4 Reasons Why Writers Make the Best Writing Teachers

By October 24, 2012Writing about Writing

“The best writing teachers are writers themselves,” argues Cindy O’Donnell-Allen in the Atlantic.  As she looks at the widely studied curriculum overhaul at New Dorp High School in New York City, O’Donnell-Allen, of Colorado State and the National Writing Project, asks what kind of changes made the difference in New Dorp’s success.  What do you think she found?

1. Writers break free from the closed circuit

Writers know the difference between writing, on one hand, that does something, and on the other hand, writing that is pointless drivel.  O’Donnell-Allen offers a rallying cry to break out of what she calls “closed circuit” assignments.  These kinds of assignments go something like this: the teacher tells you what to write.  You hand it in.  The teacher gives it back to you.  You pass or you fail. Repeat.

So what if your teacher treated writing the way a writer does, as something to be done for its own sake and enjoyment?  O’Donnell-Allen recalls her senior English class, which had a dependable rhythm: the students filed in, grabbed their journals, and had ten minutes to respond to the prompt on the board.  They were often encouraged to write in different genres  Class began the same way, but it never got boring, because this was writing as it’s supposed to be.  Fun.

2.  Writers let language do its thing

Now, me, I love diagramming sentences.  But I had never diagrammed a single sentence until graduate school, in a course for teaching English as a foreign language.

Luckily, when I was growing up, I didn’t have many teachers who looked at words and sentences as sealed off from one another.  Indeed, it wasn’t words or grammar exercises that I fell in love with as a kid–it was writing stories, comics, satires, and parodies about my teachers and friends.  Likewise, O’Donnell-Allen commends New Dorp’s teachers for changing the focus of writing instruction from rote exercise to rhetoric.  How can transition words help you change subjects?  How can sentence adverbs help the reader find the main point?

3.  Writers read like writers

Clichés are clichés, but once in a while they ring true.  Nothing is more axiomatic in comp studies than the fact that reading and writing go hand in hand.  And we’re here to tell you that, yeah, it’s still true.

Reading exposes us to new and sophisticated patterns of argument.  And when we discuss readings with others in our classes, we navigate ideas in the same way successful academic writing maneuvers its way through tough concepts.

4.  Writers speak many languages

Not that you have to be proficient in more than one language.  What I mean is that experienced writers, though they may not publish in many genres, at least have written in many genres–from fiction to non-fiction, news stories to Tweets, and so much more.  These genres each call for their own specialized languages, carrying their own expectations and possibilities.

The point is that writers never write in any one language.  You can spend a lifetime mastering simply one of these.  But moreover, an advanced piece of writing can integrate several genres at once.  O’Donnell-Allen points to teachers with the National Writing Project who encourage their students to write poems, children’s books, and short stories in addition to the standard US academic essay.  As O’Donnell-Allen points out, an article in The Atlantic taps into the same resources as all of these forms.  It’s the exposure to different genres, multiple languages, and diverse voices that forms capable writers.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • matthewdavidpearson says:

    Thanks for this post! While O’Donnell-Allen’s argument is a pretty simple, somewhat common-sensical one, she does a great job of being specific about why writers make the best writing teachers. I’ve definitely found that the some of the most powerful moments for me in the classroom have been when I took some risks and literally wrote in front of students, on a projected-computer so they could see what I wrote as I composed and said aloud the thoughts I had about how or why to phrase something a certain way…