Reading and Writing with Writers in Mind

After 18 years as a public high school English teacher and then 14 years (and counting) as a university professor (many years of which teaching first-year writing along with teacher education), I was sitting in our second summer workshop designed to help university professors teach writing, and I had an epiphany about teaching writing that I believe has helped me understand better why the teaching of writing remains so contentious.

Both the formal teaching of reading and writing — notably at the secondary and undergraduate levels — is conducted by one of two essential groundings: teaching literacy as a reader and/or writer versus teaching literacy as a hyper-student/teacher.

Many if not most teachers and professors are hyper-students, having excelled at and achieved within formal schooling where literacy is often measured by tests and driven by templates of what counts as “good” and “bad” language and texts. Once anyone has excelled in that culture, it is difficult to view it critically or to reject it for what avid readers and writers would call “authentic” literacy.

While my teaching and advocacy for teaching rests solidly in teaching literacy as a writer and reader, I am not here suggesting one is better than the other, but that these two perspectives are at the core why discussing and confronting so-called “best practices” often results in a stalemate instead of a productive conversation.

I have noted often that many English majors, including those certifying to teach secondary English and those who attain doctorates to teach at the university level, are prepared as hyper-students to teach a limited version of literary criticism — mostly addressing fiction and poetry and through analysis of literary technique and writer’s craft. (See this interesting argument for close reading of multicultural texts that, I believe, recommending close reading by rejecting close reading.)

During the accountability era when what we teach and what students learn have been reduced to how students are tested, reading and writing have been reduced to artificial (as in how we address them in school and how we test them) forms: reading snippets of text to answer multiple choice questions (no real-world readers do this), writing from a prompt in order to be assessed by a rubric and/or against an anchor paper (at best a bastardization of real-world writing, but honestly, again, few real-world writers do this).

Teachers of writing, specifically, then, who are not themselves writers often depend on their in-school understanding of writing to teach students, but a teacher of writing who isn’t a writer also must confront the burden of being told (often) she/he should be a writer to teach writing well.

Yet, most teachers and even professors are not writers, and very few students will become writers. It is here that I have begun to consider how to bridge this gap so that the teaching of reading and writing can honor both writing as a student (and scholar) and writing as a writer.

Below, I will examine how addressing traditional approaches to teaching writing (the writing process, audience, essay forms/genres, revision, etc.) can be enhanced by including in lessons writers writing and talking about writing as well as their lives as readers. The goal here is to augment using mentor texts with authentic writer voices about writing that provide provocative and critical entry points into the elements of writing.

Moving to Discovery Lessons about Writing

One of the most successful and celebrated living writers is Neil Gaiman, who confesses in “What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book, Anyway? The Zena Sutherland Lecture” (from The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction):

For the record, I don’t think I have ever disliked anything as long or as well as I disliked school: the arbitrary violence, the lack of power, the pointlessness of so much of it….

My defense against the adult world was to read everything I could. I read whatever was in front of me, whether I understood it or not.

I was escaping. Of course I was — C.S. Lewis wisely pointed out that the only people who inveigh against escape tend to be the jailers.

How do we as all types of teachers of reading and writing (whether we are writers or not) create literacy instruction that avoids fostering such “dislike” for reading and writing in our students?

I believe the key is asking questions about how to read and write, instead of simply providing templates, prompts, and direction for students. I also think using writers’ own writing and talking about being a writer and reader are excellent entry points for starting these discoveries for students.

One transition from traditional instruction of the elements of writing to discovery lessons about writing includes essential questions that expose student prior knowledge and lay the groundwork for investigating that knowledge:

· What are the components of the writing process and how can they best be applied to a writing project or assignment (see here for a writing assignment guide for students)?

· What elements of writing are impacted by the audience for a piece of writing?

· What are the goals of revising and what are some strategies for effective revising?

· What makes an essay, an essay, and what are other short forms of non-fiction that writers create?

As well, how we ask students to investigate text is important for their growth as writers. While literary analysis is often highly valued in schools — especially in the ways that we test literacy (such as Advanced Placement tests) — the literary technique hunt can alienate students in ways Gaiman expresses from both reading and writing. (For alternatives to the literary technique hunt, try reading like writer activities such as here and here.)

The key point I want to emphasize here is adding to more common practices of using mentor texts to teach writing, the writing about writing and reading by writers. As one example of this process, I am sharing an interview with a poet, which may seem unrelated to teaching school-based essay writing; therefore, first, let’s consider teaching essay writing through poetry.

Teaching Essay Writing through Poetry

As a writer and teacher, I am pained to admit, but in the big picture I do agree with Kurt Vonnegut who opens “Teaching the Unteachable” with “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. Most bright people know that….”

