The objectives for this curriculum cover a year’s work and come from my own perceptions of the needs of the students I presently teach. These students are at Hillhouse High School and are all, with few exceptions, minority in race. In this urban school, the junior and senior college English classes are reading at least two years behind grade level, while others in the same class are more than four years behind. The writing skills of the majority of these students are also well below grade level. Furthermore, even in senior year, these students have considerable problems in constructing essays. There is one big difference, however, which these upperclassmen show: they are now aware of their own needs and deficiencies in expression and truly desire, on the whole, to improve their writing skills. Thus, they often ask directly for help.
With this assessment of student skills in mind, I have planned this unit around the stages of writing essays to make it possible for them to meet their desires to write clearly and logically and express what they truly want to say in clear and logical prose. In her book
, Gabriele Rico presents a method of teaching writing which emphasizes the generation of ideas and thoughts, and advancing from the creating stage to the organizing stage. The technique of clustering is entirely new in its approach to writing; its practicality has been an exciting outcome of this seminar on writing. A second book,
, by Mina Shaughnessy, has struck at another main problem: that is the problem of trying to improve the grammar skills which revolve around the many idiosyncratic mistakes the students make in writing. Two of the most outstanding errors occur in sentence structure: first, they use fragments; second, they make mistakes in sentence logic. They also have difficulty with correct spelling.
Out of these recent approaches to writing, what is truly new and what is old, and already known? Writing is still viewed as a four-stage process:
1. Getting the ideas;
2. Organizing the thoughts;
3. Writing them clearly and logically; and
4. Correcting the final version. These stages are the same that Rico and Shaughnessy teach, yet they have been around for years. So what do they offer that is so valuable to understanding and teaching the writing process?
Both Rico and Shaughnessy stress the first two stages more than they ever have been before. In the activities of generating and realizing one’s thoughts, lie the systems for organizing and writing them out clearly and cogently. Thus they emphasize the need to work carefully and cogently. Thus they emphasize the need to work carefully and fully on the generation stage—the accumulation of opinions, responses, thoughts, and ideas. Before one can attempt to write his ideas into logical sentences and paragraphs, and thus essays, one must have a good grasp on what these ideas are and how they interact (and thus lay a foundation for logical progression in the essay). Most of my students have their biggest problem finding out what they want to say in their essays and they make the mistake of proceeding to write while they are still muddled in their thoughts. Thus they are struggling to use writing to find out what they think, rather than to organize and present what they already have discovered that they think, through other methods. The combination of being muddled in thought and trying to write the essay, while also being correct and logical, is overwhelming to most of them and they soon come to a crashing halt—feeling quite defeated and once again unable to write. At this point, in a panic, they often approach the teacher because they can’t “write.” It is this unproductive process that I am trying to remove, and replace with Rico’s and Shaughnessy’s more realistic and successful approach.
A person cannot build a bookcase without supplies, or make a meal without ingredients, nor can an essay be written without all of the ideas, opinions, and facts at hand, set aside and within reach. Rico’s book not only gives emphasis to this pre-writing or idea generation stage; it gives much needed insight and information on where and how these ideas and opinions are generated. Most importantly, Rico’s book involves a process that draws upon the knowledge that a person already has within him/herself for writing. The “idea generation” stage structures a process that opens up personalized self-expression right from the start. The major technique by which Rico opens up students to their ideas is called “clustering.”
Clustering acknowledges and draws out the information the student already possesses, but may not be aware of. Based on research into the creative activities of the mind, Rico’s book structures an activity called “clustering”—something like brain storming—but more to the point it is a process that gives free play to right side of the brain.
Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, offers this insight into what the writing process involves: the ability to read and write sensitively, thoughtfully, and independently (presuppose) the ability to formulate and solve problems. Then, according to Piaget, the ability to solve a problem depends in a large part upon his (the student’s) ability to explore and revise his internal world, to examine data thoroughly and to reformulate the questions he poses.
This is just what the clustering process does for the student, it enables him to explore and revise his internal world. Clustering brings out what the student knows and gives him/her something to write about.
This paper presents the writing process in three stages. First and foremost comes the accumulation of facts, opinions, and ideas gathered by the students, using Rico’s clustering method, as well as other methods of idea generation (see Lesson Plan I.) This stage must occur
the student attempts to write, and needs to have enough time given to it that students recognize clearly the importance of generating ideas to other stages of writing. It is important to note here that the seeds of organization of an essay occur even in the generating state, for as students begin to discover their thoughts, they will also begin to discover the relationship between them. This logical relationship is what they seek to communicate in an essay, and thus gives an essay its structure. Without this generation stage, students can’t organize their thoughts, because they don’t know what they are. Even more importantly, they can’t recognize the organization implicit in their thoughts, because these thoughts are not spread out in front of them.
Thus the second stage is to see the innate relationships between ideas and thus a system for essay organization. This stage involves finding a focus for their essay, and placing all other ideas in relation to it. Essay writing at this point will progress according to the logic or sense that they see in their ideas. Focus needs to be stressed here, for some students will need individual help either in sticking to the main point, or even in identifying the purpose for which they are writing. Individual conferences are the key here.
