A Burr in Your Sock

Today was a prickly kind of day in the SDAWP SI.  There’s something about confronting formulaic writing that sticks in your socks like those little burrs you find on weeds that seem to plant themselves in the most unlikely places.


Over the weekend we read a collection of articles about formulaic writing, thinking about why this approach to writing instruction persists, and the implications for student writing.  Even teachers who are proponents of using a formulaic approach to teaching writing still complain about the deadening experience of reading the resulting student writing.  Who wants to read paper after paper of repetitive phrasing and uninspired thinking?

I contrast that with the playfulness of this week at the CLMOOC.  This week’s make is to hack your writing.  And already on day two interesting writing is filling my feeds.  I woke up this morning to a poem by Kevin “stolen” from yesterday’s blog post:

I live in contrasts
in the space between here
and there
I find the nook to hide in
and observe the world
through many lenses
I seek but never find
the whys of the world
so that every movement is
equally beautiful, equally interesting
and entirely different from each other
but only if we take the time to pause
and notice.

And this creation by Sherri:

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 8.41.27 PM

Both Kevin and Sherri played with language and writing, creating their own message and meaning from words I had written.  They wrote for fun, for their own purpose, and gifted their words to me on my blog.  I grant you that they are adults and they are not composing “academic” texts, but I know that the spirit of fun and play supports them as writers.

I worry about who in our schools gets the most formulaic writing.  Why are our English learners, our students of color, our students who live below the poverty line most likely to get writing instruction that is pre-chewed, scaffolded to the point that no thinking is required?  In the name of being helpful, we are robbing students of the opportunity to make sense of their thinking through writing.

And yet, letting go of the formulaic means inviting messiness, losing control, welcoming confusion in order to find clarity and coherence.  What replaces the formula?  That is a question that I am asked over and over again.  The answers aren’t easy, they aren’t neat, and they mean teaching writers rather than writing.

Sometimes that search for answers feels like a burr in your sock.  But if you look closely–maybe using your macro lens–you’ll see the details of the beautiful weed, a natural hacker, springing up where you least expect it.

10 thoughts on “A Burr in Your Sock

  1. fmindlin

    Thanks for this deep dive into a prickly place. I’ve reflected often about how misused the term “scaffolding” is, when it’s presented without any meta-discussion with the kids about what it is and what happens when it gets taken away. There’s a presumption in so much of that formulaic approach (has there ever been a more offensive term in discussion of curriculum than “teacher-proof”!?!) that kids are just not smart enough to get what is being done to them.
    I’m struggling to remember the source, but someone shared with me the image of a tree trunk with main branches and many side shoots as an alternative way to explain scaffolding, instead of the external structures painters use. It’s easier to image a useful kind of scaffolding taking an organic tree-like form, and eventually getting covered over with leaves.

  2. Sheri Edwards

    Reblogged this on So. Consider and commented:
    I’m thinking about these powerful words Kim wrote

    “I worry about who in our schools gets the most formulaic writing. Why are our English learners, our students of color, our students who live below the poverty line most likely to get writing instruction that is pre-chewed, scaffolded to the point that no thinking is required? In the name of being helpful, we are robbing students of the opportunity to make sense of their thinking through writing.

    And yet, letting go of the formulaic means inviting messiness, losing control, welcoming confusion in order to find clarity and coherence. What replaces the formula? That is a question that I am asked over and over again. The answers aren’t easy, they aren’t neat, and they mean teaching writers rather than writing.”

    The answer is there:
    “teaching writers rather than writing” so that they can “make sense of their thinking through writing.”

    We offer many choices for authentic writing and teach the writer– the wordsmith.

    We can accomplish this through student planned frames rather than formulas. I’ve written about it here:

    I’m also remembering the work of James Moffett: Active Voices- Writing across the Curriculum and others books. http://www.amazon.com/Active-Voice-Writing-Program-Curriculum/dp/0867092890#

    His work reflects much of the Connected Learning Principles as students write in genres they choose for their audience and purpose. Important is oral language, peer feedback, and and choice in a workshop approach to teach each writer.

