Writing for Computers, part 2

My previous post reflected on the perils of using computer-generated response to student writing too early in the writing process. In this post I’ll argue for the proposition that such programs encourage teachers to ignore good instructional practices while deluding them into believing they are adopting good instructionl practices.

For years teachers have been using The Writing Process: a step-by-step sequence of pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Despite the nearly universal acceptance of that formula by teachers – visit any language arts classroom and the chances are good that you’ll see those stages displayed somewhere in the room–there are still a number of teachers who don’t follow it in their writing instruction. They assign writing, but they don’t teach writing. There are far more who do embrace The Writing Process but who do so in a formulaic way. “Today we will brainstorm; tomorrow we will write drafts. I’ll read our drafts overnight and hand them back to you tomorrow, and then you will revise them based on my comments and corrections. After that you will have someone check your paper for errors, and then we will tape then to the classrrom wall.” The problem with both approaches is, that’s not the way writing gets done.

Writers write lots of ways; there is no single process, and there is no single formula that works for everyone. But unless you’re a writer yourself, you wouldn’t know that. And far too many teachers aren’t writers. That’s sad, because once teachers have had the opportunity to do genuine, authentic writing, they get it. All of them have written, or they wouldn’t have gotten through college. But for most of them, that was a long time ago, and that writing was more of a chore than a challenge. (The inauthenticity of most academic writing is clear to anyone who looks–but that’s a topic for another day.) You wouldn’t send your child to a piano teacher who didn’t play the piano, but that’s precisely what we are doing when we send children to schools where the writing teachers don’t write. You can’t teach the piano–or writing–from a book.

Teachers know that–at least, they know the results of trying to teach writing from a book or a program or a formula. You hear it at every level: college professors complain that kids are coming to them lacking writing skills; high school teachers blame the middle school; middle school teachers think that elementary school teachers haven’t done their job. The failure of teaching writing-by-the-numbers is apparent to everyone. But because so many teachers don’t do much writing themselves, they don’t know any other way. So they try, every year, to assign business letters and friendly letters, expository essays and persuasive essays, literary analysis essays and, of course, the research paper. Maybe, they hope, this time it will take.

Then, along comes the silver bullet of our times, technolgy. It seems that there are computer programs that will improve students’ writing. The claims made by the education-market companies promise astounding results, and there’s a certain logic to it. Kids grow up with tablets, video games and smart phones. It makes sense that they would embrace a writing medium that seems to be a part of their world.

Perhaps the teacher responds to an advertisement from a company. Before long, an aggressive salesman calls and says, “Let me come in and show you.” He visits the school, gives a quick demonstration of how his particular program works, and sets-up the teacher with trial licenses for her students. A week later the teacher has her class in the computer lab, responding to the pre-loaded prompts and sending their answers off into the cloud. With the speed we’ve become accustomed to, the writing comes back to them with all kinds of suggestions for improvement and correction. And with a score. That’s important, because once the student makes those changes and fixes those errors and once again sends the writing out into the void, instantly it comes back with a higher score. Wow! It’s like getting to the next level of a video game. Let’s keep going!

What the teacher sees is students crouched over keyboards for extended periods of time, engaged with what is on the screen. They are revising, the teacher concludes. This has never happened before. I’ve found the answer. I’ve got to tell my colleagues. And so the fever spreads across the school and throughout the district. The salesman gets additional ammunition: such-and-such school district has adopted our program, he can now boast. Sometimes the media picks-up on the frenzy and, in their quest to capture your dime, runs enticing stories about excited students, ecstatic teachers, and delighted parents. The juggernaut is rolling.

The problem is, none of these programs substantially improve students’ writing. Numerous studies have shown that. (See the NCTE Position Paper on Machine Scoring.) Because they can attend only to the surface features of writing, that’s all that improves. There is no real revising going on, no discussion with another person about what the writing says, no development or elaboration of ideas by the writer, and no one reading it except a machine. Surface features are all that improve. Yet all involved–the student, the teacher, the parents, even the company sales rep– think that the writing is getting better. The emperor has no clothes.

