Tools Over Rules (2018)

What is teaching? Is it getting students follow instructions so they can solve a particular kind of math problem or write a particular kind of formulaic essay so that they can pass a test?

I suspect you know my answer to the second question: No.

Last school year (2016 – 2017), when I switched back to teaching high school after a 21 year stint teaching middle school, I landed a gig teaching ninth graders. Early on, I saw some trends in their thinking about school that disturbed me…

Many students have developed a very shallow view of the purpose of education, even as they find that in practice, it isn’t enough to motivate them. And so I decided that the focus of our year-long inquiry would be a lengthy and multifaceted exploration of the purposes of education.  As I justified it to the students, “If you are going to spend the next four years of your life in high school, and possibly even more time after high school, getting educated, it might be a good idea to have a good idea of why you’re here.” Quite frankly, I think a lot of students under-perform, or don’t perform at all, because they simply don’t see the point of school.

To get this inquiry into education’s purposes started, I wanted them to reflect on their own education journeys. This took the form of an essay assignment I titled “My Education So Far.”

My refusal to tell my students how to write kind of frustrated them – but it was what I call “meta-teaching” at its best. Because their frustration was purposeful on my part: I was laying the ground work for the discussion that would follow. Much of their writing instruction in the past had been about following their teacher’s rules to get a grade – which isn’t really writing instruction at all.

Despite their frustration, they completed their drafts. Many wrote in a five paragraph format. Several wrote using a set of transitional devices they had been told by a previous teacher to use on EVERY essay. Some tried to cite text-evidence in what was, by its very nature, a personal essay. But once they were done drafting the real fun began. I asked them to write a journal starting with the words “To be a good writer you need to…”. They wrote. After a small group discussion of these journals, we engaged in a full class discussion.

This has become one of my teaching mantras: Tools Over Rules. I have a poster of it in my room, and we talk about every writing assignment in terms of tools, options, and flexibility instead of following my (or anyone else’s) rules.  The only rule is to have a big idea of some sort and express it using details. As far as their “My Education” essays was concerned, they had a little more work to do. I asked them to annotate their own writer’s choices to think about writing as a series of choices rather than a series of steps the teacher gives you.

Once they’d thought about their choices, we read a variety of essays in which different authors wrote about their educations. Some covered the entire span of K through 12. Some wrote about one or two incidents. Some wrote about a single event. Some wrote about a series of events that led all the way into their adult-hoods. No two writers wrote about their educations the same exact way. Tools over rules. After making a list of the different writer’s tools they saw published authors using in their essays, they went back and revised and rewrote their essays.

In the end, the “my education so far” essay was the perfect start to a school year of inquiry. Too many students have been trained to think that education is about nothing but compliance. Getting students to actually think rather than merely obey can sometimes feel like deprogramming them. The saddest thing is how many adults in the system obey rather than think, and thus cannot guide their students to real thinking (the Mrs. Merritts of the world). You can’t give away what you don’t have.

If we want our students to be prepared for any writing situation, we need to stop teaching one monolithic, rule based form or writing designed make them pass a test that won’t matter in a few short years. We need to teach them to be flexible writers with an array of tools at their command, ready to use in any writing situation.

Tools over rules! Let’s start a movement!