What Are We Teaching When We Teach Writing?

This fall, Phyllis Johnston (veteran and venerated teacher of the Thacher English Department, now retired) and Blossom Beatty Pidduck CdeP 1992 (former student and chair of Thacher’s English Department) sat down to talk about teaching writing, then and now.

By Blossom Beatty Pidduck CdeP 1992, English Department chair


This fall, in coordination with the Thacher Magazine's Fall 2010 issue on writing, Phyllis Johnston (veteran and venerated teacher of the Thacher English Department, now retired) and Blossom Beatty Pidduck CdeP 1992 (former student and chair of Thacher’s English Department) sat down to talk about teaching writing, then and now.


Blossom:            So my first question to you is that you are known for being --


Phyllis:            Old.


Blossom:            You are old. Okay. [Laughter] No. You were famous for your blunt commentary on student work.


Phyllis:            I must not have been too blunt with some students because some of them loved me to death and came for extra help all the time.


Blossom:            But don’t you think it’s possible you just compensated with being so loving and fun and interested with them that they were able to sort of say, “That’s OK. She tells me that I’m not that great at writing, but she still thinks I’m a great person.”


Phyllis:            Well, I hope that that’s true, but I think probably for most students I wasn’t blunt enough. I mean, I always felt like I should have just been one of those teachers who would read and put a mark right by where she would have stopped reading if she didn’t get paid to read the rest of the paper. I never could do that, but I thought that’d be really great.

So anyway, so I’m not sure I was always as blunt as you remember me as.

But I was just going to say a few things about teaching writing that I’ve been thinking about since we talked about having this discussion. I’m going to say, number one, I don’t think I ever taught writing. I think that what people do now, what you do with your classes and certainly what I think Joy Sawyer-Mulligan does with hers and probably other teachers that I just don’t know as well is what is taking writing a little differently, thinking about it differently and teaching writing. And I don’t think I ever, ever could do that. I never learned how to do it that way.

I would say that if I did teach writing, it was just by making people write and giving them something to write about, assuming that almost everybody can have an opinion. That is, they can analyze something if they’re willing to actually read it and pay attention.


Blossom:            Right.


Phyllis:            And so you have to have the cue. You have to have whatever it is that starts the mind going, and then you can write about it. And so when it comes to analysis, I think how you teach it is to just make them do it. But part of the reason I could do that was that most of the students that I had, had already been taught some of the basics of writing by someone else, thank god.


Thacher students in general—many of them already knew how to do this. They knew they had the skill to write something. And then it’s just a matter of doing it, and then getting more and more confidence. And then helping them to learn to read over their own work and to edit it, to make it better.

As far as specific skills in writing, I think I was really great about teaching them how to use quotations.


Blossom:            That is certainly a skill that I remember learning from you. I remember the actual lessons where you taught us that. I still use some of them in my classes.


Phyllis:            Cutting quotations down, using just what you need, citing them and all of that was really important to me because I felt that you shouldn’t just believe you could write whatever. I think it’s too easy—and especially, again, for the same wonderfully bright, motivated Thacher students who think they can get away with anything—it’s too easy to believe in the ability to get by on hot air.


So analyzing something carefully, really looking at it, and using the text to prove your points seemed to me a valuable lesson in truth telling and also writing.


Blossom:            Right.


Phyllis:            Because it meant that they had to use the evidence. They had to have evidence. So I think I was strict about that, and that was good.


Blossom:            I agree. I struggle too to identify what aspects of writing are most important to teach, what can we teach, and how should we do it? Should the teaching of writing be separated out from analysis and from reading literature? We, as English teachers, often sort of think of them as always going together and that that’s the way that you teach someone to write. But, of late, I come across more and more people, in and out of the education world, who say, well, no, you don’t teach someone to write by reading a book and analyzing it. But that’s still a hard one for me.


Phyllis:            Well, I think that’s the way we were taught. I mean, it’s because when we went to high school and college, if you studied English literature, that’s what you did.


Blossom:            Whereas, a lot of the students we have now have learned to write by expressing themselves.


