Struggling Writer Case Study

November 5, 2007

Teaching Writing                                                                                Struggling Writer Case Study

“I Hate Writing But I Will Do It Because I Have To And Because I Will Need To”

The quoted title for this study of a struggling writer was chosen because it is the best representation of the study subject’s outlook on his life and future. The quote does not directly come from the subject, who will be referred to as Foghorn, but is instead a combination of different responses given to survey questions.  Foghorn does not enjoy writing, nor is he very good at. He does, however, understand the importance of communication through writing and is willing to write, as he says, “because he needs to.” Though I was not able to collect many writing samples  from Foghorn or speak to his teachers and parents, I still hope that I can provide a rounded view of the problems he has with the writing process.

Foghorn is an eighteen-year-old senior at Upper St. Clair High School, which is located in Upper St. Clair township, an upper-class suburb located southwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The great majority of the families living within USC township fall into either the upper-middle class income bracket or the upper class income bracket. The township is not the wealthiest in and around Pittsburgh, but the commitment to education is high and the spending on education is high, which is reflected through the much higher than the area average for property taxes.

Foghorn was chosen to be my study subject for three reasons. One, he does not mind being referred to as a “struggling writer.” This is important because many of the high school students I approached did not like being characterized as struggling, perhaps their pride saw it as an insult, no matter how much trouble they encountered during writing assignments. The term “struggling” bothered them and prevented them participating. Foghorn, on the other hand, emphatically answered that yes, he is a struggling writer and no, he is not embarrassed to admit it. 

Two, Foghorn fits into my definition of what a struggling writer is: someone who hates writing and has no interest in doing any type of writing, and someone who has trouble with the process itself. Talking to Foghorn gives me the impression that he never had to write anything ever again he wouldn’t. Writing is like an unwanted chore given to him by his parents, he only does because he has to and even then he will wait until the last minute before starting and finishing his writing assignments. He gets no joy out of doing the assignment, nor any out of the completed product. He does not read what he has written nor does he look forward to the next assignment. Like Sisyphus is burdened with a rock to push up a hill for eternity, Foghorn is burdened by the prospect of endless writing assignments. Foghorn will most likely never write anything outside of school assignments. He admitted as much during our interviews. People who do not struggle with writing will eventually find some genre of writing that they can connect with and will pursue it further. Something else that makes Foghorn a struggling writer is that he needs constant help when he is writing an essay for school. He finds himself largely unable to do the work on his own and is helped step-by-step by teachers until the paper is finished. This sounds like a good description of someone who is struggling. People who do not struggle do not need the constant attention and assistance that Foghorn receives. 

The third reason I chose Foghorn is because he makes many writing errors. The two writing examples of his that I have examined contain many mistakes with punctuation, grammar, spelling and sentence construction. Structure and flow are also a problem among the other problems. I will describe these problems in more detail later when I examine the two essays I was provided. 

Foghorn’s only free-will writings are limited to text-messaging, making up lists and the occasional letter to his ex-girlfriend. He does not see any of these as writing though, they are more like ways to communicate with other people, and in the case of the lists, himself. And he does not do them completely under his own free will. He only writes letters to his ex-girlfriend in response to the letters she writes to him, to not respond would be rude he says. The lists are more like reminders to not forget something and when he does respond to a text message it is usually by calling the person who sent the original text.

I began my interview with Foghorn by asking him about his reading and writing habits. The thinking being that knowing what he read and wrote might give me a basic idea of what his problems might be. He answered that he does not like to read and only reads for school. His writing habits are the same, he only writes what he has to for school. I asked him if he thought that by reading more he might become a better writer. His response was that he hates to read and does not want to do it. He also says that reading makes him tired and that he does not like following the lines on the page. Many people don’t like to read. They either they find it boring and don’t like being still for long periods of time, or they think it just takes too long to get to the point.