My caveat, however, is about what we mean by “writing well.” Vonnegut above and my agreement are confronting what I would call those who are by their nature and inclinations writers first — those who would labor over poetry, fiction, essays, and the like for months and even years (and decades) without any real hope anyone will ever publish that work. These are writers who write because they have to, but not necessarily because they want or need to. Students and many scholars, on the other hand, do write because they have to, often to fulfill assignments or obligations.

Throughout my career, I have taught primarily high school and undergraduate students to write — but that effort is rarely about the sort of writer mentioned above; instead I am teaching writing that is essentially functional (to demonstrate learning) and disciplinary. And it is there that I diverge from Vonnegut because I know for a fact that we can teach people to write well in the disciplines, often extremely well even when they do not particularly like to write, even when they insist they are not very good writers.

One of the most effective approaches to teaching disciplinary-based essay writing is to focus on large concepts about effective writing and then grounding that in examining poetry in order to teach those concepts. Using poetry to reinforce essay writing helps highlight the universal qualities of powerful writing and continues to push students in their awareness of genre, form, and medium as they impact expression.

How can exploring poetry support teaching students to write essays in school?

Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America begins “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” with “The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” and then continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

In class, we begin to read and examine this poem, but I use this discussion to highlight the craft of writing (especially as that relates to disciplinary essay writing), not to do the traditional poetry analysis most students expect (the literary technique hunt).

Here are some of the elements of effective writing we highlight through classroom discussion:

  • After an initial read-aloud of the poem, I steer the students back to the title, which in this case is extremely important. Thus, I emphasize the importance of the title as well as discuss the art and craft of subheads in disciplinary essays. Many students have not focused on titles, and often submit essays without titles so this is typically a key lesson for high school and first-year college students. (Here, it is valuable to have scholarly essay mentor texts to show students as you explore titles and subheads in academic writing.) More broadly, titles and subheads are formal aspects of organization — moving from how Kingsolver organizes her poem to identifying various strategies for organization in academic essays.
  • Next, we highlight the use of “gold” in the opening line and the final stanza. The points I stress are about word choice, connotation, and framing. I believe essay writing must begin at the word level for young writers; they need a greater sense of purpose in the words they choose, notably specificity, concreteness, appropriateness (key here is that words have specialized meanings in the disciplines), and clarity. And that connects with connotations of words; in the poem, “gold” carries a great deal of important information about the scene, issues related to wealth and privilege. My students are quick to admit that Kingsolver has chosen “gold” with intent, purpose. Further, “gold” serves as a framing motif since she incorporates the word in the opening line and the end. I stress to students that essays are often framed (and to avoid the mechanistic introduction and conclusion format they have learned in high school). Framing and motifs add powerful and concrete elements to writing that young writers often lack.
  • We also confront Kingsolver’s use of “one” and “it,” especially the latter since I have stressed the problems with the pronoun to my students. In this poem, “one” and “it” create meaning in their repetition but also in their ambiguous implications about both the domestic worker and the vase. The point of emphasis is that Kingsolver, again, chooses and repeats words with purpose to create meaning, and this contrasts with how students are apt to repeat and use empty or vague language from carelessness.
  • Finally, we discuss the effectiveness of writing with characters and plot as well as the impact of showing versus telling. People doing things are powerful, much more powerful than abstractions. Kingsolver in her poem trusts the reader to know the abstractions she is showing through the scene of two women talking in an elevator; however, young writers of academic essays tend to make many grand announcements (often overstated) and fail to show or support those claims.

This fall I followed the discussion of Kingsolver’s poem with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” and the result was impressive. We were able to identify the craft lessons above immediately in King’s essay; students were also significantly more willing to embrace the concepts once we scaffolded their understanding through the poem and then into King’s writing.

While there is a cynical irony to Vonnegut’s claims about teaching the unteachable — written by a writer who often taught at writing conferences and legendary writing workshops — ones that do elicit laugher, I am convinced that we teachers of writing who serve primarily students who will have to write while in formal education and then may go on to write in the disciplines can be very successful, but only if we take the teaching of writing seriously, and seek ways in which students can grow as writers.

Focusing on the universals of effective writing and then allowing students to examine and practice those universals are essential. And to do that, I find that poetry as an entry mentor text is an excellent resource for teaching the writing of academic essays.

Investigating Text with Writers: Poet Matt Olzman

Earlier, I stressed the importance of listening to published and successful writers to guide the formal teaching of reading (texts) and writing.

While Gaiman, for example, provides English teachers a wealth of writing about books, bookstores, libraries, and writing, many writers talk and write about their lives as readers and writers, and as English teachers, we should be seeking to build a toolbox of writers on texts and writing for our classrooms and students (see below).

Poet Matt Olzman offers one such an opportunity.

In an interview, Olzman discusses his writer’s life as a poet that speaks to key aspects of formal writing instruction. Inviting students to compare what Olzman explains to their own understanding of key concepts about text and writing helps avoid overly simplistic and school-only versions of reading and writing (such as the literary technique hunt, the temple five-paragraph essay, and the sequential writing process).

