A Writing Teacher’s Crisis of Faith

“Everything should be as simple as it is,” Albert Einstein once said, “and no simpler.” Without knowing this statement’s motive, source, or context, I can’t determine Einstein’s exact meaning, but, speaking for myself, he describes writing perfectly.

A senior at my school alerted me to Einstein’s remark three weeks ago, and since then I’ve been looking at students’ work differently. An ambitious writer fights to make sense of his or her subject. Diction, syntax, organization, and every other assembly of language seeks to reduce complication and confusion just enough to reach something true, something moving, persuasive, valid, accurate, evocative, insightful.

But Einstein is right, trouble arrives when you don’t go far enough… or too far.

My students fall into both categories and often all at once. For some, instruction on thesis statements, topic sentences, integrated quotations, transitions, body paragraphs, introductions, conclusions, and other formal elements offer a short cut to success. Young writers who understand the aims of essays use these structural elements to think and talk about writing. The terms make composition more manageable for them.

For others, however, focusing on structure short-circuits their thoughts. Including all the parts I describe above won’t automatically lead student writers to truth, and, in fitting their ideas into conventional structures, they often truncate rather than explore their thinking. Because many of my students are following rather than testing the laws I teach, self-expression becomes secondary. Because I isolate one way of writing, they don’t engage in the experimentation or play that might make writing more stimulating and pleasurable.

And the essays they produce aren’t fun to read. Some of their compositions look like the sort of model airplanes you’d construct if you a. had only written instructions, b. started with no idea you were making an airplane, and c. weren’t sure you cared much about building anything anyway.

Of course, offering fewer instructions about how or what to write presents trouble too. When I don’t say exactly “What I’m Looking For,” some students freeze-up, and others think the lack of specific requirements means requiring less of themselves. Yet, these informal and less defined assignments often produce more genuine cogitation. The most interesting work comes from prompts like “Tell me which line in this scene is most important” or “What’s really wrong with this unhappy character?” or “Discuss something you think most people don’t realize.” The essays may be just as unpracticed and just as unorganized, unfocused, and unclear, but the thinking is better… and real. I see minds grappling with ideas and aspiring to articulate insight.

Which makes me wonder about the rest of my teaching.  Am I making writing too easy? Identifiable and verifiable elements like thesis statements, topic sentences, and integrated quotations are useful. They certainly make grading less complicated and more consistent. I can use similar rubrics for every paper all year. But does emphasizing form misrepresent the challenge—and satisfaction—of discovering what’s true? Am I teaching students how to write or how to follow my instructions?

Niels Bohr, another physicist, advised, “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.” My best students benefit from their education in traditional formal essays because they know where they are going. And I won’t stop teaching descriptive terms. All my students need the language of composition, if only to reflect on what they’ve written.

Yet, I might consider myself more successful if every paper revealed the thoughts of its author—however effectively or ineffectively—instead of communicating a clear understanding of how to fulfill a form.



Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

2 responses to “A Writing Teacher’s Crisis of Faith

  1. hhstheater

    Good stuff, David. In my composition classes, I think my students must get tired of me talking about the marriage of form and content. (I’m reminded of a faux how-to by Mike Moxey called “How to Write a Personal Essay,” in which he gives the advice not only to have five paragraphs, but that each paragraph should have five sentences. . . and then he follows his own advice with tongue in cheek humor. Thanks for sharing!

    To me, the most telling indictment of the 3.5 essay (The thesis-driven, intro + 3 body paragraphs + conclusion) is its absence in the real world. I’ve looked and looked, but I’ve never actually seen one in nature.

    When I learned composition in 8th grade, we studied a five-paragraph essay about trains that we returned to over and over all year. Not only were the number of sentences per paragraph (5) dictated by the model, but the actual purpose of each sentence was narrowly defined. I remember we had to take fill-in-the-blank quizzes on the elements of each paragraph.

    It took me years to unlearn that essay–or, more accurately, follow it in spirit instead of by the letter. I don’t know that I suffered, but I don’t remember regarding essay writing any differently than I did proofs or memorizing the causes of the Civil War. I’m not knocking history or geometry. I’d just like to think of writing as more personal and expressive.

    My understanding is that only Americans follow the 3.5 convention. The exchange student who lived with us last year had heard of a thesis because she’d studied with an American, but I don’t think it was a central part of her writing instruction. She picked up the idea very quickly, but she had interesting alternative approaches of her own. I wish I could teach other nations’ ideals or, better yet, try to derive them from reading models and discussing their promise and pitfalls.

    Oh well, maybe when I start my own school…

    Thanks for visiting…

  2. It is my opinion that young people truly need to learn to apply a little structure in their writing.

    The students who want to play around with different structures . . . who have that bent . . . will do so without your permission, and I doubt that the students who write those “model airplane” compositions think you’re making writing too easy. I am quite sure it’s a struggle for them, no matter how clearly you think you’re drawing the map.

    I’m not against structure, believe me. The key word is “apply.” As I said, I DO teach the conventional essay and will continue to do so. I’d like to teach it thoughtfully by putting purpose ahead of formula, that’s all.

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