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Forget the Formulas . . . At Least Some of the Time

Isn’t it ironic that we ask students to develop argumentative essays, problem-solution essays, and literary analyses because we believe they promote higher levels of thinking? When, in fact, by making these assignments, we may be doing just the opposite.

Aren’t argumentative essays, in essence, exercises in following a formula—making a claim, backing it up, countering the opposition, and so on? Of course, there is thinking going on during the writing, but not the kind that is truly mind expanding. Instead, the thinking is focused on making sure that all of the parts of the argument are stated effectively and arranged in the best way. The same with a problem-solution essay. What’s so intellectually stimulating about stating a problem, providing background information, discussing possible solutions, highlighting the best one, and so on. Just another exercise in following a formula. As Thomas Newkirk says in Critical Thinking and Writing: Reclaiming the Essay, “When essays become formulaic, they hinder rather than foster critical thinking.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with learning the formulas for academic writing. But there’s not much to them. Really, how many problem-solution essays do students have to write before they get it? The same holds true for argumentative essays. In today’s English or comp classes, they are assigned, most often, to help students understand the different forms of expository and persuasive writing in preparation for district or state writing tests. But a steady diet of this stuff can be deadly. How much enjoyment and intellectual stimulation do students really get from penning yet another comparison essay? Really, it’s a wonder that students put up with it. It’s like facing a diet of the same things meal after meal. Tuna casserole again? I think I’ll pass.

I wonder: Do students in music and art classes follow the same “formulas” year after year?

Academic writing does have its uses in specific content areas. If, for example, a history teacher wants to check his students’ understanding of a particular event, he could ask them to write a cause-effect essay about it. Or if a literature teacher wants to assess her students’ understanding of a piece of fiction, she could assign an analysis paper, in which they explore a character’s actions or trace one of the book’s themes. At least in these situations, there is a context for the writing.

Newkirk says, “Most academic writing is not rooted in conviction, in the experience of the writer.” And thus, it’s hard for students to get thoughtfully involved in it. If we really want to stimulate students, we should have them develop their own thoughts and feelings. As Newkirk also says, “Thinking of essays as the beginning of new conversations is liberating.” Here are some simple things that you can do make writing more liberating and more thought-provoking:

  • Forget about the formulas for awhile. Instead, have students write with the following mindset: I’d like to see what I can discover about…
  • Revisit journal writing. But this time make sure that students are exploring their thoughts and feelings at more than just a superficial level. Help them see the “open spaces,” as Newkirk calls them, areas or ideas in which they have just skimmed the surface and need to explore more fully and deeply.
  • After students have written a series of related entries, ask them to develop a more polished personal essay or something else—perhaps a story, a poem(s), or a play—that focuses on some connecting element or strand of thought.
  • Have students carry on dialogue journals, not by sharing simple comments with a partner, but by conversing in intellectual, thoughtful ways.
  • Encourage students to develop blog posts whenever they have ideas they would like to explore and share with a wide audience. Or encourage them to get involved in chat rooms that promote the give and take of interesting ideas.
  • Share with students engaging and entertaining personal essays, so they can see other writers has doing. Then have them try to imitate the style of particular essayists.
  • On a regular basis, give them “personal prompts” to respond to:
    • What really grinds your beans?
    • What won’t you ever do and why?
    • Have you ever walked in someone else’s shoes? How did it feel?
  • Also have students respond to their coursework: What are you getting out of this? What does this make you feel and why? What would you have done? This personal connection will help them make sense of and internalize new information.

The Newkirk book I refer to in this posting was published in 1989, but what he said then is perhaps even more important today, especially with the current emphasis on preparing students for writing tests. He has just come out with a new book Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones that addresses some of the same themes. If you are an elementary teacher, you may want to refer to Lucy Calkins for insight and advice on this subject, and if you are a middle school teacher, to Linda Rief.

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