Monday, January 30, 2012


After the flurry of exciting awards-related activity this week, I know many of us are looking forward to (variously) the Superbowl, the Academy Awards, Valentine's Day... I, in my third week of classes, am already looking forward to Spring Break.  January/February/March is a long stretch for teachers and students alike, yes?

I've had a particularly rocky start to the semester with campus construction and new computer systems, locked doors and snow and, oh, getting stranded on the wrong coast one Monday morning.  I had to give extra credit to the student who could magically make my projector light up.  (What will I ever do if he is absent?)

In Week 1, I gave my typical spiel -- "Now that you have mastered the five-paragraph essay format, you are going to have a little more freedom to try new things, to build on the structure you've learned but to break the rules a bit."  Typically, I have many students who balk at the idea that an essay does NOT (gasp) have to be five paragraphs long.  Many also have incredible difficulty with the notion that the introductory paragraph, the body paragraphs, and the concluding paragraph of an essay should NOT actually repeat the same thought three times.

One of my rule-loving students (of whom I am already quite fond) raised her hand this week and said, "Since we're doing everything differently from everything I've been taught... what about contractions?" 

We are, mind you, writing a narrative essay based on personal experience.  We have already talked about audience and tone.  I said, 'This is an informal essay.  Of course you may use contractions.'  Students were shocked.  'We were taught never, ever to use contractions.'  'We were SCORNED for using contractions.'  I asked them to raise their hands if they were told never, under any circumstance, to use a contraction.  Fully 90% of students did so.

Goodness gracious.  Contractions are the least of the problems I typically see in student writing.  I understand that we are trying to prepare students for a wide variety of writing tasks in life: literary analyses, drug trial reviews, briefs, summaries, business memos, nursing intake notes, police reports, textbooks, articles, novels.  Encouraging students to assess the genre and the necessary conventions is the FIRST thing we should be teaching. 

And so I wonder about the "rules" that are being drummed into students in high school and developmental writing courses.  I remember wondering the same as a student.  If I am supposed to be writing in clear and complete sentences, why does Faulker get to write a five-and-a-half-page run-on?  And why can I understand only every third sentence of the jargon-stuffed journal article that I must read for my psychology class?

While most of us can agree on the general precepts of 'good writing,' the first and best rule is... there are no rules!
find your voice
find your truth
be true to your voice
-- Jeanne Marie


Linda B said...

I've taught middle school students for years and have now moved into the literacy coach position at my school. My students wrote in numerous ways, & although I did focus when appropriate on having an intro & conclusion, we did not write five paragraph essays. My students worked hard in their beginning high school careers to try to meet the teachers' expectations with so many structured rules, & would often come back to complain to me that they weren't really doing any good writing, just writing for the grade. Makes me sad. And-students in my class, and others, often were celebrated for their writing by winning contests out there in the world. I agree with your words so wholeheartedly.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Amen! It took me a long time to learn to start using contractions.

Sandra Stiles said...

This was so funny because the first read-through of my YA novel was by one of my "reading" students. She told me I sounded stiff because I had used no contractions. She said it made the teens not seem real. I had been told not to use contractions. Thanks for reminding us.

Leone Castell Anderson said...

I always felt this was right! Thanks for confirming my "feelings."

April Halprin Wayland said...

So well said, Jeanne Marie. Makes me feel less...well, stupid, for drifting off while trying to read academic articles...

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad I'm not the only rule-bucker among us. I think training ourselves not to use unnatural (and sometimes undesirable) conventions can sometimes be very difficult!