Checklist-Schmecklist: Why IEW Is Not the Perfect Curriculum for Teaching Composition
Most of the time I write just to express a thought or communicate with others. Sometimes, however, I write because I have a dire need to process, to have a cathartic experience. That is what this blog is for me today. I hope you will indulge this cranky English teacher.
I am seeing far too much group think in online forums regarding curricula. Group think occurs “when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation. It causes individual members of the group to unquestioningly follow the word of the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus.”1 Homeschoolers are no exception to this experience, especially when it comes to curriculum choices.
Today, I’m going to be brave and write something that others will not agree with nor accept, but it needs to be said. Writing curriculum that relies on a checklist is not a comprehensive choice, and does not make your child into a writer, and may possibly do more harm than good. There. I’ve said it.
The point of writing is communication. That is its heart. A writer uses his or her God-given writing voice to say something unique, informative, or compelling that is interesting, mechanically sound, and stylistically pleasing. Let’s explore the perils of such checklist curricula and why I assert that this approach compromises student success for the long-term.
Issue #1: Lack of Grammar Basics in Early Years
A checklist curriculum usually has one block for a trait of writing such as mechanics, but if the curriculum or if the homeschool mom (or writing instructor[s]) is not stressing grammar and its building blocks from an early age, then at some point the educational process for teaching writing breaks down. Most young writers must learn what a complete sentence is and how to manage the complete sentence. This is no easy feat. There are high school students who do not know or cannot discern what a complete sentence is. I speak the truth. Without the tools to discuss sentences, to discuss subordination, punctuation, and clauses, etc., the editing and feedback steps of writing become nonsensical.
It is true that at some point in the educational training grammar takes a backseat to composition. This is a good thing IF the student has mastered the basics of grammar and mechanics. If the student has not mastered it, then grammar and mechanics become the ghosts that haunt composition outcomes. If a student has not mastered it by high school, the work submitted is usually riddled by punctuation errors, run-ons, fragments, comma splices, and other basics which make the reading experience of said composition weary and draining. All the little blocks in the checklist might be there, but who cares if the reader HATES what has been written or if the writing is so turgid that the reader can’t wade through it? This doesn’t meet the criteria of writing in that it is unreadable and does not communicate.
Issue #2: Creating a Propensity for Plagiarism
Another issue that I saw teaching writing to those students who had used a checklist curriculum was a predilection for plagiarism and a lack of regard for the intellectual property of others. I know readers will think, “Whoa! That’s a heavy charge.” I know. It is.
Many writing curricula, especially those geared towards late elementary and middle school grades, ask students to read some passage and then write it again in their own words. While this might seem innocuous, this as a practice is plagiarism. It is taking someone else’s ideas and co-opting them as one’s own. Unless a student provides references or acknowledges source material, the work is plagiarized.
I know many will say, “But hold on there! Isn’t this a common practice known as paraphrasing?” Yes, yes it is, but it is only paraphrasing IF the source is acknowledged and provided with credit for the ideas presented.
In recent weeks I have had two experiences with this type of plagiarism. In both instances, students had consulted sources and then attempted to paraphrase. The students did not completely copy and paste material, but key words were present that made it obvious that this was a hatchet job on someone else’s prose. The students were clueless that they had committed such an egregious mistake. This is an error, people, with serious academic consequences. Please view my colleague Marilyn Whitlock’s wonderful video on plagiarism for more information.
Many students have been taught that a key word outline and rephrasing in one’s own words was fine with no problem. It isn’t. It isn’t fine at all. Getting into the habit of “say it in your own words” and it’s all wonderful is not a good practice.
Nick Ducote has a great blog about his own experience in this area.
Issue #3: Losing Creativity
I have probably had my fair share of students who come to me as downtrodden writers who absolutely hate to write. Many, many of them have been checklist casualties. What do I mean? I believe that a checklist approach stifles creativity.
Some students just don’t do well with a checklist. They need more freedom to express their ideas. I remember one mom in particular who used the words “scarred” when relating her daughter’s previous writing experience with such a curriculum and hoping I could get her daughter to re-engage. Her daughter was unable to get into flow. Noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “[a] state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”2 This is the goal of the creative process: to be in the zone.