Entrepreneurs have, in recent years, begun marketing programs that will actually do the writing. For a fee, the author of a technical paper in science or engineering can send his work in and get back a computer-spawned revision of it written for the layman. I have an idea. Suppose all of those those computer generated papers were submitted to a computer reader? We’d have computers doing the writing and computers reading the writing; no human involvement would be necessary. Maybe then, in the words of Richard Brautigan, we’d finally be “All watched over by machines of loving grace.”


Writing for Computers, part 1

by David Arbogast

Lately, English teachers in my school district have been pestered by phone calls and emails from sales reps hawking their latest versions of computerized systems that will read, respond to, and rate student writing in a variety of domains. They offer the promise of giving students immediate and detailed feedback on their writing and suggestions for revising it. They encourage students to make the suggested changes and resubmit the writing for a higher score. Most attractively, they entice the teacher with the promise of simultaneously reducing the quantity of papers she has to read while motivating students to write more and better. It looks like a win-win situation.

Until you look deeper, when you see that all of these programs have some very serious flaws. Despite their reference to complex algorithms, even the best of them can read only surface features of writing. They encourage teachers to abandon best practices and turn the work over to machines. I would argue that they are inherently inimitable to the writing process itself. They encourage formulaic writing, such as the 5-paragraph essay. And now some states, like my own beloved Virginia, are going to use them for scoring high stakes tests.

My initial forays into the academic blogosphere will address these shortcomings one at a time. I begin with my contention that, as they are generally used, these programs intervene too early in the writing process and thereby reinforce the confusion that many of our students have in distinguishing editing from revision. The result is that they come to regard the surface features of their writing as being more important than its meaning.

A student, having written a draft of a piece of writing, submits it to the e-reader for scoring and response. Because the computer cannot comprehend anything but surface features, that is the level of the writing the student considers when making her revisions. She makes the spelling and punctuation changes prompted by the computer. If the e-reader tells her that a particular paragraph is lacking in development, she may insert a few sentences. If the feedback given suggests that her vocabulary is weak, she may search for synonyms. When she re-submits it to the e-reader, she probably will find that her score has risen, at which point she may decide that her paper is complete and ready to give to her teacher. But she has received no feedback on what her writing says and what it means.

If a computer program is used before an actual human reads the paper, revision is unlikely to occur. For revision is much more than fixing spelling errors, obeying static rules of punctuation, and increasing the number and length of the words used. Revision, as its etymology suggests, is about seeing the writing again, in a different way, and through different eyes. Before she can revise, someone has to tell the writer what it means, how it comes across, what happens in the mind of the person who reads it. Unless the writer is very experienced, that looking must be done by someone else, a peer or teacher. But when an e-reader tells the writer that her writing has improved because of the changes she has made, even though the reader has absolutely no idea what the writing says, then the student’s concept of revision, and her ability to do significant revision, is stifled. The lesson she learns is that the surface features of writing are what count and that improving her writing is accomplished by changing those features.

In my next post I will address my fear that computerized response to student writing has the effect of encouraging teachers to abandon best instructional practices, while simultaneously deluding them into thinking that they are actually improving their practice. Strong language, I know, and I know that there are many dedicated teachers who will defend these tools and endorse them enthusiastically. I’m traveling to one or our high schools today for a demonstration by one such teacher. Maybe I’ll be convinced; I’ll try to remain open to the possibilities. I’ll let you know my thoughts next time. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts about computerized writing response programs. Please post your comments.

Teaching for Peace: an Inside Job

Conflict arises from ignorance.  We work to overcome our students’ ignorance of persons who are different from themselves when we use multi-cultural literature in our classrooms.  In books such as Valerie Zenatti’s A Bottle in the Gaza Sea or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, our students encounter the clash of cultures.  They learn that, despite the local differences among peoples, we all share similar aspirations, fears, pleasures, and pains.  As teachers, we are leveraging our instruction in reading and literature to expand our students’ horizons and chip away at their ignorance. In so doing, we are teaching for peace.

