Sunday, June 2, 2013

Perceptions of Middle School Writing

Memories carry what the word writing has been for many of us--something done in and for school. My memories of my middle school writing contain clear images:

  • erratic and still-developing penmanship
  • a slew of red-marked errors
  • most classmates had higher scores than I did

The way I thought about writing as I rolled forward through my education includes:
  • I have to write an essay for class.
  • I have to write my research paper.
  • I have to write my college essay.
Yet, a lab required for a science class, or a student-generated explanation of a concept in math class, did not seem to carry the same uncomfortable yoke of writing. I see the same patina on the perception of writing today. Students rarely see what they do in any subject other than English as writing. Additionally, adults, even within education, rarely see those assignments as writing.

Just ask any student for a piece of writing from any class other than English. I have asked, and it has astonished me that many students will say, "we don't write in other classes." Hence one reason for my reflection.

It isn't that students are not writing in other classes, it is that they do not perceive it as writing. Even the report or creative civil war letter produced for social studies class, or the student group proposal for changes in school nutrition offered in health class, is not categorized in the student mind as writing.

The middle school mind has been trained that writing is something you sweat. Writing causes bleeding. I felt that way through the late 70s and all through the 80s until I landed in college.

When I receive young writers at the start of 8th grade the gritting of the teeth and the tension in their death grip on a pencil is tangible in the classroom.

In a draconian misstep, the word writing has become synonymous with a barrage of red marks and symbols from an English teacher. Our adult generation has been trained to accept (and embrace) a teacher's wet-inked attack of student text as the preferred evidence of good teaching--good old-fashioned pencil-and-paper disciplined writing.

Tom Green's article When Grading Papers Red Ink May Lower Scores begins to scratch at the perception of how writing should be taught, A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests the use of red pens may make teachers more likely to spot errors on tests and to be more critical when grading essays." Some comments that follow the article reveal just how aggressive and indurate the general public thinks of writing feedback:

The line "How can students improve if they don't know where they went wrong" is everything that is indeed wrong with writing.

The answer is simple: talk with them.

Considering my own experience, I do not remember any guidance or encouragement of what I could do. I do not recall being given any specific writing tools or focal points for the grammar and mechanics of my writing. I do not recall conferring about the context of my writing or how I might fix my mistakes. So often, students have been left to fend for themselves as they stare at a series of marked errors. I have lived it on both ends--as a student and as a teacher. In a way I am confessing a mistake I made as a young teacher.

As a student, I remember the slashes and circles from the teacher's pen and I remember the score at the top. The slashes and circles might have been notes or tips, but I can not recall that. All I remember are that there were a lot of them and it overwhelmed me beneath a mediocre score.

On my best days as a thirteen-year-old I was a B writer. Usually, I was a C writer.

As a young writer and as a young teacher, I believe that approach did more harm than good to my development and to any students I taught in the 90s.  Actually, some of the best teaching of writing that I did was as a theme reader--my part-time job before I landed a teaching position. While I could make notes and mark errors, I had the opportunity to confer with students all day in five classes. We talked about their writing--the strong elements and the weak elements.

We do a disservice to adolescents when train them as technicians who expect handwritten editing as their sole meaningful feedback. Similarly, when we scoff and support the notion that a middle school student hasn't mastered grammar or MLA formatting, and therefore has not learned to write, we send the wrong message--a damaging message to future young writers and families.

Middle school students are not little professors, and few of them are shipping off to become English majors at Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Developmentally, it is more important to instill a love of a reading and a love of writing. And we can do this by talking with them--having a conversation with them--listening to them...instead of just pointing out every little thing they did wrong.

When adults color an adolescent's perception with what we romanticize as what the perfect incoming 9th grader should look like, we diminish what these kids can do--and it is irresponsible. Every incoming 9th grader is not stepping out of the idyllic writing setting of a Vermeer painting.

The heavy thrum of grammar and mechanics is behind the implication from my colleagues from other subjects that they can not teach writing. They remember the slashes and circles they received--their scars--and believe they do not know enough to do that to a current student's piece of writing. And I am thankful for that--imagine students receiving paper after paper with constant reminders of their technical fallibilities.

Think about any coach, musician, or dancer you may have sent your child to for lessons? Would your kid develop a love of that activity and grow and improve if all they received was the prickly feedback noting mistake after mistake after mistake?

Additionally, I have heard parents say in conferences that they can not help their middle school child with their writing. That is a shame, because all of us can talk about writing. We can all talk about content. We can all help our students and children by asking or sharing :
  • is this enough context for a reader?
  • does the writing just stay on the surface (and doesn't dig deep into an issue)?
  • does the reader understand why this is important to you?
  • how did you come up with your idea?
  • what have you read that is like what you are trying to write?
The reality is that grammar is a fraction of the writing process and MLA formatting a specialized requirement of academic writing. I do not diminish the significance of either, but neither should rule the perspective of whether a student has learned to write or not. Regionally, I point to the change in the scoring of the Pennsylvania PSSA Writing Assessment. It is no coincidence that the state has come to its senses and offered two separate scores for a writing sample--one score for the writing, and a second score for the grammar and mechanics.

Yet, too often, grammar and mechanics are what adults (administration, teachers, and parents) equate with being a good writer because it is what we were all trained to believe--if he/she can master a series of grammar worksheets, grasp MLA formatting, and espouse the nuances of the parts of speech, then he/she must be a good writer.

By leveraging grammar and mechanics above all else in the writing process, we continue train ourselves, and our kids, to expect an English teacher to be an editor. 

In a middle school the most important component of writing is content.

Teach the students to own their content--to enjoy their content--to want to dig deeper and develop their content. Let them run--let their pens run. Teach them to say something with their words, to truly move beyond the surface. What good is a piece of writing that says nothing but is all scrubbed up and polished and grammatically correct?

Without content we can not discuss focus, context, organization, or style. Without content we can not begin to address the basics of the mechanics or the grammar let alone the advantages of being strong in mechanics and grammar so that we can learn to adapt it to cull nuance and power out of our words.

Before any of that, comes content.

Kids can talk about content.

And everyone can teach or reinforce content.


  1. This is such a powerful post!

    The very idea of just talking with kids is something that lies in the heart of being a great educator. Those five bulleted questions are a great place for parents (and educators) to start a conversation.

    Thanks for this piece!

  2. it was such a nice and knowlegeble post for us thanks for sharing in.keep posting.article writing