Thinking About Writing, Again

Where does personal, expressive writing fit with our college and career requirements for deeper and deeper analysis of real world problems?

Portrait of a young writer

I dictated that question to myself driving to work the other morning.  Students I encounter, along with every opportunity to think with teachers about writing instruction, fuel more questions but fewer answers for me.  But blog tonight is to do a think aloud.

This recorded morning thought is maybe more about trying to understand why there is a chasm between “creative” writing and “academic” writing.  Is it an imaginary or real dichotomy as in versus?  Is it similar to our cultural belief that art is merely “creative” while other endeavors, such as science and math are pure and “academic?”  Or maybe just a hardening of the categories?

Several weeks ago, visiting author and teacher Tom Romano,(Fearless Writing) said to a group of us at SJAWP:

Teachers feel great pressure.  They’re conscientious.  This thing about academic writing…It is that.  My article in English Journal is academic: It’s in a peer-reviewed journal. We have a skewed notion of what ‘academic’ means.

Romano EJ May 18 indel mmnts

I’d like more college teachers and professional writers to help public school teachers understand what academic means.

In my little world, if I move students to write more personally and help them loosen up to be more expressive, that clearly motivates most of them.  I get more writing. Working from their own experiences, they have start-up material then can go research.  Mentors can help them try out moves to improve their writing style.  Comparing their drafts and thinking about various genres and formats they could use, as well as monitoring their goals as a writer, lifts the level of their thinking.  But, should I rather be having them do lots of close reading of a passage and another passage and analyze, and analyze and analyze it, then write a response?  Will that better prepare them for academia or for the writing they need to do in their careers or the “real world.?”  (thought for another blog: what is the real world?  money?  being?  hm…)

Is there valid “school writing” that I ought to be teaching? I missed it. Wasn’t taught in my day.  Is our main concern rightly to prep students to respond to the CAASP  ELA performance task and their other exams? Is that where “academic” comes from?

Is there a plan to get students to deep analytical writing without going through the processes that professional, published authors describe?  Which seem to be deeply personal and creative…

Maybe this is where the voice memo to myself in the car on the way to work came from:

Last week I stumbled on the Harvard Nieman Foundation website LINK   It exists “To promote and elevate the standards of journalism.”  This held me strongly, because I saw the film, “The Post,” which reminded me that basically I believe the reason we need to teach students to think and write well is so that they can tell the truth.  Truth to power even in the face of corruption, which will alway be where there is power.

The rich current articles featured in The Narrative News on the Nieman Story Board amazed me, as did their commentary on “why is this good?” Narrative nonfiction from news writers unpacked thinking and experience on all the current issues.  “Wow,” I thought.  “I’ll bet college teachers would love for their students to write like this.” I was amazed to read, too, that most future newscasts predictably will be video, so composing a video will be a different kind of writing than the rules high school students use to write an analytical essay, won’t they?

Maybe another problem I don’t understand is that some academic writing is academic only. Literary criticism for its own sake?  It is deeper and deeper analysis of other people’s literature and, while the thinking and aesthetic exercise contributes to the mind and development of the young writer, does it get close to “real world problems?”  I follow high school teacher blogs, like Moving Writers because they clearly are trying to keep their AP students using “mentors in the wild” — meaning the prolific kinds of digital texts.  I think the main thing is that good writing is about deep thinking.

Why I am infatuated with investigative reporting and the narrative nonfiction I read referenced on the Nieman Story Board?  I suspect it is because I found writing there that begins with personal, up close powerful story – elegantly written with sophisticated thinking and information about the issue the reporter covered.

If nothing else, I want to know how to help students write for the real world.  If they can do that, then I won’t be worried about what they do with a few machine-score performance tasks.  They’ll be more than ready.

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