But there is another kind of ignorance we must confront: our students’ ignorance of themselves. Peace may be characterized by the absence of conflict, but that is simply an outward manifestation of it.  True peace exists inside the human heart.  We recognize it as a state of calmness that exists in the present moment.   It is the absence of anxiety, fear, and resentment. We can teach students methods of conflict resolution, and we can teach them the art of compromise—and we should do so—but if we want to teach for true peace, we must teach to the inner child. More importantly, we must teach from our own inner peace, for we can’t teach something that we don’t know.

I am going to suggest that reflective journaling is a practice that we might embrace and deepen, both in our classrooms and in our own lives. It is a practice that is especially suited for English teachers and the English classroom.  We are expected to teach writing; we are held accountable for that. We know that the writing process begins with what Betty S. Flowers called the Madman—the unrestrained voice of exploration and discovery that characterizes freewriting; it is the very kind of writing that journaling promotes. (“Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles in the Writing Process,” https://webspace.utexas.edu/cherwitz/www/ie/b_flowers.html). We know, too, that a teacher of writing should be a writer herself. We wouldn’t send our own children to a piano teacher who didn’t play the piano; we shouldn’t accept the responsibility of teaching writing to other parents’ children if we don’t write ourselves. The practice of journaling is a simple and direct way for a teacher to do that.

Many, if not most, English teachers have used journals in their classrooms at some point, and we all have our own variations of their use, our own ways of working journals into our classroom routines. I’ve experimented with various methods in my career.  Some years I’ve had students begin each class period with a 10-minute journaling activity.  In other years they have been homework assignments.  Sometimes they have been stand-alone fluency exercises, and at other times I have integrated them into my writing workshop.  For some classes I have changed the name and referred to them as writer’s notebooks. In one way or another, though, I have used journal writing to promote my students’ writing fluency and as a way for students to discover writing topics.  Sometimes the topics they discover go deep below the surface.

I recently gave Parnia, a student in my adult education GED class, the assignment of writing about a time when she was afraid. It’s a generic prompt of the sort one encounters on the GED essay writing test, and I was expecting that Parnia would respond using the  essay structure I had taught the class. What I got from Parnia was something very different.  Instead of a short, formulaic essay, Parnia turned in a rambling three-page journal entry about her experiences, as a child and teen, of being shuffled between foster homes, detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals. The prompt touched a nerve in her, and she wrote from a place of deep pain and anger. I told Parnia that I felt honored to read it and then, in due course, I guided her back to the essay format that I knew would gain her a passing score on the test.  But later she told me that, to her mind, the best writing she did for class was that journal entry about growing up. Writing it was cathartic, she told me (though she didn’t use that word), and helped her to confront the pain of her past and to let go of it.  It helped her to attain a measure of peace.

A journal allows us space to express intense feelings, good or bad, that interrupt the normal pace of our lives. It also helps us to identify those more nebulous feelings that are part and parcel of the daily pace of our lives.  These are the disturbances, again good or bad, that are just below or just on the threshold of our awareness. They are the states of mind that most pervasively affect our relationships with others—the ones that are most likely to foster interpersonal conflict.  When we can name a fear or a longing, when we can put it down on paper, it moves from the threshold of our consciousness into the light of our awareness. It becomes something known.  We can examine it.  It loses some of its power over us. We can choose how to act on it, or to not act on it at all.  We minimize the chances of conflict.

Skillful teachers inspire in their students the trust they need to write deeply and to risk sharing that writing with an adult. They do so by teaching from an inner core of confidence and trust and love that students intuitively feel. They do so by practicing the same skills they want their students to learn.  They are readers and writers, and they take the risk of sharing some of their work with their students.  They put themselves out there.  I make it a practice to occasionally share some of my journal entries with my class. I don’t do it frequently, but I do it enough so that my students will see that I take journal writing seriously. I don’t share intimate or potentially embarrassing journal entries with them. That would be a misuse, I think, of my position, and any class is, after all, about the students, not the teacher.  I do it so that they will do it, so that they will know that my classroom is a safe place in which to write from their hearts about the things that most matter to them. I do it because I want to teach for peace.

