Education Letter to the Editor


August 01, 1995 12 min read

Ruenzel uses anecdotes about the “funnel’’ and the need for a thesis statement. Yet I strained to find his; perhaps because real writers don’t write that way. Funnels are formula. Formula doesn’t produce art; it produces perfectly bland papers. Writing, for teachers like Ruenzel, is not a matter of making meaning, of assimilating thinking--it is giving back to teacher what teacher wants.

Ruenzel furthers his illogical premise about having students write using the funnel with the corker of a sentence, “You probably didn’t like any of this very much, but you accepted it nevertheless; after all, the funnel was just part of the status quo.’' It’s probably the most accurate statement of the entire piece. However, good writing teachers should never be satisfied with the status quo, with doing things the way they’ve always been done. I’m surprised Ruenzel doesn’t understand this.

Maybe Ruenzel’s essay is about control. He doesn’t like it when students question him or when his headmaster asks him to consider ownership. He wants his domain. And stricture in writing can be his domain. It is a place where he can be master of the universe.

But Ruenzel won’t care that I find his editorializing sloppy because he claims no ownership. If Ruenzel does not accurately portray theoretical works by Emig, Murray, Elbow, and Berthoff, it isn’t his fault. It’s the reader’s. How irresponsible can a writer be? No, Ruenzel is wrong. His essay sticks on him like mud--the mud of muddy thinking.

Ruenzel writes, " . . . in the new educational climate, it seemed that every platitude and pomposity was worth owning as long as it came from the heart.’' Where does he get this stuff? Having students express themselves doesn’t mean everything they write is acceptable. Responsible teachers show students how to take what is in the heart, mesh it with the mind, test it with knowledge, and produce good writing--sometimes great writing. Perhaps Ruenzel is the one Faulkner characterized in his address after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature: “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.’'

Ruenzel also seems to have missed Elbow’s meaning in Writing Without Teachers, a book about free writing, growing as a writer, learning how to write and edit. Ruenzel’s synopsis of Elbow’s work is cursory, flippant, and unworthy of scholarship. And he takes theory out of context. At best, he misrepresents. At worst, he brutalizes concepts and reduces wonders to warped interpretations. Nowhere in the writings of Emig, Murray, Elbow, or Berthoff can Ruenzel find them advising writers to have “little thought of looking back’’ at what they write. In fact, these scholars say just the opposite. If he read Emig carefully, he would know she never says writing should only “signal the self.’' But Ruenzel is so set against a theory that is incompatible with his slash-and-kill, bloody-up-the-paper philosophy that he misreads. He claims Emig doesn’t care about clarity. Hogwash. He should read her.

Why would the American Educational Research Association invite Janet Emig to write “Writing, Composition, Rhetoric’’ for the Encyclopedia of Educational Research if her research and insights were as quasi as Ruenzel purports? I ask: How can the AERA be wrong and Ruenzel right?

He asks us to ignore research of such thinkers as Britton, Bruner, Burke, Clay, Corbet, Gardner, Graves, Macrorie, Moffet, Murray, Vygotsky, and the Goodmans. These scholars have shaped our thinking, our knowing. The body of their scholarship, credentials, and contributions are at the apex of our profession. Just because an article by someone who doesn’t have comparable scholarship, credentials, or contributions appears in Teacher Magazine, we can’t be suckered into swallowing it.

Ruenzel commits what is perhaps the best example of a false analogy I’ve seen in a long time. Constructing a “follow this, therefore on account of this’’ syllogism, he wants us to believe that writing as a process is bunk because of Ladue High School teacher Marjorie Stelmach. He begs the hasty generalization: because Stelmach is a 25-year veteran, because she received a poetry prize, and because she teaches the five-paragraph theme ergo we should accept it. Please! Then, apparently confused, he holds up Stelmach’s use of the student conference--a substantial strategy in writing as a process! It wasn’t used in the five-paragraph model of teaching.

