They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet year after year, teachers continue to rely upon writing formulas as a tool to teach writing, despite evidence showing they don’t work. When Covid hit, only 27% of middle- and high-school aged students were meeting proficiency levels on state writing tests (NAEP 2020). In a post-Covid world, the numbers have only gotten worse.
Teaching students to write is hard. Teaching students to write well is even harder. As an educator myself, I understand the challenges facing teachers as they try to implement effective writing instruction, and I recognize the perceived value of writing formulas. But the data doesn’t lie. If teaching students to write using writing formulas worked, 67% of college students would not be required to complete remedial writing courses before enrolling in college-level composition classes (Hechinger 2017).
It’s time we acknowledge that writing formulas don’t work and move towards more effective approaches to writing instruction. Based on observations made in my own classes, I began implementing weekly creative writing classes in my core ELA courses as a way to teach students real-world writing techniques. The premise is simple: each week, students engage in one of twenty skills-based writing exercises as part of what I call “Writing Wednesdays.” As part of the process, students are placed into Writing Teams, forming a supportive community of writers. While the weekly writings are simple drafts, each quarter, students have an opportunity to celebrate their growth as writers by taking one or more of these practice pieces through a polishing round for publication, giving them voice and agency in the stories they tell.
Unlike traditional writing assignments which teach students that writing takes one form and serves one purpose, Writing Wednesdays provide students with ongoing opportunities to write, each one featuring a unique skill or set of skills. Rather than writing for a grade, each week students become mad scientists, taking risks, trying out new approaches, going down one path before crossing it out and moving in an entirely new direction. As a result, they move organically and authentically through the writing process. They come to realize, through the process of experimentation, that writing involves a series of discrete choices and that each choice yields a different effect. Unlike writing formulas, which limit and control the writer, the Writing Wednesday approach puts the writer in control, returning agency to the student, where it belongs. And once students realize that they can control the narrative, they become stronger writers across a range of modes, including essay writing.
The best part about this approach to writing instruction is the student buy-in. Feedback from students and parents has been overwhelmingly positive. Because the teacher is no longer telling the student what they must write and how they must write, students feel they have finally been given an active role in their own learning.
Making the change from writing formulas to Writing Wednesdays doesn’t have to be difficult. I’ve compiled twenty unique writing explorations, each one designed to target core ELA skills, into my book, Artfulness: Formula-Free Creative Writing Explorations for Secondary ELA Classes. The book also provides ways to differentiate the lessons to best match your student population and suggests how to integrate the activities into your regular instruction, making the transition an easy process.
We know writing formulas don’t work. Isn’t it time you try something that does?