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Trust Thyself: When to Use and When Not to Use the Schaffer Method


Hi, Dr. Louis:

My name is Jaime, and I'm a teacher in Los Angeles. We spoke on the phone about a month ago or so. I'm just sort of in a quandary using the Jane Schaffer Method with my students right now. I'm mostly teaching 9th graders, more at the remedial end of the spectrum. So [. . .] the method [has] been extraordinarily helpful in helping my more remedial students learn how to organize their thoughts into paragraphs and eventually essays.

But I also have more advanced students in my classes who, for some reason, through better teaching in middle school or just natural aptitude, are more able to organize their thoughts more maturely into paragraphs and essays. I just don't know if I should require them to rewrite their work strictly using the format: topic sentence, concrete detail, etc., really strictly or give them more latitude with regard to their work. Student writing that for some reason just has a more natural flow to it with more advanced organization skills – I just don't know if I should like have them back up and rewrite strictly adhering to the Jane Schaffer format.

Anyway I'm sort of struggling with this quandary and thought you might have some feedback on the issue.



Dear Jaime,

Great question! Thank you for asking. Let's start with Jane's response to your question; then, I'll add a little more of my own commentary; then, I'll let Ralph Waldo Emerson finish this blog for me. From Jane's voice, straight to your ears: "Formula/structure is a place to start for students who need it; some don’t need it at all. We want students to leave the formula behind when they are ready to do so. Breaking the formula is called weaving –- mixing fact and opinion/concrete detail and commentary." Jane was adamant about valuing teachers' intuitions about students and the decisions that ensued, based on those intuitions.

For me, I have to tell a story. One year, on the very first day of school, I was busy greeting my ninth graders, and as I looked toward the back of the classroom, I saw a young man walking toward me. Normally, on the first day of school, ninth graders are shy, timid, and reserved. Not this ninth grader. His name was Adam, and he had a blue disk in his hand. As he approached me, his hand lifted and he said, "Ms. Louis, I would like you to read my novel.""Why, Mr. F (I called students by their last names), I'd be glad to read your novel," I said.

When I read the first few pages of his novel, I realized that this child was a natural writer. The next day, I gave the ninth graders a diagnostic essay prompt. It was a narrative assignment designed to provide me with their writing acumen. I told them to do their best writing so that I would be able to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses and plan their writing instruction accordingly. Adam's essay was exemplary. I knew that he did not need to start from scratch.

I pulled Adam aside the next day and said, Mr. F, your writing is beautiful. You have a natural talent. This year, your class and I will be working with a program called the Jane Schaffer Writing Program (JSWP). I would like for you to learn the terminology and the process for two reasons: 1) I'd like for us to use the terminology when we discuss your writing; and 2) I would like you to be one of my student writing coaches. However, when I assign paragraphs and essays to you and your classmates, you do not need to work through the JSWP process or graphic organizers unless you choose to do so. You may opt to write without the method. I'm fine with that." I tell you this story, Jaime, to reveal that there was no way I was going to take this child (or any child, for that matter) backward. He naturally understood the importance of the ratio in literary analysis; he naturally understood the purpose of an introduction and conclusion; he naturally understood how to create a logical, organized, cohesive piece of writing. When I gave prompts to Adam's class, I noticed that sometimes Adam would integrate a piece of JSWP if only to get him started. But that call was his, and I was happy that he had a variety of tools to access.

In my career, I had few students like Adam -- well, no student was like Adam. But I had few students with natural writing ability. When those students entered my classroom, however, I was comfortable and so was Jane with my having a conversation with those students about how they and I would handle writing assignments.

You are the expert in your classroom. Do what is best for each and every student. Have private conversations with students. Be respectful about the program, so other students won't feel like they are inept. Move individual students beyond the formula (see "weaving" in the guides) when they are ready.Back to Adam, at the age of fourteen, this young man was a Russian Revolution scholar. So, when I taught Animal Farm, I asked him to team teach with me. When he was a sophomore, University of North Texas (UNT) invited him to matriculate into their program his junior year. He was amazing. Every night, I prayed that I help and not hurt his academic progress. About four years after I had Adam in class, I received a letter in the mail from UNT, inviting me to attend their Math and Science Banquet. To my surprise, Adam had requested that the school invite me as the teacher who made the greatest impact in his life. I was humbled. I think he regarded me in that manner because I let him soar; I let him take the lead regarding how he would approach his assignments.

Some teachers are like Adam. Administrators need to just leave them alone and let them soar! I had administrators like that: Dr. Tribble, Dr. Clingman, Dr. Patton. Emerson said, "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Go with that advice!

Warm regards,

Dr. Louis

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