It always saddens me that expository writing (defined by the oracle, Merriam Webster, as: EXPOSITION 1: a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing), 2 a : discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.) is not considered an art form.
But before I wax rhapsodic about it, I think it is important to understand why it needs to be taught from a skill based curriculum.
Time out! Skill based and art? In the same thought. Is’t possible?! I know a lot of people who believe that art (true art) can only be achieved by giving students a problem and asking them to solve it, giving them no more than a smile and their unflagging faith that they can do it. Personally, I think this is just mean. Sure, some students can. Just like some students will learn to read with minimal guiding. The last number I read was 60% of children can learn to read this way. As one of the 40% who couldn’t, I think good intention can take a back seat to skills. And for those who were somewhere between the 60 and the 40, wouldn’t it be better for them not to reinvent the wheel? Couldn’t they flex their intellectual muscles a little better if they were given tools to help them be frustrated less?
This always leads my mind to the urban myth about 3rd grade reading levels being how we plan for the numbers of prisons to build. Although a myth in actual fact, if you look at the educational history of prison inmates, many of them couldn’t read before entering middle school. It leads me to wonder if, when they were in school, were they subjected (as I was) to the travesty of “Whole Language“. The way it was practiced on me, and the way I have seen it taught, basically asks the teacher to just read a lot to their students and allow them to come up with their own definitions and spellings. It’s criminal. Words mean something, and as archaic as our spelling might be, if you can’t spell, you can’t look a word up. I’d love to see people try this with Japanese.
If you want better than 60% of our population to be literate, you have to teach reading.
So, if that’s reading fluency, what of writing fluency? Why would it be any different? My students are currently outlining and writing their first drafts. They only need me occasionally which is why I can be writing this. One of my students is working on her thesis statement. She is frustrated because she knows she needs to tell her reader what her paper is about, but she doesn’t want to say, “My paper is about character, setting, and plot,” because she knows it boring; it’s not artful. In fact, she’s eating up a lot of class time worrying about it. Bless her, she, like many students, chooses doing nothing over writing what she believes other people will think as “not good enough”, not knowing that the only way out of it is through it.
She would do better not worrying about the artfulness right now. I have been telling her to go ahead and write the boring sentence. Get it on the page. At least, it removes the road block and allows her to get on with it. I have also been telling her that in time, as she gets comfortable with the process, she will gain the confidence to write more interesting theses. This is what scaffolding is about. (I said this to her about seven times today. It wasn’t until I paired her with another student who has been through this and come out the other side, that she actually wrote it. Sigh.)
I call it “burning through the boring”. We get to art when we have confidence, and we have confidence when we have skill. If we want better than 60% of the population to be able to write, we have to teach writing.
Not art vs. skill. Skill to Art. Then Art and Skill.