Writing Process Revisited

Do Our Models of the Writing Process Reflect the Ways We Actually Write?

Walk into any Language Arts classroom, and it is rare that you won’t see a graphic depiction of The Writing Process. These representations are usually linear, starting with something called Prewriting and moving, from left-to-right and step-by-step, toward something at the end that is referred to as Publishing. The specific terminology along the way may vary from place to place, but the whole thing suggests that writing occurs in a linear series of discreet steps, much like the manufacture of an automobile.

This conception of the Writing Process does give the teacher a framework for showing students how to go about writing, and it gives the students, I think, a conceptual understanding that writing does evolve over time. I have had some success using it. (Certainly more success than I had in the days when I simply assigned writing and graded it when it came in.) Students thought about their writing before they wrote, they composed drafts for me to comment on, and they revised those drafts, largely by correcting errors I pointed out. It was an efficient system that gave students time to change a piece of writing over time, and it gave me three checkpoints that I could put in the gradebook.

I adopted The Writing Process approach because I thought that real writers wrote that way. Donald Murray and Robert Graces told me so. Or, that’s what I came away believing from my Writing Project Summer Institute. The writing I did during that institute energized me and inspired me to share the thrill of writing with my students. So I took The Writing Process into my classroom, and my students did do a lot more writing than they had ever done before.

The trouble is, I don’t usually write that way. My process of writing varies depending on the kind of writing I am doing, my purpose for writing it, and my intended audience. When I am writing nonfiction for a specific audience—as I am doing right now—I get some general ideas down on paper, often making a web, then I start typing. I type quickly, expanding on the ideas in my web, leaving some ideas half-developed to move on to others, then going back to those earlier sections as my thinking develops further. I do a lot of cutting-and-pasting in the midst of the drafting, moving things around, exploring possible ways the writing might assume a form, playing with my voice as that form begins to emerge. This may sound similar to The Writing Process, but it certainly isn’t linear, at least not to my mind. It is more circular, recursive. The boundaries between pre-writing, drafting, and revising become blurred; the steps fall out of order. And that’s just when I write nonfiction.

When I write fiction, I generally try not to revise along the way. I can too easily get stuck on making one perfect paragraph and never allow the story to go anywhere. So I save the revising for later. “Let the story take you where it wants to go” is the best advice I’ve received from other writers of fiction. But then that’s not true for all kinds of fiction. I like to write mysteries, and when I tackle them I prefer to plan out scene sequences beforehand. I have to figure the solution to the mystery soon after I invent the problem so I know where I’m going.

But nonfiction, fiction (and poetry) are merely the tips of the icebergs for me.  Most of the writing I do is expressive—writing that’s done just for me—and I do that with a favorite pen, longhand.  This is writing I do without any purpose other than to discover what I think and feel. I have no particular form in mind, no product, no destination. Mostly this writing doesn’t go anywhere beyond my journal or my writer’s notebook. Maybe one time out of twenty-five I will discover a direction, a way I want to elaborate and shape the writing with an audience in mind.

It is, however, easier to teach my students a linear process than to teach the various ways I approach my own writing. As a writer, I am generally not restricted by time. As a teacher, though, I may have forty-five minutes a day, or ninety minutes every other day, to work with my students—not just on writing, but on everything.  And then, of course, something has to be assessed every few weeks, so if I want my students to “move along” and I need to have something by which I can “measure their progress.” The Writing Process serves a purpose. And it works best when I can specify the product I want at the end. An essay. A short story. A research paper. It’s cleaner that way, and my students are used to it. I can answer questions like “How long does it have to be?” or “How many drafts do we have to do?”

The problem with that, however, is that we are not teaching the writer, we are teaching the product. We show them scaffolding for a narrow range of forms: the personal narrative, the literary analysis paper, the research paper, the lab report, the five-paragraph essay. (Some) students (may) learn how to write each one of those, but when they leave school the scaffold goes away. And what happens when the product they must craft hasn’t been encountered before, or a situation presents itself that doesn’t allow for an assembly-line approach?

