Essay: Separatists in America

My American History textbook asks a question rather along these lines:

Explain why the Separatists and Puritans chose to leave England and settle in North America.

I assigned this over the next three days as a short, 3-5 paragraph writing exercise.  I required that they had to squeeze at least five dates into their writing sample from a list of fifteen that I provided, and that they had to use a specific list of words from the textbook. There was the usual moaning and groaning.  Later in the day, a student in study hall agonized about how that was a lot of sentences, and couldn’t I just make it 3-5 sentences instead of paragraphs?

In response, I hooked my laptop up to the projector, and called up a fresh new sheet of word processor.  Then I wrote the minimum-length assignment, three paragraphs — in 10 minutes flat, in front of the whole study hall. Without looking at the notes on the board or the textbook.

OK, so it’s a parlor trick. I’ve been a professional writer. I’m supposed to be able to bang out a few paragraphs in ten minutes. It will take them a half hour to process the information from the textbook and then try to express it in words. But I wonder, still, if this is one of the basic challenges in American education — that we do not model either the skills of writing or how to draw on our powers of memory to achieve good results rapidly; and we do not expect students to deliver product based on that capability.

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  1. Ever since I attended a conference hosted by Nancie Atwell last spring, I’ve been all about modeling “good” and “bad” examples of writing in each genre we’re studying. By doing so, we have been able to come up with lists of qualities of “good” and “bad” writing as well as pieces to be emulated…and pieces from which to run away screaming.

    I’m happy to send some of this stuff to you. It’s changed the way I teach writing.

    • I’d be delighted to see it, but I’m trying to do the same thing by finding samples of good and bad historical writing — essayists and historians writing about prior events and explaining them in both abstract detail as well as historic but histrionic detail.

  2. It’s not a parlor trick. It’s practiced skill and discipline.

    Whether it’s sports or academics, the discipline of repetition for improvement and measuring that improvement, that’s growth.

    The challenge is to help students to understand that discipline and patience will get them to the level to produce three paragraphs in 10 minutes.

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