Friday, May 12, 2006

Bacon, Chickens and the Art of Teaching Writing

“Reading makes a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
Francis Bacon

I always begin my school year by telling my students about Francis Bacon. Bacon, I tell them, pioneered the Inductive Method of Scientific Inquiry. In a nutshell, he proposed that philosophers actually test their theories and make conclusions based on observation. I also tell my students that Bacon died as a result of his Inductive Method; after completing an experiment with raw poultry and ice (hypothesizing that ice could preserve raw meat), he caught pneumonia and died. I embellish the story by adding details about Bacon inventing bacon and experimenting with frozen turkeys. Lastly, I tell my students he invented the “essay”—it is at this point that my students suddenly lose all interest in this man. The image of a 16th Century man stuffing snow inside a raw chicken out on some wintery snow covered slope does not repulse my students. It is the essay. Why is it that essays inspire such dread and despair in our students?

Teaching writing is perhaps the most challenging aspect to teaching High School English. This is especially true when teaching the formal academic essay. Getting students to communicate their ideas in a clear and intelligent fashion—even getting them to have “something” to communicate at all—can be difficult. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting on the topic of "Teaching Students How to Write Essays"


One of the big issues surrounding writing is “process”—taking the time to edit, refine and polish writing, sometimes multiple drafts. Process is essential to any good writing, but the problem is that students lack the desire to wrestle with their writing. I always remind my students that “nothing is sacred”—even the most beautiful sentence, if it detracts from your overall intended meaning, needs to be hacked. Lack of clarity is the first reason to hack a sentence or two. To help my students understand the need for clarity, I have them read each other’s drafts. I also do one-on-one conferencing, but I feel peer editing is an important part in the process. Peer editing has many pitfalls; some peer editors are better than others, and peer editing doesn’t work in all situations (e.g., writing an essay on the same topic). However, with peer editing, students begin to see themselves as readers as well as writers. If they can experience what a reader goes through when they read a sloppy, unpolished piece of writing, then they will have a better understanding of how they need to revise their own work for clarity.


In creative writing, good writers are good readers. We all agree on this point. To prepare a class to write a short story, we would have our students read and discuss the craft of a variety of short stories. Ironically, we often expect our academic students to write essays without actually reading essays. I think many teachers are leery about having students read published essays because published essays—dare I say—never follow the five paragraph model. If teachers were willing to reject the five paragraph essay formula (more on this topic later), then teachers would be willing to have their students read and respond to “real” essays. Why not have our students read essays in preparation of their own essay writing?

The last thing I want is my students writing an essay the way Mr. Johnston wants it because he gives out the grades. What I want is my students writing in the way that best communicates their ideas. Reading published essays—not just student exemplars, I mean the real deal—reading published essays will help our students to see essay writing as “communication” not “hoop jumping”—communication that needs to be refined and honed, in order to best convey their intended meaning.

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