Teaching the Art of Writing at Nightingale
by Brad Whitehurst
Head of the English Department
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
—from “Why I Write,” Joan Didion
Like studio painting or piano playing, writing can be taught through guided practice. Just as our arts faculty at the Nightingale-Bamford School includes visual artists, musicians, and dancers who teach their respective arts, we English faculty are writers—essayists, poets, novelists, biographers, screenwriters—who teach the art of writing. Or perhaps it is better to say that we coach writers, for students at any age mostly teach themselves through trial and error and repeated effort over time. The teacher’s role is to guide, encourage, critique, and challenge. Parents also play an important role, which will be addressed later.
All good writing begins with two questions. What do I have to say? How can I say it? Other questions follow. Who is my audience? Where do I want to take them? How should I begin? How should I organize my ideas? What points should be included? Students have to be asked these questions repeatedly so that they learn to ask them—and answer them—for themselves. A writer should not limit herself before she has figured out her ideas; she should not put herself in a box before she has begun to write. Ideas must come first.
Dispense with any notions of formulaic, one-size-fits-all writing, we English teachers say. Writers, like artists and musicians, have a range of options in pursuing their art. Even expository writing of the most fact-based, analytical sort calls for the artful selection and assemblage of parts. To see how this might play out in the classroom, let’s consider the arc of a typical essay assignment at Nightingale-Bamford.
At every grade level, our curriculum includes writing workshops—that is, class time designated to discuss and work on writing. “Dare to have an opinion,” I tell them as I hand out a new writing assignment, “and express it forthrightly. Dare to be interesting.” Most essay assignments offer three or four options from which to choose, and sometimes students can propose their own topics for approval. Any essay worth reading explores real ideas, questions assumptions, and takes risks, so students are exhorted to be independent thinkers and bold writers even as they are talked and walked through a process. We urge them to let go of those pernicious strangleholds on writing: excessive politeness and the desire to avoid offending at all costs.
Just getting started on a new assignment, students often ask, “Can I do this? Can I do that?”
“Do what works,” I say, “as long as you fulfill the requirements that I just spelled out.”
“Where should I start?”
“You decide,” I say, “and then try it out.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“You can always try another approach,” I note. At such moments, I am not being cagey or coy. I am putting the onus where it belongs: on the student. For some, such latitude feels liberating; for others, it is a bit scary, at least at first. Especially at this early stage, we teachers need to avoid too much hand-holding; we need to be honest about what it takes to write well. At the same time, we need to make clear that we believe our students will find their way. The sooner students embrace the challenges inherent in real writing, the better.
Models of good writing are needed, so we may look at relevant passages from texts we’ve been reading for English class. Anonymous student samples from previous years may be shared, whether projected on the board or distributed as photocopies. The point is to get our noses into actual texts to evaluate opening paragraphs, lines of reasoning, use of quotations, turns of phrase, and so on. We ask ourselves, what technique or strategy in this model works particularly well, and how could we use that in our own writing? How could a given passage be more persuasive? How could it be expressed more clearly and concisely? Ultimately, the reading and discussing of other models can take students, even the most talented, only so far.
“Okay, enough talk about writing,” I finally say. “Each of you needs to get down to work.” Mild uncertainty may ripple through the room, but most students soon settle into a productive hum of writerly activity: brainstorming, making lists, jotting notes, writing their first sentences, whether handwritten or typed. “Make sure you keep all of your brainstorming together in one place,” I say. “Notes, lists, quotations, first drafts—everything should go into a single Word file or Google doc so that it can be used later.” Sometimes I rove, redirecting the distracted or encouraging the uncertain. Mostly, I leave them to work in peace, to have their individual experiences. Their writing will continue as homework.
In subsequent classes, students may provide the models. We may flesh out evolving ideas and review strong sentences or promising passages from their work underway. Sometimes I ask a student to read aloud a section from her essay, or I offer to read it aloud myself, so that we can discuss her writing and how she might improve it. Mini-lessons may respond to specific needs—crafting engaging openings, selecting stronger verbs, transitioning between paragraphs, integrating quotations, or some other practical matter. At this stage, a lighter tone in the classroom may help lower the stakes so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. The point, I remind them, is to take the writing seriously. What is this writer trying to say, and how is she saying it? How could she say it better?
“Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” Joan Didion wrote. Unfortunately, not all of us writers are Joan Didion. While Didion’s essays are included in our curriculum as masterful models of the art form, her approach to grammar is decidedly unhelpful for young writers. To tweak her metaphor, I would suggest that students benefit from being able to read music when they sit down at the keyboard, whether to play the piano or to write. Most of them discover that a grounding in basic music theory (i.e., grammar) enhances composition and performance.
Apart from Didion, few writers learn by osmosis when to use the pronouns I versus me or who versus whom. How can a student learn when to include a comma in a given context unless the underlying concept is explained, with examples provided? Topics presenting special challenges for native speakers—agreement and pronoun case, for example—should be taught explicitly. At the same time, one should not be too rigid about the rules. To quote the fourteenth Dalai Lama, you should “know the rules well so you can break them effectively.” Indeed, I hope that our student-writers grow into skillful rule-breakers. Mastering a skill set, though, is not the same thing as learning an art.
At its best, peer review (as opposed to peer editing) provides a safe space for students to give and receive feedback and encouragement and to learn from one another. Sometimes students are strategically paired off, and sometimes they get to choose partners. To clarify their task, I ask, “what constructive feedback could you offer your partner to help improve her writing?” They are reminded to offer criticism that is honest, specific, yet delivered with kindness. I urge them to move beyond feel-good cheerleading (“great job!”) and unhelpful praise (“awesome writing!”).
Particularly for younger students, a set of peer-review questions may be used to guide their thinking and focus their critique. Each student is asked to read her partner’s draft in its entirety first before chatting about it. She may jot questions in the draft’s margins or on the sheet of peer-review questions, but she is not allowed to correct or alter the draft in any way. Sometimes each student is paired off with a second partner, and the process is repeated. In this way, students learn from one another: they not only receive a range of feedback; they also see other approaches to the same assignment, some of which may be applied to their own writing.
At least once per semester, each student is required to sit down in a one-on-one conference with her English teacher to review her writing in the brainstorming or drafting phase. Beyond this basic requirement, many motivated students seek additional meetings outside of class to discuss or review their writing. (And I often initiate meetings with those who need help but are reluctant to ask for it.) In a conference, the student is peppered with questions to help move her thinking from description to interpretation so that she arrives at an interpretive thesis—that is, an idea that is truly debatable. This critical step is the biggest challenge for most students, especially for those concrete thinkers whose capacities for abstract thought are only beginning to percolate. “Now that you have described what happens in the novel,” I may ask about her literary essay-in-progress, “what do you make of your description? How does it matter? Why does it matter? How does it affect your understanding of the story, the characters, or the issues raised?” Repeatedly, I ask the questions how and why.
When a student suggests what might go into her first body paragraph, I know that she is not talking about ideas; she is talking about structure. Body paragraph, five-paragraph essay—such terms suggest an industrial mold or cookie cutter into which students must pour some elusive content, whether molten ore or cookie dough. Because many students try to rely on structure rather than on ideas, it is best to avoid such terms altogether. I prefer, for example, to discuss a student’s opening rather than her introduction. She probably is struggling with how to begin because she doesn’t yet know what she thinks, so guided thinking is needed. The teacher’s job is to talk the student through her own thinking and to ask questions that help her figure out what she thinks.
Those who were raised on the five-paragraph essay (as I was) and may be resistant to this approach should consider the following metaphor. Five-paragraph proponents might argue that their methods provide the training wheels to help students learn to ride the bike of writing; once students gain confidence and skill, so the thinking goes, the training wheels may be removed. In my experience, most student-writers raised on training wheels never want to take them off—or don’t even notice that they are still on, limiting their wheelies and other advanced maneuvers. Five-paragraphers might counter, don’t students, particularly younger ones, need scaffolding (that go-to teacher term) to learn how to write? Yes, they need scaffolding, but not the training wheels of the five-paragraph essay; they need an approach that builds resilience and trains them to be thinkers engaged in authentic writing.
Now back to those one-on-one conferences. I usually ask the student to read aloud her draft because simultaneously hearing and seeing her own writing increases the likelihood that she will detect problem areas and make corrections on the spot. As she reads aloud, I follow along and point out if she misreads what she has actually written, as opposed to what she thinks she has written. I may interrupt to ask what she means by a certain statement or how she might say it better. Frequently in early drafts (especially those of younger writers), gaps in thinking exist between sentences, where a leap in logic has been made without explanation. In other words, some point remains implicit, one that needs to be made explicit in the writing, so we talk through, and flesh out, those gaps. Often a sentence or two needs to be added to the end of a paragraph to provide fuller explanation of a point. As we proceed, the student corrects, adds, deletes, annotates in the margins, and I never touch her paper. The essay is her work-in-progress, which is why it remains, literally and figuratively, in her hands.
