Friday, August 11, 2017

The Squishiness of Writing Instruction

For whatever reason, Judith Hochman's name has been bouncing around the interwebs lately. Most likely it was kicked off by her appearance in a recent Kids These Days article by Dana Goldstein at the New York Times. In it, Hochman lets loose with the sort of pronouncement that guarantees I will disagree with her (which Goldstein underlines by placing it all by itself in a single-sentence paragraph):

“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.

Hochman has a long education pedigree. She taught in New York starting in 1957 (the year I was born) through 1974. In 1978 she turned up at the Windward School (in New York, not the tony LA private school) where she took on teacher training and leading the whole school.  She still runs their teacher training institute, but since 2014 she has also headed up an organization called the Writing Revolution, where they push The Hochman Method of writing instruction. The claims she makes for her method are not small:

Across the country, students are being held to higher, more rigorous standards. These standards provide a set of goals, but rarely provide a map showing teachers how to reach those goals. The Hochman Method is that map.

The Method boils down to six main principles:

*   Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.
  • Sentences are the building blocks of all writing.

  • When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.

  • The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities.

  • Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.

  • The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.

  • If you are of a Certain Age, none of this may seem familiar, what you might call How Most of MY Teachers Taught Me (this was pretty much Jack Ferrang at my high school). And that's fine-- I have a certain respect for teachers who pick up techniques that have been lying around loose, put a little spin on them, and use them to launch a consulting career. Hochman's is certainly not the worst that's out there (that would be Collins Writing

    And I get why so many schools and teachers like the idea of a system that provides a detailed map, a solid set of instructions for the teaching of writing. It's an understandable impulse. It's just not a very good way to teach writing.

    The problem with writing is that it's squishy, probably squishier than anything else we teach.

    There is no solid metric for measuring how "good" a writer. Can you quantify how Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Chaucer, Kate Chopin, Carl Sagan, P.J.O'Rourke, Mark Twain, James Thurber, and S. E. Hinton stack up each other by measuring how "good" they are? Of course not-- even the attempt would be absurd. Ditto for trying to give students a cold hard solid empirical writing rating.

    Not only can we not objectively measure good writing, but we cannot describe a single path for producing it. Each writer has their own path (which, yes, means that somewhere out there are probably writers who work well with the Hochman method). Trying to teach the One Correct Method for writing is like teaching One Correct Method for kissing. Teaching a student that they must eschew the method that works for them in order to employ the "correct" method is pedagogical malpractice.

    To make matters worse, many teachers of writing do not write. If you want to be an effective band director, you need to play an instrument. If you want to teach a foreign language, you must speak that foreign language. And if you want to teach writing, you must write. I'm sorry, but there it is-- getting writing instruction from someone whom doesn't write is like getting lesson in making love from a eunuch. And if I've hurt  your feelings, I'm sorry-- but this is the easiest problem in the world to fix.

    All of this is so squishy and messy, and we live in world where we have to turn in cold hard grades.

    In desperation, many teachers turn to something-- anything-- that can give them cold, hard objective measures. For generations teachers used to just count up mechanical errors and base the grade on those. Nowadays, teachers look for a rubric or a guide or a system that allows them to assign a grade, somehow, based on something, and there are actually some decent systems out there (I'm a modified six traits guy myself). You can also focus on one particular idea for an assignment ("I'll be looking at X, not Y, on this one"). I can give you exact instructions that will allow almost anyone, step by step, to locate the parts of a sentence. I can't do that for an essay. You have to make your compromises with the system (then subvert it as best you can).

    But we live in the Golden Age of Bad Writing Instruction, driven by the toxic Big Standardized Test movement, which fosters some word-based abomination that pretends to be writing, but is simply sentence-based test-taking.

    Hochman gets some thing right. Despite the fact that folks think students should learn grammar and diagramming (and, God help us, Latin) like We By-God Did Back in the Day, the research is pretty clear that knowing where to hang that adjective clause doesn't do a thing to improve writing. Grammar knowledge is a useful tool-- in the context of writing, just like a basketball is only really useful on a basketball court.

