"Hasty Miscellany On Teaching Writing"
Handout for a Talk

About Teaching Writing

The head of the English department popped into my office one day.  "We're having a meeting for the adjuncts tomorrow," she said, "and I'd like you to tell them what you do in your classes.  About half an hour should do it, I think."

I opened my mouth to say "Ninny on yer tintype!" or words to that effect--but she was already gone.

So I mulled it over.  On the one hand, she seemed to like me and had appeared interested on the rare occasions when I let slip something about my classes. On the other hand, I knew that if I told English teachers what I did in my classes their suspicions about my sanity would surely be confirmed.  I could tell them in a minute or two, but it would mean nothing to them because their school-lives had been very different from mine.  No half hour could convey an explanation.  So I resolved to email her the "Ninny on yer tintype!" thing.

Then I decided that maybe I could tell them why I did what I did--a half-hour summary of my life.  That might make them think I was peculiar, but they woudn't have any particular method or practice to pick on.  It might work--and in any case, it was a real challenge.

By two AM I had figured out which experiences were most important to me and jotted them down on a few 3x5 note cards. Then it occurred to me that there should be a handout to remind them of what I had said.  By three it was done.

I managed to pack it all into two columns on one side of a single sheet of paper (because only the top side of the first sheet of anything is visible).  Here's a single column version (easier to read on a computer).  I've added a few remarks in square brackets, but haven't tried to make any major changes. 

Don Maxwell: Hasty Miscellany On Teaching Writing

4 November 1992

The question I have been trying to answer for many years is, Why don’t they learn what we teach them? The answer I have come to boils down
to this:
Because we teach them--that is, try to control the contents of their minds.
--John Holt, How Children Fail, revised edition, 1982, 231


Assume only that we share no assumptions.

If a student has been placed in the correct course and is trying and feels a failure, then almost certainly the teacher is doing something wrong.

In American schools, 92.5% of all students are expected not to master a subject.

Collaborative learning INCLUDES THE TEACHER There is no alternative that is collaborative learning.

Some people ought not to teach writing (though they might be good as editors or proofreaders). They don't know that.


inductive v. deductive

discovery v. didactic

active v. passive

education v. Certification

PROCESS--the whole course

--no single piece of writing is the end for the course

--no grades on individual writings or portfolios


Be honest. Don't say something is good unless it really is. Instead, say what I like best in a piece, and why. If I don't know the answer, say so-and then try to find out what it is.

Offer a whole course, one that is an integral part of the students' whole lives. Not "units" or other separate, discrete segments or elements. I must find my own true course.

Forget linearity. Students don't just learn something and then go on to the next thing. It's all happening at once, all the time. I try to create a spiral, recursive curriculum.

Generally, ignore errors, especially small errors. If I have trouble with typos, for example, how can I condemn others for making them. Most errors are auto-correcting. They die from neglect. Make assignments DEEP, so that everyone can succeed withthem [and so no one hits bottom in them]

Try to ask only questions that I don't know the answers to.

Write assignments down and give everyone a copy. Nothing oral. Always provide an escape route for those to whom the assignment is meaningless (such as ". . .or write why you can't do this assignment").

Let the students' writings be the course. Get myself out of the way. Keep everything else out of the way, too.

What do writing students need? To write. So I try to can my blabber and not keep them from writing.


1. Based on "tradition" and "common sense."

Negative; works from small to large; serial; didactic,

models, fragmented; product-oriented; teacher-centered;

competitive, judgmental, grades. Stomach aches.

2 Based on observation and logic, supported by research .

Affirmative; whole; recursive, inductive, discovery;

process- oriented; student-subject-oriented; mastery;

supportive, cooperative-collaborative; no grades.

"Tradition" and "common sense" (in "educated" teachers) are trained responses, not instincts--and therefore obscure what ought to be plain.

We know now that few students learn sequentially.

And we know that working from small (grammar, spelling, sentence) to larger (paragraph) to large (essay) is exactly wrong for most students.

We know that competition and grading do more harm than good, just as we know that spanking and castigating children do more harm than good. The research has made all this clear.

But few English teachers are ready to believe the research.

Many now know some vocabulary--"process," "affective domain," "collaborative learning," etc. Danger!

The goal of the course is that everyone gets to write well--mastery! Everything derives from that goal.

I hope you'll respond to this--surely it must have provoked you in some way.  Here's a forum where you can vent your spleen:  Hasty Miscellany and Talking At Teachers.

--Don Maxwell