    Isn’t that what we’ve learned from technology as well? We teach writers what they need ‘just in time’ for their needs and purposes.

    What do you think

  3. tellio

    Yes, writing of all kinds, formulaic and its opposite (what exactly is its opposite). I value the opportunity to weigh in on the other side of this. I hope I don’t seem like a bur under the saddle or in your sock. If it makes you feel any better I also disagree with Fred about his tree metaphor. I fear I am a naysayer, but I don’t do it just to hear my own voice or see my own words. I might be wrong, but I do care.

    Writing from a formula doesn’t have to be bad writing. In fact most writing is formulaic if you do work that is repetitive. The NYTimes editorial board page is extremely formulaic yet it is also very good. Sometimes formulaic writing only aspires to be useful. Twitter is formulaic. Five paragraph themes suck but not necessarily because they are formulaic. They suck because most all writing sucks. Writing is a profound skill. It requires a great deal of practice. There are good five paragraph themes. Mostly they are good because they have something to say and they want to say it well. Purpose and audience and content trump whatever format you use.

    Sonnets are formulaic, but don’t seem so in the hands of a master. Songwriters use verse-chorus-verse as a formula. Maybe they should stop doing that? No, they should embrace them. Every discipline has its formulaic writing. Coding is formulaic. This comment box is formulaic. All of our digital spaces are shaped into themes and formulaic as hell. The larger issue is that learners don’t view writing as a way to engage others, formulaic or no.

    1. fmindlin

      Thanks, Terry and Ann, for diving into the briar patch. It’s fun in here! Terry, I think your examples of the NYT Editorial page, sonnets, songs, and comment boxes perfectly illustrate what I was trying to get at with the contrast between the tree metaphor and the ugly external structure of a painter’s scaffold. You never really explained why you don’t think the tree metaphor is apt, and I’d love to hear specifics. For me, the contrast between the two metaphors points up why a formulaic approach which is presented to students as necessary and sufficient for creating “writing,” without any discussion of what one builds by leaning over from this rickety and temporary perch which is supposed to disappear once the building is done, almost always results in writing where all one can see is the ugly scaffold. The tree metaphor allows the structure that’s being offered to be clearly and easily identified as underneath or behind the writing that results, having its own appealing and natural form, and built and presented as a helpmeet which can gracefully disappear (or at least recede into the background) once all the leaves are in place. In fact, once flowers and fruit appear, one hardly notices the branches, the goodies are so alluring. The list of formulaic examples from Terry with which I began also points to another aspect of this discussion: this is the perfect frame in which to introduce genre study, in its way a highfalutin term for formulaic writing, and another example of the kind of thinking the formula vendors do not encourage. We know from our own experience that emerging writers of any age are perfectly capable of understanding genre studies, exploiting different frames, and then transcending or discarding them.

      1. tellio

        Appreciate how you deepened the whole conversation and how you wanted me to broaden my snarky comment about the tree metaphor. In the final analysis (whatev that might be) trees are a complex part of their ecosystem. They emerge from an incredibly robust and “edgy” system that lives and dies. I see lots of examples of world languages as a family tree. Sorta makes sense. One language, sort of like Lucy in the Olduvai Gorge. All descend from that. It is the connection between scaffolds and trees that I balk at. I think it may be more personal than anything. I think it involves the reduction of the world that is so common everywhere I look especially in teaching.

