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Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

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There seems to be widespread agreement that--when it comes to the writing skills of college students--we are in the midst of a crisis. In Why They Can't Write, John Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, argues that the problem isn't caused by a lack of rigor, or smartphones, or some generational character defect. Instead, he asserts, we're teachi There seems to be widespread agreement that--when it comes to the writing skills of college students--we are in the midst of a crisis. In Why They Can't Write, John Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, argues that the problem isn't caused by a lack of rigor, or smartphones, or some generational character defect. Instead, he asserts, we're teaching writing wrong. Warner blames this on decades of educational reform rooted in standardization, assessments, and accountability. We have done no more, Warner argues, than conditioned students to perform "writing-related simulations," which pass temporary muster but do little to help students develop their writing abilities. This style of teaching has made students passive and disengaged. Worse yet, it hasn't prepared them for writing in the college classroom. Rather than making choices and thinking critically, as writers must, undergraduates simply follow the rules--such as the five-paragraph essay--designed to help them pass these high-stakes assessments. In Why They Can't Write, Warner has crafted both a diagnosis for what ails us and a blueprint for fixing a broken system. Combining current knowledge of what works in teaching and learning with the most enduring philosophies of classical education, this book challenges readers to develop the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind of strong writers.


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There seems to be widespread agreement that--when it comes to the writing skills of college students--we are in the midst of a crisis. In Why They Can't Write, John Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, argues that the problem isn't caused by a lack of rigor, or smartphones, or some generational character defect. Instead, he asserts, we're teachi There seems to be widespread agreement that--when it comes to the writing skills of college students--we are in the midst of a crisis. In Why They Can't Write, John Warner, who taught writing at the college level for two decades, argues that the problem isn't caused by a lack of rigor, or smartphones, or some generational character defect. Instead, he asserts, we're teaching writing wrong. Warner blames this on decades of educational reform rooted in standardization, assessments, and accountability. We have done no more, Warner argues, than conditioned students to perform "writing-related simulations," which pass temporary muster but do little to help students develop their writing abilities. This style of teaching has made students passive and disengaged. Worse yet, it hasn't prepared them for writing in the college classroom. Rather than making choices and thinking critically, as writers must, undergraduates simply follow the rules--such as the five-paragraph essay--designed to help them pass these high-stakes assessments. In Why They Can't Write, Warner has crafted both a diagnosis for what ails us and a blueprint for fixing a broken system. Combining current knowledge of what works in teaching and learning with the most enduring philosophies of classical education, this book challenges readers to develop the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind of strong writers.

30 review for Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jean-Marie

    Yep. I was nodding in agreement with each turn of the page. I think Warner and I only deviate in opinion in one area: school. 8 years ago when my daughter's kindergarten principal said to me, "If you think you can do better," I decided I could and have been homeschooling ever since. Warner's philosophy on school is more of a Sheryl Sandberg "Lean In" approach. I get it. Many of us must lean into this broken system, so this is the best we can do. However, one bad teacher or one bad year, especial Yep. I was nodding in agreement with each turn of the page. I think Warner and I only deviate in opinion in one area: school. 8 years ago when my daughter's kindergarten principal said to me, "If you think you can do better," I decided I could and have been homeschooling ever since. Warner's philosophy on school is more of a Sheryl Sandberg "Lean In" approach. I get it. Many of us must lean into this broken system, so this is the best we can do. However, one bad teacher or one bad year, especially in K-12, can do so much damage to the confidence and competence of a student. I'd like someone with Warner's passion and expertise to offer advice to parents on how to navigate the broken system. That aside, there are some great writing exercises and reflections in the book that can be used for all ages. I see myself trying them with both my 6th and 9th grader. I would definitely recommend "Why They Can't Write" to my homeschooling community, which often falls prey to the ease and promise of ineffective cookie cutter curriculum. When given the freedom to educate children, too many parents and teachers alike fall back on what they know rather than what's proven to be effective, or "folklore" as Warner puts it. I always felt that if teachers were given the mission to teach only one or two kids with their current class plans and curriculum, everything they do would change. They would realize how much time is wasted on nonsense and busywork instead of core reading and writing. More than anything else, students need the freedom and opportunity to read and write as much as possible with mentors to guide them.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    As an avid reader of Warner's Inside Higher Ed column and as a writing instructor interested in critical pedagogy, I was not at all surprised to find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the problems with writing pedagogy and practice that Warner details (from the actual assignments common in classrooms to far broader issues pertaining to the livelihoods of students and teachers). However, I was pleasantly surprised by the detailed solutions Warner provides -- particularly those that he's As an avid reader of Warner's Inside Higher Ed column and as a writing instructor interested in critical pedagogy, I was not at all surprised to find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the problems with writing pedagogy and practice that Warner details (from the actual assignments common in classrooms to far broader issues pertaining to the livelihoods of students and teachers). However, I was pleasantly surprised by the detailed solutions Warner provides -- particularly those that he's implemented in the classroom. The sample assignments and the broader impetus behind them are what distinguishes this book from other (accurate) screeds about the "trouble with writing/the academy today". They make me excited for Warner's forthcoming book about nonfiction practice and equally enthusiastic to recommend this book to colleagues.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Towner

