[I’ve just discovered a whole stack of posts under “Drafts” … no idea when I wrote this one. It was a while back.]
As a writing instructor, I’ve been chronically frustrated by the fact that composition textbooks use words no one has ever defined.
Flow, for instance.
What is it?
What is a paragraph apart from a list of sentences separated by white space from other lists of sentences inside a longer text?
The answer is that a paragraph has a topic (topic?) and the sentences have flow.
But what is flow?
I think there’s some interesting work on flow and paragraphing etc. from the Prague School of linguistics, and probably also from the field of inquiry called stylistics. But people who write composition textbooks haven’t read it. At least, not so far as I can see.
I managed to make acquaintance with the Prague School while teaching and writing, but my books on stylistics are still waiting.
I’ve been distracted away from blog posting by a number of things: most recently, a heap of student papers. But these papers, as it turns out, aren’t just time-consuming items to read and grade; they’re also rich material for a blog about writing instruction. With great regularity, they illuminate blog-worthy patterns in the prose writing styles of the latest crop of college graduates (my students are typically master’s students). One of these patterns appears in the three sentences below, which I’ve altered slightly for anonymity:
- In Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, it discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
- From talking with the student’s mother, it seems as though she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
- For those individuals that are included with their regular education peers, they struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.
I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:
Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)
Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites. Our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).
I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not at all.
Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.
But instead of providing teachers a proven curriculum, schools expect them to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, purchase them from Teachers Pay Teachers, or stay up till all hours of the night writing curriculum themselves.
I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have to show for it is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.