Most humanities teachers would agree that teaching students how to write is one of their most important responsibilities. The best teachers of writing, though, don’t share a uniform approach to this fascinating and challenging task.
I’ve written a set of mini-essays and handouts that capture my current thinking about writing. I’m sharing them here because I’ve learned enormously from having conversations with other teachers about their own practices and ideas. I’d like to be able to offer an account of my own approach so that the conversations can continue!
I’m writing to and for my students; they are my intended audience. These materials are not lesson plans and, on their own, aren’t sufficient for causing students to learn essential concepts and skills. I think, though, that some of the material might be useful for students to read, even if they don’t encounter it under the guidance of a teacher.
Writing is Thinking
“It’s true that an essay is a genre of writing, but at this stage in your education, the more important idea you should remember is that an essay is you, thinking. It’s you building and testing out ideas.”
“Much of the reading you’ll do in high school is designed simply to deliver information for you to carry away. But especially in your English and history classes, you’ll also read texts that will yield insights and meaning beyond what the text literally says. These texts require a different type of reading, a method that helps you discover not only what the words say, but also what they mean.”
“An interpreter of literature reads a text and asks, “Given its form and content, what are the possible meanings of the text? How and what does it mean to us?” An historian reads a text and asks, “How and what did the text mean for its author and intended audience? What does it contribute to our understanding of a person, culture, or event that was real and not invented?”
“Powerful thinkers are like miners. They discover ideas by digging, by writing. Especially in the initial stages of intellectual work, writing is the thinker’s jackhammer: the essential tool that cracks open the mind. The best thinkers, though, don’t dig randomly. They strategically choose where and how to penetrate the surface in search of insights that grow in the deeper places. The options a thinker chooses from are what we’ll call “focused free-writing” prompts, starter sentences and questions designed to launch you into your thinking.”
“Throughout high school and college, you will hear humanities teachers insist on the value of “close reading” and urge you to “do a close reading” when you’re interpreting a text. What exactly is a close reading? What does it mean to “read closely”? Can a person read with distance? From far away? Who’s getting close to what? Why?!”
“To use primary sources as tools for understanding the past, historians rely on a special form of close reading. At the core of this method of reading is a specific sequence of questions. Every time an historian reads a primary source, she interrogates the document by asking this set of questions. As a group, the set of questions is designed to make the document useful to her.”
“The word “paraphrase” derives from the Greek verb phrazo which means “to say, tell.” The prefix para means “around.” So, the literal meaning of “paraphrase” is “to say or speak around something.” In English, the word means “to say the same thing in different words.” When you paraphrase a sentence or paragraph, you use different and fewer words than the original text to distill the meaning of the text. “Distill” means “to extract the essence of.” You’re conveying the core or essential meaning of the text in your own words; you avoid the original language by speaking “around” it.”
“When you summarize, you not only tell the reader what a text says, you also analyze how the pieces of the text fit together. If you’re reading a claim-based text—a scholarly article or essay, for example—your main job is to summarize the author’s argument by telling your reader what the argument says and how the argument works: how the main thesis, the supporting claims, and the evidence fit together.”
“On Saturday morning, you wake up and retrieve the essay assignment from your backpack. As you re-read it, you realize that you actually have no idea what Mr. Weil is asking you to do…”
“Throughout high school, teachers will talk to you about how to “frame” your essay. For most teachers, this means teaching you how to write an introductory paragraph and a conclusion. Like a wooden frame that encloses a painting, the introduction and conclusion enclose the main material of your essay. But why? Aren’t there paintings that don’t have frames? Why does an essay need a frame?”
11. Description & summary vs. analysis & interpretation
“Your first draft is not just a first attempt at communicating your ideas, it’s also a first draft of your ideas themselves. The point of re-writing–literally, writing again–is to improve your thinking, to push forward the intellectual work that you accomplished in your first draft. To develop a line of thinking as far as it can go, you must be willing to re-vise: to see again.”
A user-friendly infographic presenting the powerful revision techniques from Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff’s popular book, Sharing and Responding, Random House 1989.
14. Clear and precise sentences
15. How to fix common problems
Detailed rubrics designed by Education Northwest, an influential and long-standing education consulting organization that has advised thousands of schools and teachers. If teachers or students are struggling to describe and evaluate the important features of an essay, these rubrics can be helpful.
I use this rubric or portions of it in my 9th-grade history class.