Phyllis:            Total self-expression. And I remember kind of when that became something I really had to think about more. Actually, Marilee [Lin] did a class that was mostly – it was nature and self-expression. And she got some beautiful work from her students. And it wasn’t just I feel such and such, but it was self-expression. It wasn’t analyzing something. It was – well, maybe just reacting to a cue, a different kind of cue. And I think I became convinced that that was also a valuable thing to do– to learn to say something that you've thought about carefully and that is important.


Blossom:            And to have a voice.


Phyllis:            Yes. Oh, and to have a voice. I think students naturally have a voice, if they can get it, if they can get there. But they have to have the right – and analysis is not the way to get to the voice. So I feel I denied them that sometimes, except, of course, in their journals, where their voice was everything.


Blossom:            Right. But it can be pretty hard as a teacher to marry those two things. I find that difficult with students, to somehow say, okay, we’re going to do this exploratory writing. But then how do you transition to the point when kids are going to have to write the essay about the book or about the poem or whatever. Students have to have that skill—that is if we’re still teaching English literature. If we’re still thinking that’s what we’re doing, at a certain point, that’s what you've got to do, and there aren’t many ways around the strictness of it.


Phyllis:            But Blossom, do you think that actually that is your task now to teach English literature, or is it to teach writing? And if so – see, I think I’m just not the person – I would never have been able to do that. I was always content driven. I’m dependent on Morrison and Faulkner to give the content, and then I can just sit up there and hear what people have to say about it and then what they want to write about it. But I think it’s different now.


Blossom:            I agree. I do think that it’s different. The question is out there—is the skill more important than the content? In a way, it’s like the liberal arts college ideal. Is it important that we study impractical disciplines? I’m biased, of course. Given the opportunity, how can one not read Huck Finn?  But I wonder if others really feel that this is still something that we think is essential, the study of literature, as opposed to more clearly skill building. They have to come out with these skills. Maybe whether or not they’ve read these works doesn’t really matter as much.

And I think you see the same thing happening to a liberal arts education. There are those question marks out there for certain people, I think, as to whether or not it’s still worthwhile to have this kind of education that’s not necessarily directly applicable to a paycheck.


Phyllis:            That’s a great question to ask now. If I were 20 years old in college, what would I be taking? But I think that we both are coming from generations that had the pure luxury to study the humanities and to do the liberal education core curriculum. Take a little of this, a little of that, and then come out as – I think what people would still define as a well-educated person.


Blossom:            Right.


Phyllis:            Meaning we knew authors. We knew books. We knew ideas. But, of course, all that information is so easily accessible now. You don’t need to know it in the same way.



Blossom:            Which, of course, brings up computers and their role in the learning and writing process.



Phyllis:            Yes and I think the thing with computers is, really, editing—a real skill and something we all try to force students to do—revision and editing. Okay. Just hold that thought. I have to show you what I found.


Phyllis goes into her office to retrieve copies of old student papers. Papers written before the dawn of the personal computer.


Blossom:                        (looking at the old essays)To think of what we used to do.


Phyllis:            What if you have to revise something, and you've written it longhand.


Blossom:            It does make you think that the process of writing has been changed by the technology


Phyllis:            Well, I think one thing and one thing that continues—I continue to do and the students fought every minute of it—I think you probably do it too—is I always insisted on having one rough draft hardcopy off the computer because I always said you've got to see the whole thing. You've got to see it. You've got to read it that way, as a revision technique. Because I think computers actually make it harder for students to revise. It’s easier to do, to edit, but it makes them less likely to do it. Instead of taking out something, deleting it, you wrote it, so it must be important, and it’s typed, and it looks really good. It makes writing easier, but maybe too easy.


Blossom:            Yes. Even with the revelation of the computer, I think the hardest thing to get kids to do is to edit, to get them to look back at something. I mean, it’s over, it’s done with, I don’t want to look at it again. And I was the same way as a student. Once I’d written something, I didn’t want to reread it because I didn’t want to find a flaw. It was essentially laziness.


