Writing Teachers

As my students (my own kids and a few others) have moved on into higher education, I have pondered their preparation, their writing skills, and whether I did all I could to prepare them sufficiently for other writing instructors.

When a student meets a new writing teacher the student has to adequately address the following in order to get a good grade from the writing teacher:

1. Basic correctness (basic grammar)
2. Basic style (varied sentences)
3. Proper flow of thought
4. The teacher’s preferences and quirks for what makes good style (I had one composition instructor in college who would not let us use any variation of the verb ‘to be’)
5. Interpreting the essay prompt carefully and in the spirit it was intended (whether that was clear to start with, or not)
6. The over-all the spirit of the class
7. Adhering to accepted standards (such as: no passives, no split infinitives, no reflexive pronouns, etc)
8. The grading rubric (Some teachers never read the essays. They just check for basic and easy to spot adherence to the rubric).

Each of my students has performed differently and with different levels of success in the real world of writing. Interestingly enough, it was my weakest writing student who received the highest score on the ACT writing part and my strongest student who got an absolutely abysmal grade on the ACT writing exam.

On the average, it has taken the students 1/3 of the semester to figure out what the new instructors were looking for, and in all but one case, an initially low grade has been rectified to the desired grade within the course of one semester.

One student found that his instructor hated all definition paragraphs and would not tolerate definitions essays. This instructor wants nothing but research/data to substantiate all claims. Carefully crafted logical arguments held no sway with her. All paragraphs that were persuasive to her were drawn from quotes of other works. Appeal to authority… testimony paragraphs …little else.

At the university where I work, I learned a ton this year from teaching a course with a considerable writing component as part of its assessment.

More than ever, I found that there is a wonderful reason for not allowing passive verb constructions in essays–a reason I was less so aware of in my own homegrown or hand-picked students.

Many of the university essays consisted of almost nothing but passive verb sentences. Here is a priceless collection of some of the ‘gems’ I endure every semester.

• His father was very religious, and this consisted for his whole life.

• Born in November of 1889, Hubble was always highly athletic.

• The decisions of having a life-saving surgery is not determined by the possibility that infection will take a life that was meant to be saved.

• One of his professors, Jacob Henle, Professor of Anatomy, is credited with influencing the budding Koch with the idea (published in 1840 by Koch) that infectious disease was caused by micro-organisms.

• Leonardo da Vinci was born on April fifteenth, 1452 in Vinci (in what is now part of Italy). He was born the illegitimate son of Ser Piero and a peasant girl, Caterina, his father taking custody of him.

My rule with my homegrown and hand-picked students was that passive constructions were just as good as any other English constructions. All constructions should be used sparingly. Ditto for passives. That was before I read paper after lusterless paper—all of them immersed in passives and pitifully sagging for want of energy and direction.

No, I did not DIG through scores of papers to find the tortured sentences above. Nor have I put together a collection to send to “Anguished English”. I just opened a few papers a minute ago, and up popped these sentences—at a glance. (This from university juniors and seniors). It is a delightful mixture of passives and dangling participles.

But back to my original thought …kids moving out into the world of other picky and hard to please writing instructors, such as myself. — It is not what I demanded or did not demand of my students, nor my irrational disdain for any form of the verb ‘to make’ that was right or wrong for my students.

Where my methods triumphed (apart from all the writing classically and broadly and varied and all the CW stuff) was in my bull-doggish, relentless, stubborn, “do it my way” approach. NOT that my way was right all the time, but that they learned that the essay was not done… NO, SIR!!! …until I was satisfied, even if the essay had to be rewritten 8 times. When I said “no version of the verb ‘to make’ in this essay”, the essay would return to sender from my snippy key board UNTIL the offending verb had been properly purged from its pages.

So, if I have to give advice, here it is: Writing teachers out in the ‘real world’ are stubborn, somewhat quirky, but CONSISTENT. The best gift you can give your students is to be equally consistent. ESPECIALLY, if you are mom, the homeschool teacher. DO not relent to buy peace. Follow through and FORCE junior, or juniorette as the case might be, to DO AS YOU SAID. The instructions are the instructions, and they must be followed, every time! There is no more important task to lear in preparation for college and the work world than doing the assignment as directed.

That is a gift that paid off as my students learned to placate other writing instructions, many of them as mule-stubborn as myself— most of them, not quite as absurd.

Final thoughts: as a university professor, let me say this. Homeschooled kids are no worse (but also no better) students than any other students I have encountered. Some write well, some do not. Still, writing is by far the skill that today’s students struggle with the most at the university level. Most college-bound students can learn the math (most, not all!!!). They can get through the science (somewhat!!!) but SO MANY of them cannot put two coherent thoughts together to generate a correctly compounded sentence.

Do not let your students be victims of bad grammar and writing instruction. You will impair them for life, or at least, you will limit their employment possibilities. Graduate school is not really an option for students who cannot summarize a passage, account for someone else’s opinion, or adequately define and express their own positions on an issue.

TEACH WRITING. Be as ornery about it as you will  (wink, wink), but stick to it, and keep it a priority.

Some day your students will thank you for it. Or at least some of them will 🙂

🙂 Lene

About Lene Jaqua

Co-author of Classical Writing books
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