Becoming better writers with professional help

by Mr. Sheehy

I recently read an article from Ruth Beechick in The Old Schoolhouse, a homeschooling magazine. I enjoy Beechick, though I admit that my familiarity with her is mostly from perusing in random spots the books that my wife is reading.

The thing I’ve discovered is that Beechick has a refreshing take on language arts, a take I need after five years of immersion in professional development coursework. For example, in this article I was reading she talks about the structure of essays and points out quite concretely what I have babbled around in the past: that though educators often teach solid structures for essay construction, writers do not follow the formats with any sense of loyalty.

Her suggestion for homeschoolers is to head to the newspapers and other sources of writing and study the structure of the writing there. See how writers open articles, how they develop arguments, and how they wrap things up. Find the patterns worth imitating, and then attempt to incorporate them into your own writing.

That’s good advice and I can easily see leading my children in such a sincere pursuit. In fact, I can hardly wait to do this with my children. We can pick up a magazine, an article one of us has read, or any book in the house, and read it as writers and editors. The amusing part of it to me is how obvious it is. After all, that is how I learn to write better: I read many writers and latch onto particular methods and techniques. This is why I have said I would love to be E.B. White, and why I often present the writing of people like Annie Dillard to my students as a model of great writing. Yet in my work with students I think I often miss a strength of Beechick’s strategy: quantity. In looking at lots of writing, a student conducts a kind of meta-analysis and discovers the real patterns. Seeing lots of patterns can help a student discover how one trick works here and another trick works there. Too often what I do is to show students one great trick, a trick they may not be able to imitate, changing little for them.

The advantages to students of learning Beechick’s way are overwhelming. In evaluating professional writers, the student has read attentively and eventually learns to see that which she may not have seen before. The trained eye knows what to see. With writing, an exercise like this helps the student develop that trained eye, and she can read with a new perspective. Additionally, she increases her ability to view her own writing the same way—critically and precisely.

The analogy that pops into my head immediately is from my watching of the school’s football team last night. I never played football, so I do not understand many of the intricacies of the game, even though I have watched plenty on TV and know the basics. Last night, in overtime, the opponent ran for a touchdown but had it called back due to a holding penalty. I never saw the hold and had actually begun to shake my head with disappointment when I realized the man behind me was loudly informing the referee about some action on the field: “Holding!” The ref must have heard, because no one was celebrating and a few of the men in zebra-shirts were conferring. As I stood there waiting, I thought about what I had seen on the play. I had been watching in particular a linebacker I knew running awkwardly and flailing his arms. I had laughed at it even as the play continued, thinking how goofy he looked, but I never realized what I’d seen. This afternoon I had that linebacker’s brother in class and asked if he’d been the one who had been held: “Oh yeah, that guy was totally grabbing him. It was blatant.” Blatant for one who understood what he was seeing, but for one who is not an expert in the finer points of the game, it was invisible. I was looking right at it and never saw it.

The trouble for me is that I still want to bring some of this ideal education my wife and I plan to provide to our own children to my students in the public school classroom. Thus, after reading Beechick, I was stuck ruminating how to implement something similar on a grand scale. How can I guide classes of 25 students through close examination of professional writing?

I figured a good place to start would be with a glaring weak spot of most students’ writing: introductions. We can look at piles of articles and analyze their introductions to help realize what an introduction does and how one can begin with something other than a question or the thesis statement. While with my own children we can simply head to the computer together and find an article that interests them, I am not so naïve with a classroom full of cherubs. Few things could waste our precious class time more effectively than a fuzzy request to roam around the Internet.

Thus, today during my planning period I spent an hour browsing the most-read and most-emailed articles from the New York Times, Slate, the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and even ESPN. I haven’t read all the articles in full, but I have read the introductions, and they all begin with something that grabs one’s attention and then at some point tells us what their point is before moving on to the rest of the article. I’ll probably have each student read at least a half dozen of these articles and fill out an analysis of each one in a table I’ll have designed (I envision a column for categorizing the attention grabber’s strategy, a place to write the thesis statement, and a box or two to describe what they felt was strong or weak about the writing). They’ll confer together, we’ll discuss the results, and then we’ll attempt to write our own introductions, probably to an introduction-less article that I’ll supply.

I won’t have the time to sit with each student and detect whether he or she has begun to see the structure supporting the articles, but I’ll create the exercise nonetheless. Ultimately, the attempt is driven by this conviction: the method strikes me as the best approach for my own children, so I don’t see any reason to attempt less with other people’s kids.

Thanks for reading.