    And her content basis portion leads me to believe that she is not so much teaching writing as laying out how to use writing as an assessment tool, a "full sentence answer" approach. In other words, she's not really teaching writing there-- just sentence-based testing.

    But if we want to actually teach writing, you'll never convince me that "it all starts with a sentence."

    It starts with an idea. It starts with something that you want to say. Bad and mediocre writing starts with the same bad question-- "What can I write to fill in this sentence/paragraph shaped blank that will fulfill the assignment" also known as "What does the teacher want me to say." This is  exactly backwards. So backwards that it often requires the student to set aside what they want to say in order to produce the "correct" response. I did not start this post with a sentence; I started with something I wanted to say.

    A looked at Hochman techniques embedded in classrooms in a mixed bag. As a high school teacher, I would love it if nobody below sixth grade ever taught gramnmar or parts of speech ever again. Just have the students write once a day, minimum, and answer every "How can I...?" question that comes up. The clip that promises to use subordinate conjunction activity to assess Romeo and Juliet comprehension...? No, just no. Assess one thing at a time, please. But workshopping topic sentences for essays that have already been written...? Yes, please. As long as you make sure that students are involved and that you are looking at a variety of alternative solutions, and not One Correct Answer.

    Every piece of writing has to succeed or fail on its own terms. Every writer has to find their own path and their own voice. Some students demand explicit instructions so they know exactly how to get their A. It's all very squishy-- and that's before we even factor in the widlly varying levels of skills your students bring to the table. Sure, you can reduce it to some hard-edged squishless piece of machinery, but you will lose what makes writing worthwhile in the first place, like reducing a kiss to "Step One: Mash your lips together."


    1. I may disagree with you on a lot of things. But I must say that I loved this line. "I'm sorry, but there it is-- getting writing instruction from someone whom doesn't write is like getting lesson in making love from a eunuch."

    2. I learned to write through creative writing, mostly poetry, some short stories. The five paragraph essay was a blunt tool that did nothing for me. I have never successfully outlined a paper before writing it. I have realized that such things can help some students, but many students discover what they want to say through writing it down, hearing others, then writing it down again. It is often a social process for several of my students. And they have to see how much I reward ideas and risk-taking as they develop. I have found that when I over scaffold, I get very boring results, even from my wittiest and wisest students. Every year is a chance for me to figure it out again. I will look up this "modified 6 traits" you mention. Thank you for writing!

    3. This really resonates with me. Our district has bought into Writers Workshop—hook, line, and sinker. While the program has a lot of positives, they want us to follow the script mindlessly. It's creepy beyond belief.

    4. Peter Greene, I love your work and read it faithfully. Your wit and intelligence are a balm on everything that is so, so, so wrong in our joyous and insane profession.

      This is the first time I am shaking my head at you. Hochman did some PD at my public middle school in NYC in the 90's. The Windward School curriculum is intellectually challenging and designed to allow dyslexic children to excel academically. I believe her work places the idea as beginning on the level of the sentence. Because if you can't express an idea in an effective sentence, dumping on more and more sentences is also a fool's errand.

      And in school we are not helping kids try out expressing thoughts in sentences and contorting sequence and vocabulary and using punctuation like master tools. We are doing a cursory, thoughtless worksheet-drowning job and zipping along to paragraphs and essays. All forms are devoid of thought as the centerpiece, most particularly developing the individual writer's thoughts (not prompt parroting, or teacher-driven regurgitation). The "write for the test" genre pushes the pile it on approach, especially if you are quoting text, since many idiotic rubrics used to score said garbage writing end up valuing total crap at an "approaching level #2" if you deluge the reader in enough text detail, prompt regurge and signal words.
      As a middle and upper elementary teacher of 28 years I have used Hochman's work to empower students as writers and people. Maybe it has now been hijacked by the powers that be as happened to Danielson and many others who designed solid work but then caved to its tainted use for personal profit. If you just look at Basic Writing though it teaches writing bones that any kid can hang their ideas on and they look damn good.

      1. I am happy to hear that her work looks so much better on the ground than the impression I gleaned from writings about her system. It sounds like you are doing great work-- thank you for that.