In follow-up discussions, students often ask some version of the following: “I have been writing more about my topic, but now I disagree with my thesis. Is it okay if I change my thesis?” You bet it’s okay! In fact, it’s probably a very good sign. The student has thought and written enough to figure out what she actually thinks about her topic.
Anything that makes a student pause and reflect on her own writing process is a good thing. Before she hands in her final version on the day it is due, I may ask her to underline the strongest sentence in her essay or to put a check mark next to the one sentence that best expresses her main idea. Or I may ask her to handwrite a brief note at the end of her essay about what was most challenging about the assignment or what she would have done differently. Later, my written comments may include a response to her note, thus creating a kind of mini-dialogue about her writing.
Fewer marks selectively included on a hard copy are usually best: a teacher should avoid disheartening the student or overwhelming her with too much information at one time. Keeping in mind that less is more, I typically deploy three types of comments.
- Marginal notes chart my real-time experience reading the paper. These might address how the thesis is being argued (successfully or not), what points could be clarified or elaborated, added or deleted, and where the argument seems to be going or should be going.
- Interlinear marks selectively address issues of grammar, punctuation, and word choice. Sometimes I mark up one sentence or one entire paragraph, just focusing on a single grammatical or stylistic issue, and then ask the student to look for similar instances elsewhere in the paper. In this way, I encourage her to be her own editor. It’s one thing to write “omit needless words,” “maintain consistent verb tenses,” or “fix dangling modifier” in the margin, and it’s another thing to show how those revisions might be made and then ask the student to apply those approaches elsewhere.
- One summarizing note at the end provides a big-picture reaction, including any suggested improvements for future writing.
When I return marked papers in class, students are given a few minutes to read through my feedback and ask any questions. I want to make sure that my comments are actually read and understood. I also want to ensure privacy. If students want to share grades with friends later, that’s their business, but that’s not happening in the classroom.
“Why didn’t I get an A?” asks one student after class. Another says, “I got a B+. What did I do wrong?” The assumption behind these questions seems to be that, given enough time and effort on the assignment, any student could and should earn an A. If I just figure out exactly what the teacher wants and deliver that, the thinking goes, I’ll nail it. (What this teacher wants, of course, is for the student to do her best work and to learn and grow as a writer.) Perfectionistic thinking is deadly for any student—especially, as we know, for girls. No one should hobble herself with unrealistic expectations just as she is getting started as a writer, so I propose better questions for her to ask. How could my essay have been a better one? How could I approach the writing process differently, more effectively? How could I work to become a stronger writer, and what specific steps should I take? I talk her through an approach focused on her growth as a writer.
In the end, some writing is better than others. When letter grades are used (and we generally reserve them for major assignments), they should reflect gradations in quality, albeit in an age-appropriate way. In short, they should serve as tools of honest assessment. Teachers should not coddle students with feel-good As, and Bs should indicate good work and not be doled out like ladies’ and gentlemen’s Cs. As one of my colleagues likes to say, a messy paper with genuine ideas is better than a tidy, carefully proofread paper with no real ideas; all else being equal, the messy one should earn the better grade. I generally agree, though I would probably lend a bit more weight to the clarity and conciseness of sentences, the building blocks that construct and express those ideas. Effort may be factored in, particularly for younger students. Timeliness, too, may be rewarded on longer projects with interim steps and deadlines that need to be met along the way (i.e., brainstorming, first paragraph, first draft, etc.). Whatever the criteria for evaluation, those should be spelled out to the student in advance.
At the same time, not every piece of writing requires a letter grade. In fact, letter grades in Class V at Nightingale have been abolished altogether, and middle-school faculty are evaluating the best ways to use grades selectively at other grade levels. Comments with a simple check, check-plus, or check-minus—for example, on homework reactions and in-class paragraphs—are often preferred. The point is to provide meaningful feedback that helps the student improve as a writer.
Does This Approach Work?
The proof is in our students’ writing at every level. Let me be clear: not every girl grows into an excellent writer. Nor, for that matter, does every student go on to be a math whiz, a brilliant linguist, or the next Madame Curie of the research lab. We English teachers nonetheless expect that every student will grow into a competent writer with strong skills and a solid grounding in grammar. Many, if not most, exceed those expectations.