        Perhaps I am misunderstanding the extension of the metaphor. Perhaps what Fred is saying is that we can move from the baldly formulaic to something more akin to the tools needed to communicate variously in the world. I understand that formulaic writing of any kind involve a reduction, too. There is poetry part of me that hates that. Part of me balks at the idea of starting with a template and then growing into something that better reflects the complexity of the world, the world we live in. How do you jump from the metal scaffold over to the tree? Writers do accomplish this. We only have to look at their lives to see how they did it, but how do we get our students to do this en masse. I fear what happens is that many of them cling to the metal scaffolding forever or that we hear a few soft splats as some intrepid but underprepared souls fail to mind the gap sufficiently. I suspect that many of us who teach writing make the mistake of getting students to climb up the metal scaffold as if it was a tree instead of getting kids up the real tree from the beginning. I really don’t know. I know that when we make writing serve others purposes first instead of our own–that’s a dead metal tree. I know that when we reward/punish students for being more or less this kind of strategic writer–that’s a dead, metal tree. But I also know that if we take the royal road and play games with narrative and with persuasion and we entertain with lyric and poem–that is not a dead metal tree. That is the Bo Tree, the tree that grows up and out of the every single one of us into the world. I can get behind that kind of scaffold, that radicle growing from the root of the self, magic beans to the heavens.

        How do we devise ways to reach this enlightened writing state that respects the Truth of the Muse and the truth of the formula? I think it is like learning a piece of music. We have a pattern that we trace with our bow on our instruments. And trace and trace and trace some more. We practice the holy hell out of that pattern until the pattern merges with our selves and then the pattern of our own selves and lives emerges from it. And this is only one way that we can do it. I think mastery of increasingly more complex formulae is the way of it, but that the central question is phenomelological–what does this mean? Writing, painting, speaking–any of the humane acts of the creative kind—are all answers to this question. Wow, that is pretty far afield Fred! And thanks for creating the space to wander far in that field, Kim.

  4. annzivotsky

    Many teachers have told me they are terrified of teaching writing, because they believe they don’t write well themselves. Of course, we know a SDAWP workshop would help them get over that. 🙂 I know they use formulaic writing as guide/support/crutch for what they teach. The timing of your post is perfect. I just glanced at a product on TPT of creative writing task cards (prompts), the kind that might work in my classroom for the “I’m done! Now what do I do?!” moments with some students. My first response at that moment would be to tell the student to write/create something else, but some need a little creative push. I could spend time creating my own set of prompt cards, but I would rather spend my time creating lessons to engage all my students. And as that thought crossed my mind… I thought of you and what you might say. And then I read this post. It was as if you are sitting at my breakfast table with me!

  5. onewheeljoe

    I love this post and the exchange in the comments equally. There is much to agree with in both Terry’s response and Fred’s I think. I hope you’ll both say more since this seems like a collaborative critique of assumptions about writing, and scaffolding (a word that winds Terry up, I know.)

    I want to take a crack at Kim’s question what replaces the formula. I’d like to think there are some simple truths that students and teachers might land on that can help teachers guide writing practice.

    * Words on the page are your friend- Finding time to routinely write is something the best writers do that anyone can replicate.
    *Close study of writing supports strong vision and revision- If you want to write something well, read a number of examples of that type of writing.
    *Sharing your writing can be daunting but it is also vital- We have to share in order to support each other as writers. The road to constructive criticism and collaborative critique begins at sharing.
    *Audience is king- If the audience is yourself and you want some playful practice, you’re king (or queen.) If the audience is anyone else, their response, feedback and the meaning they make from your writing is king (or queen).
    *Writing is easy and impossible- Be patient with yourself and your writing. Everywhere you look you’ll see evidence that humans are masters and novices at communication in general.

    Ok that probably doesn’t replace the formula for anyone but me but it felt good writing it.

  6. judymko

    Love this post Kim. My daughter is currently attending Young Writer’s Camp this week. She is participating in the Improving Students’ Analytic Writing camp. She’s really enjoying it. Today she related a comment given to her. One of the instructors asked the students to raise their hand if their teachers from last year told them they had to put the thesis statement in the last sentence of the first paragraph. Most of the kids raised their hand. Today, my daughter learned that she could put the thesis statement anywhere as long as it made sense where she put it. However, my daughter also said she was afraid to do anything different because her paper might get marked down if she didn’t follow the formula the teacher gave her to follow. I believe that is the struggle.


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