What the Best Writing Teachers Know

A high school student explains how she discovered the "two dimensions" of writing.

Adapted from rvlsoft/shutterstock

As a high school student myself, I was intrigued by Peg Tyre's article about a Staten Island school's turnaround. Tyre shows the importance of writing skills to academic and professional success. She looks specifically at the new and improved curriculum at New Dorp High School, which emphasizes analysis over self-expression.

On a basic level, the idea works just fine. To perform well on tests and slap together personal statements, students need to be able to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. The grammar and paragraph structure learned in English class are also handy in most jobs when schooling ends and students are tossed headfirst into the "real world." An astrophysicist must be able to describe her data, and a business executive needs to be able to write clear memos. But should schools solely focus on the mechanical facets of writing?

I like to think about writing as a two-dimensional process. The first dimension, which Tyre hits upon, is the act of putting ideas onto paper. Mechanics are important in this regard: If a student grasps for a word and comes up empty-handed, it becomes impossible to move forward.

But, in my experience, the best teachers don't just show their kids how to use nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They make their students aware of writing's second dimension: the dialogue between author and reader. It is the unearthly chill of witnessing a character die, the cementing (or dissolving) of a set of beliefs, or the thoughtful pause before flipping the page of a magazine, that epitomize the type of connection writing can ignite.

One might criticize this concept by noting that even those of us who read ferociously are able to derive information from dry chemistry lab reports and nine-point-font engineering journals. But at its best, even technical writing launches a dialogue with the reader (as Bernard Meisler pointed out in his piece about the headaches caused by poorly written software). How can a text achieve a dialogue if nobody sticks around to listen? Scientific writing doesn't need to be dry: While jargon and terminology have their place, topics like new antibiotics and ailment options are very human. The researchers and engineers who wade through these publications deserve information that's presented in a clear, engaging way.

It's true that not all individuals write with the intention of sharing. A majority of Emily Dickinson's poems were published posthumously, and Franz Kafka gave instructions for his work to be burned upon his death (thankfully, this request was politely ignored). But whether a piece is intended for the masses or an audience of one, a writer can use writing to tackle important questions or record personal experiences. People who literally talk to themselves may be branded eccentric, but a well-reasoned written "conversation" with oneself can lead to logical enlightenment. As Kafka himself once said, "One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer."

I have been lucky enough to experience an awakening to the second dimension of writing firsthand. At my high school, a BASIS charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona, every student must take both honors language and honors literature as a freshman. In other words, we take two English classes a day, five days a week. As an incoming ninth grader, I was skeptical of this system. To me, English was English. Wouldn't doubling our intake just be redundant?

I couldn't have been more mistaken. In both language and literature, we read and learn to compose essays. However, the key difference is that literature calls for discussion where language calls for rhetorical analysis. After being encouraged to engage with (and not just pick apart) what I was reading, I learned to recognize writing's second dimension. Instead of churning out formulaic essays, I found myself formulating novel opinions and writing in my own voice (with the purpose of lucid communication always in mind). In this way, between the two classes, I picked up the nitty-gritty nuances of syntax and diction along with a more audience-conscious perspective.

At its best, writing fosters a give and take relationship between writers and their audiences. A student's writing education should not end after a teacher exhausts the ins and outs of mechanical techniques, but should extend into understanding, and wielding, the power of the written word. The simplest way to integrate this idea into programs like New Dorp's would be to expand the types of assignments given out by teachers.

For instance, a teacher could alternate the focus of papers and class conversations between writing's two dimensions. After finishing a novel, a teacher may devote time to helping students analyze rhetoric, leaving detailed discussions of overarching themes for the next text. While this would require teachers to pay even more attention to both close reading and discussion, test scores would receive a boost, too; as critical thinking improves, it will become easier for students to craft and innovate.