The other day I was in a conversation with two writing teachers. Those of you who know me know that a) I love to talk about teaching writing b) I use to be a five-paragraph essay fascist and c) in recent years I have become an advocate for many different methods of writing instruction.
So this conversation-one that I thoroughly enjoyed- was accentuated by the high level of respect I hold for the others in the conversation. We were talking about teaching organization through highly structured formulaic strategies. One colleague enjoys the structured formula of the 5 paragraph essay for nearly all formal academic writing, while the other teacher prefers to afford students more freedom in applying the concept of organization how they seem fit, feeling that the practice and process will ultimately lead every writer to have a sense of his or her own organizational style.
I was asked what I thought, and I used the metaphor of younger kids learning how to color within the lines of a coloring book before they can create the outlines and thus, produce original art. I believe in the value of providing young artists with opportunities to color within the lines in order for them to see models of well-structured forms incorporated with their own interpretation of what colors go inside. There is still tremendous skill and creativity involved in coloring within the lines. Further, the experience will help the young creator have a better understanding of what the outline form should look like, and as mastery and creative verve develop, the artist can start to branch out on his/her own to create without the outlines.
Writers need to learn how to organize their thoughts by “coloring within the lines” until they have that sense of how to create their own structural form. So teaching formulaic structured writing strategies is integral to helping young writers develop methods of organization. Once they have shown creativity and adherence to the form within the parameters that teachers provide, they have proven themselves ready to not only fill in the form with their individual “colors”, but to also be masterful creators of the forms themselves.