help the reader identify the characters about whom they were writing. Text references were given without full explanations of the pieces of text, as if the text reference itself was enough to convince a reader of a point they were trying to make. All of this was fully discussed in class as well.
I wonder if students were made to walk in the reader’s shoes, if they were urged to respect, even honor the reader, to place the reader on some sort of pedestal, if they might be better able to construct stronger summaries of their ideas, more meaningful explanations. I am wondering whether the emphasis on writing as an individual activity is ill-placed and that greater attention to it as a community conversation, actual interactive communication gets closer to the core. Perhaps this is just a late night epiphany, a tired and frustrated teacher trying to understand why some kids have such a hard time communicating on paper.
Teachers have always known that thinking and writing are inextricably linked. But perhaps that thinking piece is way too vague a term. Maybe writing clearly is more about helping that virtual reader completely understand what you have to say, that the emphasis ought to be on the actual leading of the reader through the map of your mind, that the topic per se is less important than the reader’s understanding of your understanding of that topic. Maybe that is what real thinking/real writing is all about.
Perhaps this is too nuanced an idea. Teachers always talk about the audience as a critical part of writing. This is not an earth-shattering insight. What is so different about this shift in focus I am trying to articulate here? I wonder if the explicit goal of writing for students, especially analytic papers, was based solely on how good a guide to your ideas you were for the reader, how the quality of writing might change. Would students be more honest in their grappling with confusing and complex ideas? Would their essays have more life and energy? Would the essay reflect a more organic thinking, a more organic “conversation?”
I’m going to introduce this idea to my students on Monday. After I get some sleep.