So, after many years of trying it this way and that, I have left behind The Writing Process to embrace a writing workshop approach. In a workshop, I don’t exactly teach my students what to do; I wade into the writing with them. I do show them writing moves—how changing the diction changes the tone, for instance, or how I re-read my journals to find that kernel of truth that I want to carry forward—but mostly I want them to discover the tools of a writer for themselves. We do a lot of writing in class, and much of it is not directed by me. I create opportunities for them to write things they care about. I move around, talking to the writers, asking them about what they are working on, and showing them various ways they might go about it. I want them to feel the same thrill of discovery and accomplishment that I felt when I came out of that Summer Institute.

The strategies I use weren’t invented by me. I learned them from Penny Kittle, Nancy Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Tom Romano, and Tom Newkirk. I’ve learned from thinking about how I go about writing and by watching what my colleagues are doing. I’ve learned by remaining active in my local Writing Project site. Lately, I’ve been re-reading Murray and Graves and discovering that this approach to being a writing teacher is what they were talking about all along. I just couldn’t know that until I did some writing myself.

You’re not going to find much I’ve written by Googling my name. (The first thing you’ll find is a car salesman in Oklahoma; look a little further and you might discover my two blog pages and a handful of articles in journals like this.) But I write, almost every day, and I have fun doing it. That’s what makes me a writer. That’s why I want to share what I do with my students. That’s why, after thirty-seven years, I’m still in this game. I’m developing arthritis in my thumbs, and I’m concerned that one day I won’t be able to maneuver that favorite pen. But I’ll discover something else, another way to approach the writing. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what the writing has taught me.


What’s it All Worth, Anyway?

There was some lively conversation a dozen years ago, among English teachers in my district, surrounding common assessments. The discussion was sparked when a curriculum supervisor proposed that each school should develop common goals, essential knowledge and skills, and assessments for each marking period.  Suddenly, the dreaded phrase “Scope and Sequence” reared its ugly head.  The hue and cry went out that the central office was moving in the direction of strict controls over what got taught and when. Big Brother was about to commandeer the classroom and impose a lock-step curriculum guide that would drive us all toward greater conformity.

Part of me agrees with the notion that all the teachers of the same subject should have their students perform similar tasks.  How else can we know whether an A in Mr. Watkins’ class is equivalent to an A in Ms. Hernandez’s?  Another part of me wonders, is it really all that important that the two teachers have identical standards?  What is the point of assigning grades, in the first place?

That last question got me to wondering whether teachers’ aversion to common assessments arises, not so much from their fears about where they will take us, as from our failure to consider where we want to go. In The Book on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are, philosopher Alan Watts speculated that the failure of many social enterprises, including public education, may be rooted in the fact that “few of us have ever thought through the problem of what good such enterprises are ultimately supposed to achieve.”  We say that we want our students to excel in school, but to what end?  What’s the point of it all?

The traditional answers have mostly had to do with the idea that school is supposed to prepare students for “real life.”  “You’ll never get a job without that diploma,” we warned them in the 60s and 70s.  In the 80s and 90s we showed them data proving that the more schooling they had, the more money they were likely to make.  Recently, the talk has been about preparing them to compete in a “global economy.”  We point to the fact that there are more math and science majors in India and China than there are in the United States, and we fear that if things don’t change soon, our country will lose its standing as the world’s economic leader. (As if the nations of the world belong to leagues, and we might end up not making the playoffs.)

I don’t know of a single educator who thinks that making money is the ultimate aim of education, though all of us do believe we have an obligation to prepare our students to hold their own in a complex world.  If we do think that schooling is about more than making students employer-ready, what is that more?

We almost universally avoid any public discussion of higher values.

Why is that? Do we fear sharing our own beliefs because we aren’t really secure in them?  Are we such a diverse society that we are afraid we won’t be able to find common ground?  No wonder that teachers are puzzled about their missions.  No wonder public voices descry where we are headed.  We haven’t honestly considered where we want to go.