Let’s call “Write to the Point’’ exactly what it is--a whining, maledict justification for not changing the way some teachers teach writing. It is a paragon for those who refuse to admit that the teaching-writing paradigm has changed. It is a last-stick attempt to hold on to ideas that are suspect and outdated. Wake up. Things have changed. Writing has changed. Teaching has changed. I see it as criminal that this article appeared in Teacher Magazine. It presents editorializing based on bias, not research.

Instead of playing Ruenzel’s doubting game, I’ll play the believing game of real research. I’ll continue to study. I’ll continue to reflect on my pedagogy and hone my practice. I’ll adhere to credo ut intelligam--I believe in order to understand.

Edward Wilson
New Jersey Writing Project in Texas Spring, Texas

Whoever said process writing is the antithesis of the five-paragraph essay? David Ruenzel’s description of teachers and students conferencing and writing at Missouri’s Ladue Horton Watkins High School sounds like process writing to me.

Alison DeCamp
Harbor Springs, Mich.

We thank David Ruenzel for the time and effort he put into listening to us and understanding our approach. Apparently his article struck a chord across the country. We at Ladue Horton Watkins High School have received numerous letters from schools literally from New York to California asking for material about our system and courses. Many English teachers would like to return to a more structured approach to teaching writing and are looking for some help in setting up a new program.

Pat Noland
English Department Chair
Ladue High School
St. Louis, Mo.

Finally! David Ruenzel has boldly declared that the emperor--a.k.a. process writing--has no clothes! Some of us have known this for years, as we struggled to do what the reigning gurus told us. We knew how vacuous their message was, but to speak it out loud was tantamount to treason in some circles.

In utter frustration, I wrote my own books for elementary teachers on how to teach writing. Like the high school students at Ladue, elementary students should learn organizational structures and techniques of style. Writing consists of identifiable processes, but those processes are like a house without furniture until you teach students the skills of writing. I find it interesting that bookstores are lined with books for adults on how to write, but classroom teachers have been admonished by the process-writing proponents to “stay out of the way.’'

It is a tragedy to ask children to write unless you have first taught them to write. Why have so many educators backed away from the very job they were hired to do? Perhaps a new wave of reason is beginning to develop about writing instruction. After we finish our writing lesson plans, perhaps we should buy some clothes for that process-writing emperor. He’s getting mighty cold--and embarrassed.

Charlotte Slack
Rock Prairie Elementary
College Station, Texas

David Ruenzel just doesn’t get it. In his attempt to portray the “writing process’’ as a shapeless effort to put more emotion into student writing, he neglects its main goal--to empower, to explore, and to discover individuality. You will not find the process approach attacking clarity, structure, or thought anywhere. Rather, it is Ruenzel who attacks carelessly and needlessly, subordinating the value of imagination, self-worth, and personal achievement in writing to a practical and formulaic model--the five-paragraph essay. At the heart of the writing process, and in the hearts of its proponents, is the belief that any individual can become a great writer, that within each of us is imagination, spirit, and a voice that deserves to be heard. Through the freedom of revision, the goal is to unlock the door so hammered shut by convention.

Ruenzel would have his readers believe that process writing requires little effort, that we are all beatniks following Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought’’ theory, effusively writing away in the darkened corner of a coffeehouse with no regard for structure, clarity, or audience. Wrong. After words are on the page, the long arduous task of revision--the keystone of the process-writing approach--takes place, honing, sharpening, and clarifying ideas.

Ruenzel’s statement that “it’s also true that at least an equal number of ‘real’ writers approach writing as an artful expediency rather than as a soulful struggle’’ is unsupported and false. Unless, of course, he’s thinking of copywriters’, advertisers’, and attorneys’ writing as “meaningful.’' Who knows? He doesn’t say. Every writer I’ve met revises extensively.

Ruenzel’s article is suspicious of creativity, choosing instead the idea that students need only develop rudimentary communicative skills to get along in the world. “Many students won’t spend their lives writing, but they will spend their lives presenting,’' teacher Marjorie Stelmach tells Ruenzel. This seems merely a restatement of the old argument that a student need only be prepared for a career in corporate America, where emotion, feeling, and, most of all, compassion are disdained with a sneer.