A checklist approach to writing circumvents the creative process. It places a “to do list” before one is necessary. Students (and some teachers) assign an unwarranted premium on those checklist tasks making them the final result instead of written communication that is rhetorically sound and stylistically pleasing.
My high school students who have used a checklist curriculum in the past usually ask, “Where is the checklist?” when given a writing assignment. They typically want to satisfy the six traits per paragraph. How ludicrous! That is NOT writing. It is not composition. It is playing the game to get a score, much like a video game or a standardized test. When given a question upon which to expound such as, “Explore the theme of death in this short story” or “Discuss the causes of the American Civil War,” the first tactic should not be to ask for the checklist. Using creative thinking tools such as freewriting and mind-mapping to get the internal conversation going produces non-linear interactions and usually results in better outcomes. Save a checklist for editing. (More on that soon!)
Issue #4: Stifling Voice
Another problem with the checklist curriculum is that it inhibits voice, a critical component of writing.
The glorious thing about writing is that each of us has a God-given writing voice that is distinct and unique. It’s the elusive je ne sais quoi of writing instruction. Almost any writing teacher will admit that voice is something that is difficult to teach. It’s what makes a writer THAT writer. After having graded two sets of papers for a class, I can from that point on discern which student has written which paper without seeing a student name. It’s what makes the student’s work the student’s own work.
This is the magnificence of writing. It’s a wonderful thing to behold a student grow and begin to gain confidence in written expression, to see them create something that was not there before.
So how do checklists stifle voice? In much the same way such a list inhibits creativity, it also chokes out the student’s natural rhythm, word choice, and sentence structure or flow. A checklist gives the impression that those six or seven elements create a grand composition, but they do not. Allow the student to write as he or she sees fit without the burden of ensuring there is an -ly clause, no use of passive verbs, etc. Save such things as an editing tool at MOST.
A Word on Editing
I do think that checklists add value in some instances. They can be used as guides for editing in the editing process. They are valuable for reviewing mechanics and variation of sentence structure. I also believe that asking students to outline a well-written essay helps pupils to identify sound rhetorical presentation. Checklists have their place in the editing process.
What Does One Do?
It may seem a strange irony, but stellar writing does not happen in isolation. Professional writers work with editors, with peers, and with close confidants sharing their work to refine it. I feel that writing is one of the best courses to outsource from your homeschool. Why? Because having another individual to review your student’s work and to propel forward is essential in that growth process. Having someone who is not tied to the opinions expressed or who quite simply is not “mom” is helpful to you and your student. It provides a degree of separation in which mom can be the coach rather than the enforcer. It allows the teacher to recognize the really good things going on in the writing and to hold the student accountable for what to improve and how to improve it.
I have taught English for years…for YEARS! I know what to do, and I know how to do it. My own child would not accept my feedback. He just wouldn’t. In desperation I put him in an outside class and did NOT review his work before submitting it. That was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. Ridiculous, I know, but true! I so wanted to review it and correct it. Well, I didn’t. You know what? The teacher told my son the same things I would have said. The only difference was she said them, and I didn’t. What happened next was transformational: he did what she said. [Insert picture of beating head on the desk.] Rather than say, “I told you so,” I bit my tongue and was overjoyed that he was willing to put the work in for someone else. Belonging to that class and to that particular teacher’s community was a huge boost for our homeschool. He grew, and I relaxed. It was wonderful.
Are you curious about that student who had been scarred, the one I mentioned previously? Let me tell you, she turned out to be one of the best writers I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I literally cried when I read her first essay. She had wanted a checklist, and I told her, “Just sit and write and let it come out, and then we’ll work on refining it.” That first essay was one that I’ll never forget because it was HER! She is now in college at MIT, and I’m distraught that she is not studying writing, but I think that someday she is going to come back to it because…that girl is a writer.
You might be surprised at the writers in your own home! Maybe put aside that checklist and just write.
About the Author
Jodi Guerra is an Instructor and Coordinator with Excelsior Classes, a consortium of online teachers dedicated to excellence in online instruction. She has been involved in the education of children and adults serving in public schools, private schools, and corporate America. For the last twenty years, Jodi has worked with homeschool students in private classes, tutoring situations, and in the virtual world of online education. She seeks to make every learning situation fun yet productive. Besides teaching, Jodi loves to read and finds both cooking and sewing to be creative expressions.