    I think I would have appreciated this before I went back to grad school. Having read all sorts of writing research, there's not much new here for me. But that also means that I'm not really the audience for this book. There is a huge disconnect between the research world of academia and the pedagogical reality of K-12 education. For a reader who's unfamiliar with writing research or the policy statements of NCTE, CCCC of the WPA council, this book could be eye-opening. I think it would make a gr I think I would have appreciated this before I went back to grad school. Having read all sorts of writing research, there's not much new here for me. But that also means that I'm not really the audience for this book. There is a huge disconnect between the research world of academia and the pedagogical reality of K-12 education. For a reader who's unfamiliar with writing research or the policy statements of NCTE, CCCC of the WPA council, this book could be eye-opening. I think it would make a great professional book club selection for teachers and administrators, as a lot of the book deals with education and schooling in general, with writing and the five-paragraph essay serving as examples of the counterproductive norms of standardized education.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ietrio

    Another small intellect finding the universal solution. The observations are quire right. And they are common on all media. No contribution here. The solutions are in the range of older conservative gentleman who believes that his mediocre life is somehow a virtue. The system will be the same. The guardians of the system will be the same. Yet sprinkling some pixie dust here and there will dramatically change everything.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Heather S

    Absolute Truth I have read many books on writing, but I have rarely agreed more with what an author was telling me. This book makes it clear why students are struggling with writing and what can be done about it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    J. Bradley

    This book is dead on about how we can teach writing better. If you teach writing, this is a must read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Susan Blum

    The ways we teach writing are ineffective and, worse, produce phobias and truly terrible writing. Warner shows how to do it instead!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    This is one of those books where I just nod along as I agree with most everything. The bulk of the book is a wide-reaching screed about the state of education, though, and less a specific guide for more innovative methods for teaching writing. I would have liked a bit more practical advice and examples of the kinds of assignments Warner uses, but these are limited to about a quarter of the book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Terry

    I digested most of this book on a cross-country flight, moving from chapter to chapter nodding my head in agreement. John Warner has written a book that will resonate with many veteran teachers, weather of college or secondary composition, especially those of National Writing Project experience. There isn't much that is revolutionary here; most of his thinking has been arrived at by other thinkers. But that is also part of his argument: we already know how to teach writing, but educational insti I digested most of this book on a cross-country flight, moving from chapter to chapter nodding my head in agreement. John Warner has written a book that will resonate with many veteran teachers, weather of college or secondary composition, especially those of National Writing Project experience. There isn't much that is revolutionary here; most of his thinking has been arrived at by other thinkers. But that is also part of his argument: we already know how to teach writing, but educational institutions insist on pursuing shortcuts that serve efficiency, not students (or teachers). Part of his diagnosis that I found helpful is entitled "The Problem of Precarity." Teaching writing is a time-intensive, labor-intensive apprenticeship. As I look around at colleagues who are divorcing, in treatment for mental health issues, and struggling with second jobs, I appreciated Warner's framing of Susan Schorn's ideas around "Teaching in Thin Air." Professionals throw ourselves onto the Sisyphean challenges of our work, often at great psychic and personal cost, without the power to change the circumstances under which this labor takes place. We can not do our best work while so obviously over-burdened and under-compensated. For a general audience, or for teachers new to the profession, this is a single volume that is reasonably well sourced and eminently quotable. Use this to build or shore-up your writing-instruction philosophy. For practical "how-to-do" ideas, there are many other sources (see Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing and 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents to start with).

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sean Blevins

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Park

  12. 5 out of 5

    Catelyn Cantrell

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay Schneider

  14. 4 out of 5

    Fiona

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rose

  16. 5 out of 5

    Justin Li

  17. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Moore

  18. 4 out of 5

    Michele Caracappa

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

  20. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    Focuses more on the other necessities that plague education. While I agree with many of the issues, I wanted more focus on writing.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Macartney

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lizabeth

  23. 5 out of 5

    Veery Huleatt

  24. 4 out of 5

    Andrea Avery

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rebekah O'Dell

  26. 5 out of 5

    Niki

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bridgetkriner

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mrs. Ebarvia

  29. 4 out of 5

    Keith Carlson

  30. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

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