Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bad Writing Advice Debunked

As a teacher of writing, I spend much of my time trying to undo the tightly-knotted, deeply ingrained, and wholly incorrect writing advice my students have gotten in years past.

Now, I am not accusing other teachers (particularly teachers of younger students) of being bad at teaching writing; I'm really not.

What I am saying is that there are some old rules that were never correct in the first place and should be buried now. These rules don't help kids write, and they certainly don't help me help kids write...because I have to waste so much breath debunking the myths.

First up?  You CAN start a sentence with "And" or "But" or "So" or "Yet." Start a sentence however you want! Anyone who tells you can't do that is wrong. And you can tell your teacher I said so.

There are no grammatical rules anywhere that prohibit this practice.

Similarly, a sentence fragment may be wholly intentional--and effective. I frequently tell my students to vary their syntax (write long, complex sentences followed by fragments) because it grabs attention. Professional writers are allowed to use sentence fragments, and so are you!

Next? Begin that essay with a question (as long as you answer it in the next line; not to answer the question is begging the question, and that's annoying).

I constantly tell my students that posing a question and then answering it is a easy way to begin a timed essay. Inevitably, I hear that some teachers said students were never allowed to do that.

"You are allowed; many great writers start essays with questions," I counter. So just do it if it works.

What about passive voice? That's typically a huge no-no (and even spellcheck/grammar check looks for it):

'We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically na├»ve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.'--Steven Pinker, Harvard psycholinguist from his book, (on right).

I will add that I have even seen entire schools banning use of linking verbs in an effort to eradicate any vestige of passivity. This is completely misguided--so much so that I can hardly deal.

"Is" and "was" are sometimes essential verbs; banning them does not create spectacularly clear and strong writing. No, it only makes for some crazy-awkward sentences that I then have to fix. Don't ban linking verbs. 

Don't ban anything. Writing is about communication; it is about sharing ideas. Teachers should help students enjoy writing, and writing should feel natural.

Too many rules make writing a nightmare.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gloating and Boasting About Getting a Teacher Fired

Yet another horrific story emerged today about a peanut gallery call for a teacher's firing (the teacher already resigned because it's not worth it to put up with this unjust persecution). 

This teacher got into trouble for, well, nothing.

In a creative writing class where the assignment (quite a common one: I have seen it in many places) was to rewrite a classic fairy tale or legend and give it a new, timely twist, one student took the story of Jesus feeding the poor with loaves and fishes and changed the groceries to medical marijuana.

That was the teacher's fault how…? And it's reprehensible because…?

Every creative writing teacher knows not to censor writing (unless the content and the words appear to  indicate insanity in some way). This teacher did not censor. Good for her.

But then another student (was the teacher baited? You have to wonder; baiting "liberal" teachers is a thing some sociopathic people do) took it upon herself to report this "incident" and call for the teacher's firing.

How special!

"Katrina Guarascio said the student who complained about a classmate's pot-dealing Jesus [story] 'actually boasted to her classmates about how she was 'going to get her teacher fired.'"--from Ben Hooper's article, "Teacher Resigns After Student Writes About Jesus, Drugs," UPI

Sadly, I have read so many stories like this--among them: a teacher who was fired because he or she took students to an art museum where, horror of horrors, they saw naked statues! 

Someone, ONE person, complained about these innocent teachers…and there you go. Terminated.
(Mind you, that's not supposed to happen. It only happens when school administrators do the wrong thing.)

In my decade-plus of teaching, I have listened to many people tell me, with delightful tones of reminiscence, how in the past they "got a teacher fired." This, I find horrific--and strange: people I found perfectly nice still had this vein of entitlement or righteous indignation or…something.


Why, I have to wonder, are we not teaching our children it is wrong to do this? Why do we model incivility for our kids when we gun for someone to lose her job?

I think it's wrong to even speak the words, "I'm going to get her fired," let alone actually do it!

My heart breaks for hardworking, dedicated teachers who do not deserve to lose their jobs. 

How can anyone, in good conscience, seek to drive another person (a good person, with good intentions, mind you) into unemployment? It's inconceivable.

Quite a while ago, I decided that I will speak out for my fellow teachers (especially those who have gotten in trouble for ridiculous things) in the ways that I can. My hope is to effect change, to stop the madness, to protect teachers from this absurdity. I hope others will join me.