One would also think that an objective piece of journalism wouldn’t edit out all genuine points of both sides. Ruenzel edits out all arguments contrary to his opinions. For instance, in his book Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, arguably the greatest poet in the Romantic tradition, offers the advice to “go into yourself.’' He is saying that within the deepest parts of oneself, one finds everyone, the universal, the common soul.

I find it ironic that Ruenzel quotes Virginia Woolf to make his point. I wonder what she would think of his statement, " . . . I once tossed off an essay that I knew was as vacuous as it was pretentious. I had expected that the instructor, a petite woman with a tiny voice, would be intimidated by my shameless presumption.’' Perhaps if Ruenzel had been taught with the process approach, he’d know better.

William Vamer
Portsmouth, N.H.

Thanks to David Ruenzel for what I consider to be an exposé of some teaching techniques that really amount to empty learning. The article compared two schools of thought about teaching writing. One was highly structured, and the other I would liken to trying to draw air out of a vacuum. There may be a few molecules in there somewhere, but not many.

Even in kindergarten, we educate kids about the conventions of communication. We teach them which letters make which sounds, that letters go together to make words, that words go together to make sentences. A few years later, we show them that there are certain pieces that must be part of each sentence in order to make sense. We give them structures to work within that are conventional, from birthday cards to letters to ways of reporting what we know or have learned.

Why should that stop in high school? The purpose of teaching writing skills to students is so they can communicate effectively. Even if they choose not to think deeply or comment on the purpose of human existence, they will have to communicate effectively when they want to get a job, talk to their spouse about the house or kids, talk with their kids’ teachers about how they’re doing, talk with the county or city planners about the business they want to open. People don’t know how to effectively express what is inside them until they have learned which words or phrases do that.

Molly Crocker
Zaccheus Learning Opportunities
Ferndale, Wash.

Recovery High

I’ve just read David Hill’s article “Clean & Sober’’ in the May/June issue. It left me with a feeling of hope for these kids and a deep sadness that Recovery High School will most likely have to close due to a lack of funds.

I can’t believe there are school board members who don’t feel that these “bad’’ kids should be their responsibility. If we can’t provide students with a drug-free, alcohol-free, and weapons-free environment to learn in, then whose responsibility is it? These kids want to take control of their lives but see no hope or future--no way out. When they do “get clean’’ and re-enter their old school with all of its demons, the alternative to not “using’’ again is often suicide.

I truly hope Recovery High can find the money to stay open. There should be a school like this in every city. I wish there had been one in Philadelphia a few years back. Maybe then my cousin, who struggled with depression and drug dependency from the age of 11, would not have died at the age of 22 from a drug overdose. He too had lost all hope of keeping the demons away.

S. Baston
Sanford, Maine

Skillful Teaching

It was very difficult to understand on which side of the fence the authors of “What Is Good Teaching?’' [“Comment,’' May/June] are sitting. Do they agree with the notion they quoted, that “teacher competence does not consist of some systematic set of teaching skills . . .’'? Or do they support what the research from the last two decades has told us?

Arguing that there is “no systematic set of teaching skills’’ is like arguing that there is no systematic set of tennis skills, reading skills, or communication skills. Research argues against that. Observation of effective teachers argues against that. And common sense argues against that.

Obvious to those who work in real classrooms is the notion that just hearing a university lecture about “effective teaching skills’’ or reading from books about “what the research says’’ does little to improve how well anyone teaches. On the other hand, having rich opportunities to develop appropriate uses of the most helpful and research-based skills for managing classrooms, asking questions, structuring collaboration, mediating thinking, designing lessons that challenge, assessing performances, and creating a rich context for learning does much to promote more skillful teaching and richer learning.

If we want the public to change its conception of what teachers need to know and do, we need first to acknowledge that there is a discrete set of research-based skills that produce better learning for all students. The more regularly a teacher has the instruction, the support, and the coaching to use these skills in the teaching day, the more the public will see clearly what good teaching is.

Jim Bellanca
SkyLight Educational Training and Publishing
Palatine, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Letters