Whatever their reasons may be, they usually don’t say that they dislike reading because it makes their head hurt and that they have trouble following the lines. This signaled me that maybe Foghorn has a medical condition that cause these problems so I asked him about it. He told me that he is dyslexic and has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The dyslexia could explain the headaches and the problems following lines. He sees letters backwards, has trouble spelling and must rearrange words mentally before he sees the word as it has actually been written. This extra work could lead to him tiring quicker while reading, and the extra strain on his eyes could be causing the headaches. Foghorn does however, envision reading having a place in his future. His family members are avid readers, and he feels that later in life he will develop the same love for reading that they possess. When it comes to developing a taste for writing, Ben will have to look for help somewhere besides from within his family: the only encouragement he receives from his parents are “threats” that if his work isn’t done bad things will be done to him.      

Both his dyslexia and his ADD were diagnosed early in Foghorn’s education and he has been receiving help dealing with them. In grade school he took extra classes with the other slow learners but otherwise had most of the same classes as the other students, missing only one regular class to meet with the slow learner’s class.

Starting in middle school, Foghorn began taking inclusion classes along with his regular classes. Inclusion classes mix special ed students with regular students and have two teachers in the room, the class’s regular instructor and a special ed instructor. The special ed instructor is responsible for only the special ed students. They do not take part in the lesson but instead are there to provide assistance with the special ed students should they need it. Foghorn did not have a normal homeroom in middle school.  He had what is called enrichment time. Enrichment time serves as an extra period for special ed students. They get one-half hour of time with a teacher before the school day starts. In middle school he began taking tests in the hallway and got extra time to take them.

Once reaching high school Foghorn received an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This IEP is a lesson plan developed solely for his benefit and no other student had the same lesson plan. With this IEP came Learning Support. LS is essentially the elective students with IEPs must take in place of having a choice of electives. Their learning disability prevents them from taking classes in foreign languages, shop, gym, music, etc. It also takes away free periods generally used for a study hall period. Surprisingly, Foghorn does not resent having his choice of electives taken away from him. The elective classes give students the options of taking classes that they have a personal interest in, or in areas that they might want to pursue either in college or as a career. Foghorn has an idea of what he wants to do after college but does not feel the lack of having the option to take electives has hurt him. Just the opposite in fact, he thinks they are the only reason that he is graduating from high school, giving him the opportunity to further his education. Foghorn did have an opportunity early in his high school career to take engineering classes, which are outside of the normal curriculum. His IEP did not prevent him from taking the classes but it also did not provide him with extra tutoring help from teachers, as those classes are not core classes.

Despite his IEP status Foghorn feels that he is better than the average student at his school and has a slight feeling of resentment toward his school because of its strenuous academic standards. He believes that if he attended school in a different district, one with less rigorous standards, his grades would be better and he would be accepted into a better college. When he told me that he wanted to attend college I asked him how he would reconcile his intense dislike for reading and writing with the amount of work expected at most colleges and universities. His expected choice of study, business management, will require extensive reading and writing. His answer was a simple one: He wants to make something of his life and is willing to do what it takes to get a good life for himself. In the end, he may not take any pleasure in either reading or writing but he does see the benefits of doing both.

The type of writing Foghorn learns is not what he calls “relevant” writing, in other words, writing that will help him in life, like filling out documents and writing letters. The only type of writing he has been taught is the five-paragraph essay theme along with the eleven paragraph essay theme. Though he does not think this will be useful he likes writing within the five-paragraph constraints because it makes writing easier for him. He finds the one paragraph introduction, three body paragraph and one paragraph conclusion simple to follow and allows him to write better papers with it. When writing for the PSSAs he achieved the highest possible score in the writing sections using the five paragraph format. He calls the PSSAs “cake” and  “juvenile” writing for eleventh-graders. At the eleventh grade level, test takers are only required to write at the level of ninth-graders. He believes these scores will help him to overcome his low-c GPA and get into college. 

Of the two essays of his I’ve examined one was written using the five paragraph format and the other in an eleven-paragraph format. He was unable to tell me why the instructor specifically chose to set a limit of eleven paragraphs for the one assignment, saying that the teacher just wanted a longer assignment. Even after hearing Foghorn say he preferred the five-paragraph format I expected the longer essay to be the better of the two and to my surprise, it is not. The main idea and theme is not fully developed than those of the short paper. After reading the two I feel the five paragraph format benefitted Foghorn by limiting the amount of information  he could put into the essay. This limitation prevented him from straying from his thesis and kept his writing focused. The mechanical errors were the same in both (spelling, capitalization, using periods in place of commas, sentence fragments) but overall the shorter essay gave a better account of Foghorn’s ability to extract information from a text and defend his thesis.