What does success look like? A successful student-writer develops patience with the process and resilience to stick with it. She learns to appreciate writing as a mode of thinking that helps her figure out what she actually thinks and enables her to express her thoughts. She produces well-formed sentences containing real ideas and essays that she is proud to have written. As one recent eighth-grader was handing in her essay on Macbeth, she confessed with a smile, “I didn’t really know what I thought about the play until I wrote that paper, but now I do!” As I said then, that is exactly the point.
Those middle schoolers who leave Nightingale for other secondary schools find that they are prepared for the most rigorous writing curricula. Our graduates in college usually discover that they can write circles around most of their peers—and in college, writing is a primary means of assessment, especially in the humanities. Every year, at least one recent graduate returning from college reports on the shoddy writing of her classmates and her clear advantage as a seasoned writer. (She also may confess to having been asked to proofread a roommate’s essay.) Many alumnae have shared comparable stories about their experiences in the workplace.
It should go without saying that each student is learning the art of writing not only to produce essays in academic settings, but also to apply that art to other literary forms: memoirs or poems, news articles or screenplay treatments, business letters or love letters, political speeches or wedding toasts, legal briefs or lifestyle blogs. As a student trained in writing, she is learning the one art (and the one transferable skill set) that is most likely to have a profound impact on her professional life, regardless of the career she chooses to pursue. She also is establishing a foundation to build on for the rest of her personal life. After all, writing is one of the main ways we express ourselves and make sense of our lives.
The Student’s Role
So far, I have addressed the teacher’s coaching role. What should a student do to grow as a writer?
- She should approach new writing assignments with an openness to possibilities and a measured confidence that, with patience, she will find her way.
- She should take the initiative by starting a writing assignment soon after it is assigned, working on it step by step, over days. If she is up late working on it the night before it is due, she probably has procrastinated—or she is obsessing in an unhealthy way.
- She should seek out her teacher early on to ask questions or to meet individually.
- She should apply herself assiduously to revisions. Her first draft should never be the last one because anything worth reading has been revised, often extensively.
- She should read aloud her drafts during revision. As previously mentioned, simultaneously hearing and seeing her own writing increases the likelihood that she will detect problem areas.
- She should continually read and write, especially during vacations and over the summer. As my own high-school English teacher was fond of saying, the best way to become a better writer is to write; the second-best way is to read.
The Parent’s Role
Finally, how can a parent help her daughter grow as a writer? The following points are addressed to parents.
- Listen to your daughter as she reads her writing aloud. Serve as her sounding board. Provide general reactions and point out any confusions in content, organization, or expression. Then let her make any changes to the draft.
- Resist the temptation to feed her alternative phrasing. As I must remind myself repeatedly, the student needs to struggle within her own verbal limitations. Words warehoused in her understanding vocabulary can be shipped to the home office of her working vocabulary only through repeated practice and the brute effort of trying to call up those words, again and again, and using them in the proper context. Such effort, repeated over time, is the only way to learn to write well. Let her confront that fact early on in her writing career so that she can build confidence and skills to meet the challenge.
- Resist the temptation to line-edit her writing. Avoid what we refer to as the invisible hand (the presence of which we English teachers, much to our chagrin, often can detect). Just follow this simple guideline: your daughter should be the only one to pick up the pen or touch the keyboard. This guideline should apply to all adults—parents, tutors, family friends—involved in your daughter’s school life. It also applies to teachers—hence my hands-off approach during conferences.
- Encourage your daughter to claim ownership for her own work. She can afford to engage in the trial and error of learning, and she needs to do so for real growth. Yes, we all benefit from another pair of editorial eyes; in fact, many of our professional lives depend on that kind of help. But I hope that your daughter will spend more of her adult life editing rather than being edited.
- Let your daughter see you engaged in reading and writing, whether for your job or for your personal pleasure. Show her by your own example that reading and writing are integral to being a skilled professional, an effective citizen, and a whole human being.
- Trust us teachers. We don’t have all the answers, but we know what we’re doing. Encourage your daughter to be her own best advocate and speak to her teacher directly whenever challenges arise. If more support is needed, a discrete e-mail message or a quick phone call to your child’s English teacher can usually allay any concerns.
- Stay focused on your daughter’s long-term growth. Be patient with the messy process of learning. Convey your confident belief that, in time, she will get to where she needs to be as a writer.