Before having students examine Olzman’s interview, put them in small groups to brainstorm and discuss their own current understanding of key aspects of writing:

· What is the writing process?

· What does revision look like and why do writers revise?

· What is an essay?

· How does audience influence a piece of writing?

· And, who are your favorite writers (and why)?

This initial brainstorming acknowledges what students bring to the classroom, but also provides a context for how Olzman as a writer explains similar elements.

Just to focus on some of the interview, let’s look first at Olzman on daily writing, inspiration, the writing process, and revision:

It’s very rarely a matter of inspiration. I try to write a little every day, and that quickly wipes out your reservoir of backup ideas. Often I sit down, unsure what I’m going to write. I like writing just for the process of writing. I like the way it makes me slow down and think something through. Sometimes it’s just writing out thoughts, writing a scene, writing a sentence, and then if something sparks or seems promising when I return to it, then that’s when the real work often begins: revising and developing the idea. I think C. Dale Young once said that drafting a poem is like an artist gathering materials, but revising a poem is an artist shaping the materials. So the poem truly begins in revision, when I have something that I want to try to expand and develop.

For students, writing is often about writing to a prompt; therefore, discussions about inspiration can be contribute to examining student motivation to write: Are students often unmotivated? How can they find their motivation (inspiration)? What are some practical strategies for overcoming staring at a blank page?

Further, Olzman noting that he writes in order to understand better ideas is extremely important for introducing students to discovery drafts — since often students are encouraged to start with a given thesis sentence that they must them address.

Incredibly powerful is even more from Olzman on revision:

In revision, one of two things usually happens. I can tinker at a poem, just making small changes — a word here or there, line ending, inverting the order of two different clauses — or a complete reimagining of the entire poem. I might like the first stanza, but I not anything else that follows, so I restart using that stanza. Or there might have been an idea that I was trying to convey, but I’m not excited about any of the ways I actually said it. Small adjustments, or a massive overhaul. It seems to vary between those two extremes.

For students, the ideas of “tinkering” can be connected to editing and then “reimagining” to much more substantial approaches:

· Adding to revision the possibility of abandoning a draft and starting over.

· Reorganizing the main points of the essay through strategies such as outlining after the draft.

· Analyzing support in order to find better evidence.

One of the most problematic aspects of teaching writing in school, for me, is the traditional essay form — the introduction, body, conclusion version with the overt thesis (often the five-paragraph essay or some hybrid). Olzman discusses “received” forms for poetry:

If I’m writing a received form like a sonnet or a villanelle, those never happen by accident, so you have to just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a villanelle or a sonnet,” but with free verse, the form can sometimes come more organically, and the shaping starts to happen later in the drafting process. But I think that all poems, in some way, have some sort of formal structure, whether it’s rhetorical, tonal, etc. I don’t know what a formless poem would look like.

This is an excellent opportunity to talk about the artificial nature of the essay template as that contrasts with, as Olzman notes, that all essays must have some purposeful form. Here, again, is an opportunity to ask students to examine mentor texts — both model academic essays and literary essays, such as those by Kingsolver (see her High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder collections).

Finally, Olzman addresses audience — key for students since all too often they have only the audience of their teachers who gave them the assignment:

It’s hard to even guess. I think that the biggest challenge for a writer is to be able to anticipate what the reader is feeling, to look at your own work through a stranger’s eyes and imagine what they’ll experience when reading it. Are they going to be surprised? Are they going to be confused? You’re constantly trying to walk a very fine line between things being spelled out too much and the poem becoming boring and predictable or the opposite: being too elliptical and the poem becoming confusing. You’re always having to guess how the reader is going to be responding. I think the thing you strive for most as a writer is tension or interest. You just want the reader to want to make it from one line to the next and to feel like they’re not necessarily laboring or confused or left behind or fading out. So engagement is something you’re always pushing toward as a writer.

To invite students to consider seriously audience, writing assignments must be reimagined so that these concerns are authentic; as well, adding the element of an authentic audience to writing for students emphasizes the need for writers to engage their audience, which can greatly enhance other elements such as revision.

Collecting powerful and complex discussions of texts, reading, and writing from professional writers allows our formal instruction in reading/text and writing to gain a higher level of authenticity, complicating and enriching the aspects of responding to text and classroom writing that too often push students away from reading and writing.

Connecting Olzman’s comments above to his poetry, then, can be an effective series of classroom activities that allow students to discover and create their own developing understanding of how to read and re-read, write and re-write the world.


Some of Olman’s poems available online include:

· Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz

· The Millihelen and Wreckage Gallery

· Notes Regarding Happiness

· Four Letters: Letter to a Dead Goldfish, Letter to the Flying Dutchman, Letter to Jennifer Chang and Evan Rhodes Regarding a Variation in the Fabric of Time, Letter to The New Year

Martin Amis — Writing Advice

Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose: 1983–2005, Margaret Atwood

On Writing, Stephen King

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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