A good story has nine parts.
Most language arts teachers know this but do not teach it.
The four horsemen of the middle school curriculum should be writing, writing, writing, and math. Anyone who can write can read. Anyone who can write can spell and put together a sentence with proper grammar. Anyone who can write needs a huge vocabulary. Leave math to math teachers; math is in a league by itself.
Yet, most teachers who teach writing cannot write, but they are expected to teach writing to thirty-five students, some of whom can barely read. And therein lies the challenge for teachers: How can I teach what I do not know?
Language arts teachers should take a professional writing course. Most writing seminars offered to teachers are worth their weight in marshmallows! As I mentioned in an earlier post, most writing courses targeted at teachers are about organizing. At such seminars, you will be barraged with an onslaught of blackline masters for graphic organizers, thinking maps, paragraph organizers, scaffolding diagrams, flow maps… on and on and on!
Professional writing courses teach you how to write. These seminars are targeted at writers. If they address organizing at all, organizers for these writers consist of a pack of 500 index cards or an entire room in which the walls are covered with bulletin boards. There is no way to confine the thoughts and ideas onto one piece of 8 ½ by 11 typing paper.
Forced to think
John Antonetti is one of the best teachers of teachers I have ever seen. I like his approach to writing: As soon as a student puts the pen on the paper, he or she is forced to think. Nothing is truer about writing. Writing requires thought. Even if a student cannot write at the end of the school year, she has been challenged to think along the way.
What was the last writing program seminar you attended? The business of teaching writing is alive and well. Seminars abound. And teachers flock to them, take extensive notes in the binders, and then return to their classrooms inspired and motivated only to meet the bored stares of their students and the eternal questions: Do we have to do a rough draft? and How long does it have to be?
Nothing stimulates creativity like narrative writing. Most teachers stay away from serious narrative writing because they don’t understand it. “What did you do last summer?” is not narrative writing. A good story is easy to tell, but you have to know how to tell it. We’ve all had friends get all excited to tell us their latest adventures, but when they come to the end of the story, we are left hanging – a story without an ending. It dies in the third act!
Expository writing is easy to teach because of its logical, sequential approach. It lends itself to graphic organizers. Research writing is just restatement of facts with documentation attached to the end of it. These papers are relatively easy to grade, and plagiarism is fairly easy to catch. But narrative writing is art, and the art takes some practice.
The importance of narrative
I have heard with my two ears someone actually tell me that narrative writing was not as important as expository and argumentative writing, and I should not teach it. Evidently, this person did not study social sciences in college and realize that all great civilizations that are remembered today exist because of their storytelling. Nor did this person remember that on the college application, one is usually asked to communicate how you stand apart from all others who are applying for admission. Both require narrative skill.
If you are absolutely frightened to teach writing, enroll today in any Jane Schaffer Writing Method course. They are all superb, and at the end of the day you will be able to write a paragraph and teach others to do it, too. Start with Response to Literature or Narrative Writing. But if you really want to learn how to write a story take Robert McKee’s Story seminar. It’s not cheap, but afterwards, you will never be the same writer.
Another writing program?!
As I write this, I am venturing on yet another expensive program to teach teachers how to teach writing to some students who can already write and to others who don’t really care if they can write or not. Blah, blah, blah! Same old recycled paper in a different colored binder! (But this one has a circular chart in it the others don’t have!) And it has an accompanying seminar that costs a ton of moolah! However, I have a solution to end all writing programs.
Learn to write
Solution: (Common sense ahead!) Instead of learning another writing program, sponsor all teachers to take a writing course – short story, poetry, screenplay, novel. Teach teachers to write. Teach them to write essays, papers, poems, scripts, screenplays, novels, and short stories. Teach them to write everything! Take the courses from writers, not teachers. Insist that writers teach your teachers. As teachers learn to write, they will learn how to teach writing. (This is not rocket science; it is purely common sense.) If you, as a teacher, cannot write, learn how. Then, teach others what you know.
Once you have students writing, you can assess the use of proper grammar, sentence structure, theme and central idea, how to paint a picture in the mind of the reader, and how to use vivid action verbs to create movement. Use index cards to plot a story like professional writers do. Allow your students to write a novel over the course of the school year. Teach story boarding (Flow Maps, flow charts) as a graphic organizer. Teach editing techniques in collaborative settings. If you don’t know how to do these things, check your mailbox; there will be a seminar offered by someone willing to teach you for a fee.
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©2018 Douglas Hanks. All rights reserved.
I’m roasting photo by Leon Contreras.