Monday, April 7, 2014

Prescriptive and Descriptive Writing Teachers

Prescriptive and descriptive. Lately I've run into these two adjectives describing grammarians and writing teachers. A lot. Here we'll talk about teachers, home and school.

Prescriptive teachers approach language as a list of rules students must learn. Rules such as...

  • Always write in complete sentences.
  • Never start a sentence with "and."
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Start every paragraph with a topic sentence.
  • Essays need five paragraphs.

These are the English teachers who haunt you in your nightmares. You shriek when you remember their weapon, the red pen, cutting and slashing through your text to find every last writing misdemeanor. 

Their students likely play it safe, choosing a word they know how to spell rather than one they don't, using a simple sentence structure because they aren't sure where to place the commas in a complex one. 

Meanwhile, descriptive teachers see beauty in language, how it can be shaped to create something powerful, even if that means breaking rules. They free students to experiment, to see what works (and what doesn't) in published writing and their own.

When they look at pieces students create, they notice the mistakes (and address them in future lessons), but the mistakes are not their focus. They instead appreciate the "hidden gems" (Katherine Bomer) in the piece. They 1) accept where students are, 2) remember that every student is trying to make meaning, and 3) look for what's brilliant, bold, brave, and beautiful.*

They understand that writing is a process grounded in strong ideas on a page (fluency) that can be later revised (clarity), and eventually tweaked to look conventional to readers (correctness).

Which kind of teacher are you?

I know I want to be a descriptive teacher who parks my pen as I read a student's piece the first time, even as it beckons me to fix and correct. I want to intentionally mine for treasures, to encourage my students, sharing with them what I discover, then sit back and watch what happens.

*Thank you to Katherine Bomer who presented these points at an LVWP seminar I attended over the weekend.

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