Expository writing

The subject of education reform brought me back to the single most useful class I took in high school (with the arguable exception of touch typing). Mr. Merkin’s expository writing class in the first semester of my senior year was quite unlike any other class I’ve ever attended.

The idea was simple. After a brief introductory lecture, we would be given a short story or essay to read, and each student would then write a one page essay, in pen, about what we had just read. Mr. Merkin would gather up our papers at the end of the class.

The next time we met he would hand back our papers, all marked up with red ink. Of course he would make grammatical corrections, but the more interesting corrections were structural — showing where our argument was veering off-target, where we had used a misleading metaphor, or pointing out an inadequate introduction or conclusion.

After we’d had time to absorb the returned paper, he would give us a lecture about some aspect of expository writing — the need to avoid overly lengthy descriptions, the structural trinity of introduction / exposition / conclusion, or the uses of a catchy lead-in.

Then we’d get another short story or essay to read, and we’d each write another one page expository essay. This would happen every class — three times a week. By the end of the semester, each of us had written dozens of short essays.

I distinctly recall that at the start of that semester I could not write worth a damn, and by the end of the semester I could. All I’d really needed was a set of short manageable goals, knowing that someone I respected was watching, and continual practice with good feedback at every step.

In my own teaching I have emulated Mr. Merkin’s methods. I never bother with exams — only homework. I give a homework assignment every week, always due before class the next week, and all of the assignments are learn-by-doing (mostly short programming assignments). I try to make each assignment self-contained, so that doing that assignment gives each student a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

I also try to make sure to structure the assignments so that every student is expected to add their own personal aesthetic spin to their work. Not only does this allow each student to express his or her individuality, but it also makes it essentially impossible to cheat.

It took me a while to realize that I was channeling my old high school teacher. Once I did, I felt an enormous sense of delight. My students tend to really enjoy these classes, and they seem to derive a great deal of pride and sense of ownership from their work. I learned from Mr. Merkin that a teacher’s job is to provide a properly structured ladder for each student to climb, step by step, by virtue of their own efforts.

When the ladder is designed properly, the student will generally succeed in climbing all the way to the top. The view they get, looking back over their own accomplishments at the end of the semester, is magnificent.

5 Responses to “Expository writing”

  1. Michael says:

    I suppose in this context you could call Mr. Merkin not only a gifted teacher, but a meta-teacher as well 😉
    Then again, maybe that’s what differentiates the outstanding teachers in the first place – you end up with a lot more than the required curriculum.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Thanks for the description of Mr. Merkin’s class. It reminds me of why Logo programming classes were so powerful.

  3. admin says:

    Michael’s comment makes me wonder whether my teacher learned this method from his teacher. Maybe the chain stretches backward and forward in time for as long as there are humans upon the earth.

  4. Dagmar says:

    This reminds me of the mystery of the Steck potatoes. Prof. Dr. Steck was teaching technical mechanics at my old university and when he was explaining stuff he was often drawing the outline of a potato, we called them “Steck – potatoes” . Later in life I had a class where a manager was explaining the functionality of his new software drawing the same potatoes. Since he was roughly twenty years older than me it was clear to me that he couldn’t have had Prof Dr. Steck as a teacher at the university. Anyway, I asked the manager about this and he told me he was working with Steck as Steck did his phd.
    Yes, I draw “Steck – potatoes” too. Like most of my fellow students I guess.
    Now I need to find a way to get George Gershwin out of my head again.
    Let’s call the whole thing off. :-)

  5. Michael says:

    It’d be a nice base for a conspiration theory.
    Add a secret handshake to the mix and voilá, SIT, the Society of Inspiring Teachers emerges from the mists of time…


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