Who is the audience—the guidance department at a college, or an employer? What is the overall message to be communicated? In every case, an organized, logical, piece of writing showing understanding of the assigned subject is called for. However, at this point there will still be some who hesitate committing anything to paper because of their fear of error. They have already looked ahead into the third stage: they have written and each sentence is full of mistakes. Indeed their fears are well grounded. Some students, even in senior year, cannot write a single sentence without a number of spelling and grammatical errors. They will, therefore, freeze at even stage two—(organizing their thoughts)—because when they organize their thoughts, they will write them out and be “wrong” again. Nevertheless, if the students know that there is going to be support and acknowledgement that they make grammatical error—that all authors do in the genuative and first draft stages—they will go ahead and write, mistakes and all.
Support is the key word here. Once they feel that what they are about to say has purpose and meaning, they will go ahead and write, if there is support to deal with their grammatical errors later. The separation of content and grammar is all important and should give the student more confidence and more sense of control over his/her own writing. (If possible, any correction of student writing in the beginning of the year, should be done with the writer, present so that he/she can observe and take over—what the student has always left to the realm of others—looking at his/her own mistakes and fixing them him/herself.)
There is a pitfall, however, in dismissing grammar and spelling altogether. It is not helpful to say that mistakes do not matter, because neither the students nor the teachers find this credible. A teacher’s message that what you have to say is just as important as how you say it, is meaningful and helpful at first because it relieves the student of his anxiety. But the student does not, in the end, want to be making mistakes. They need, help, then in the third stage to learn how to correct the errors they do make. These students are often well aware, by this time, of the traps they have fallen into in their past writings.
The problem I have found in the third stage, right after the first writing, is that the students want the teacher to completely take over all the correction of grammar, as though they (the students) know nothing at all about such matters. Here’s where the students must learn to take over the role of teacher for themselves. Here’s where many teachers too, have taken the area of grammar as though they (the teachers) were the only ones to know what a sentence is, or which word is spelled correctly. The student, in many cases, seems to be the helpless bystander, as the corrector goes over the paper. This dependent process has to change to an independent, responsible one through, peer correction, student/teacher conferences, and an analogy of common errors.
All the work the student has done in stages 1 & 2, discovery and expression will still be inadequate if he cannot use language correctly. In the third stage of writing, student must have the grammatical rules under control in his written expression. Yet this “editor” stage must not interfere with the “creator-writer” stage. It is the end of the process of writing—correct expression and skill in language—not the beginning.
The second major area this paper addresses are the kinds of mistakes most frequently made by these students and what is the best way to define these mistakes and overcome them, thus giving the students the tools for adequate expression in their writing.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that this process of independence in grammar control is going to take time. There are a few methods which I found to work well this past year, in creating this “independence,” in a journalism class. The situation was sufficiently informal for me to try new things with students. First, I always refused to correct a paper for mistakes in grammar that had not been corrected for the first time by the student himself, or a friend of that student. This process alone acknowledges that the students know more about grammar than they use when writing. This approach always delegates responsibility to the person who really is ultimately responsible for the mistakes. Finally, self-correction and peer correction is the beginning of control and appreciation of writing as a craft. Second, I stressed looking up words in the dictionary. Third, I narrowed mistakes down to two main areas: sentences structure and spelling. After the first few essays were written and there was a feeling of comfort that showed the students gaining control in these two areas, it was then possible to look at other areas of rewriting. One was changing words to make a more powerful statement. Over the period of a year, there was enormous progress in this class in all three stages of writing, but perhaps the most exciting was the grammatical control that the students developed. They used grammar books to look up usage questions, and were definitely interested in being as correct as they were capable of before they handed in any paper. Through this experience in journalism, it seems clear to me that grammar should always be taught in connection with or as a result of student writing. Otherwise, it seems to be a meaningless and disconnected subject, with very little transfer to actual writing.
I propose to give a diagnostic test to define for each student the areas of grammar to concentrate on in his/her writing. This test is in no way designed as a grading devise; it is diagnostic only. (see test on file at the Yale Institute.) The helpfulness of such an approach has really been brought home to me by Mina Shaughnessy’s book
. Shaughnessy goes on to list four common grammatical concepts which underlie most mistakes. The first is the sentence fragment and misunderstandings in the logic necessary to the development of a sentence: a sentence has a structure, much like a building has beams and additions. The second is the use of inflections -s, es and ed; and the third is tense. Last comes subject-verb and reference-pronoun agreement.
In order to have students master the form appropriate for written English I will focus on agreement and the correct use of verb forms, pronouns and modifiers. Concepts such as agreement of subject and verb, irregular verb forms, pronouns agreement and placement of modifiers will be taught at these weekly sessions. One of my goals will be to help students and to improve sentence skills in their writing. I will do pre and post-testing, with units of work to assess student progress in eliminating sentence fragment, runons and improving sentence skills. Students will keep a chart of pretest score, post-test scores and mastery.