Phyllis:            I couldn’t agree more. I hate to read what I’ve written, especially when I know someone else is going to read it and I thought it sounded okay last night, but what if…


Blossom:            But that might be something that’s changed for these students because they are so used to texting things, writing things, not worrying about how it looks or appears and not having a sense of it’s longevity. And I—sometimes I wonder what makes a student cringe in terms of his or her writing. What’s the cringe level? The cringe level was very low for me. I mean, I didn’t want to read anything I’d written because it was, like, oh, god, that’s not very good, and look at all the grammatical mistakes I made.

But now they produced so much, so easily, whether it’s updating their Facebook status or this or that. Is somebody commenting to them when they misspell something or they use a construction that’s totally ridiculous? No, nobody’s saying anything, so maybe they don’t have that concern.


Phyllis:            I think they’ve probably lost those very strict lines that we used to put between formal and informal usage, and especially if you think about the kinds of emails you get from students. This always appalled me. I would get an email from a student that was a mess. You know, punctuation gone, nothing. And I wondered if they thought about the fact that they were sending it to an English teacher, but they obviously thought about it in a totally different way—OMGs and no full sentences…


Blossom:            Right. And it’s, in some way, the antithesis of what we teach in analytical writing, which is this idea that we shouldn’t leave the reader to fill in our gaps, that we need to express ourselves fully. We need to back up our ideas. We need to be clear. We need to make our point, as opposed to the kind of writing that they’re involved in every day, I guess you’d say in the more social sense, which is all about the reader filling in the gaps. Someone else is going to fill in the void and know what I mean and know that I meant to capitalize your name because you know I know who you are.


Phyllis:            Right. Right. Right.


Blossom:            And yet we still manage to get most of them to learn to write—in a formal sense.


Phyllis:            When you talk to recent graduates, say of the last ten years, do they still say that writing was a valuable skill to have in college?


Blossom:            Yes.


Phyllis:            Analysis?


Blossom:            We should ask the question more precisely. Do you just feel as though you can write, as if you can express yourself and you can do it clearly and grammatically, correctly and all these things, or that you can analyze something in writing.

But I assume that what they’re speaking of isn’t just the skill of expression, clear expression, but more the analytical skill of writing. It seems as if kids come back, and that’s the thing they say—I learned to write at Thacher and it’s made a huge difference in my college experience.

And we know that’s not just the English department. That’s happening in lots of different places.


Phyllis:            Yes. I believe that many students at Thacher, throughout our years, learned to write from David Johnston. David made them write so many essays, way more than I did in English. And no one is a clearer, more organized, more logical thinker. And he really taught them how to use evidence. I mean, I believe when it came to analysis, he was every bit as positive a teacher of English skills as anyone.


Blossom:            Right.  And he was one who wouldn’t allow students more than three grammatical errors before he’d stop reading. And students need to come across teachers in their high school careers who hold that line. It’s so important.


Phyllis:            Yes. So lots of people deserve the credit, including Thacher kids—such talented, bright, motivated kids make a huge difference.


Blossom:            As do teachers like you. I really do think of your extra help sessions as emblematic of the kind of teaching you did—so individual, so dedicated to the kid in front of you. And not all students, of course, would come to your extra help sessions around writing an essay. There were a lot of students, it seemed to me from watching it from the outside and also being one of your students, that there was a kind of camaraderie and a kind of fun that would develop out of those evenings.


Phyllis:            And sometimes it made them like learning.



Blossom:            Yeah, because it’s a fun environment.


Phyllis:            And it’s safe. When you’re in the classroom and you’re going to have help from the teacher, and there might be some other kids in the classroom that you wouldn’t necessarily be particularly good friends with, but you think they’re kind of cool. You don’t have to feel they don’t want you there…. I’m in the classroom. This is my teacher too. I think that’s one of the really wonderful beauties of the closeness you can have with students and students with one another. I mean, that’s what they go away with and why they sob at graduation. They’re not sad about leaving me. It’s, oh, it’ll never be the same, and it never is.



Blossom:            It never is. Unless you’re me and you come back and teach English and try to recreate Phyllis Johnston magic English classes.


Phyllis:            Right.




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