My recommendation, as a writing teacher but not his writing teacher, is to try to get the level of coherent detail present in the shorter essay into his longer essays that follow a longer but still rigid format. Foghorn is capable of developing ideas, a fact he proved in the short essay and to some extent in the longer work. When doing critical writing of novels, such as he did with The Sun Also Rises and Of Mice and Men, it is very hard to put a coherent developed thought that covers the entire novel into five paragraphs. An eleven-paragraph theme is also limiting in that it forces students to write no more than and no less than eleven paragraphs. The idea cannot be explored for more than those eleven paragraphs if needed, and if the idea can be explored in less than eleven paragraphs, students are forced to continue writing until they have reached the required number of paragraphs.

These two structured formats take choice away from any writer and having choice is one thing that Foghorn feels would improve his writing. He would rather do oral presentations and power point presentations than writing assignments. He believes doing either of these in place of writing would enable him to better express and develop his thoughts. However, choice is sometimes hard to come by. And with such a heavy emphasis placed upon the PSSAs and their rigid format, I advise Foghorn to continue working toward scoring as highly as he can on these tests, as he believes that it his scores on those tests that will allow him to further his education.

Examination of the two writing examples:

The eleven paragraph essay on A Sun Also Rises has several major problems with it. First, it does not define what the writer is calling “true life,” an important definition to leave considering the paper is written around the point that Jake Barnes is unable to lead a”true” life. Second, it also does not follow the thesis that  Jake Barnes can never find that true life, taking turns to focus for stretches on the novel’s other characters, seemingly forgetting that the focus is on Jake and not Brett or Robert. This particular mistake I blame partly on the format and partly on the writer. Foghorn is more comfortable using the five paragraph theme and probably felt pressured to write more given the eleven-paragraph requirement. He remarked that most of the writing instruction that he has received is centered on writing five paragraph essays and not on writing longer pieces. He probably hadn’t developed the ability to write longer essays due to a lack of instruction and practice writing longer pieces. This would explain his success on the PSSAs while doing poorly in his English classes. He has been taught how to take the PSSA test and little else. Of course, it could be that because he has an IEP that he wouldn’t have received more advanced writing instruction but that IEP only means that he receives extra help with his regular classes, not that he is in lower level classes. The paper has many quotes that have nothing in common with the passage they are supposed to be reinforcing and other quotes that are incomplete and confusing. There are good sections, like in paragraph nine where Foghorn uses a line that Jake Barnes speaks to Robert Cohn about never being able to get away from yourself that proves his own thesis of Jake not being happy.

The five paragraph essay, titled “Naturalism effect in Of Mice and Men” fails to state where Foghorn got the idea that naturalism is the idea that people live in fear and act only on instinct. This could be true but I could find no reference for it. Foghorn is trying make the point that people have no free will and their fates are predetermined, using Lennie as a prime example of someone whose ultimate fate had been decided for him. The information I read on naturalism contradicts this assertion, instead professing a belief in science and not the supernatural, an idea that would appear to give people more free will to chose their path in life than not. 

Aside from the author’s apparent misuse of the term naturalism he does develop the idea that Lennie and George live in a state of constant fear and in a constant struggle to survive. He uses the text well to advance his idea, using several examples showing how Lennie’s actions cause him and George to have to move frequently, never being able to find a place to call home. The limits of the five paragraph theme seemed to serve Foghorn well. He kept his introduction focused on the idea he was trying to develop, then used the three required body paragraphs (which is actually two paragraphs, one short paragraph and one long paragraph)to provide examples to back his thesis.

Using a curriculum designed to teach the five paragraph theme or other such formats appear to have done little more for Foghorn than give him the ability to pass the PSSAs. His longer writing contains much content unrelated to its thesis and has many content related errors not found in the shorter piece. This suggests to me that Foghorn struggled to find something to put into the eleven paragraph essay to meet the length requirement. His goal is to go to college and believes that his high scores on the PSSA tests, which use the five paragraph format, will make him more attractive to entrance counselors. I believe, though, that once Foghorn is in college, he will find that the writing instruction that he received in secondary school has not prepared him for the rigors of college writing.

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