Why Johnny can’t write
posted at 9:09 am on September 22, 2012 by Meryl Yourish
The Atlantic showcases a new method of teaching analytic writing that should soon be sweeping the nation. Because, educators have finally discovered, if students can’t think critically and write effectively about what they think, they can’t do well in other subjects, either.
And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page.
I’m old enough to have been taught critical thinking and forced to write analytic essays. But millions of Americans were taught what I will call “the bullshit method” of writing. And it shows. Think of the emails and other correspondence you receive at work. Look at how the average person writes on Facebook and in comment threads. Few people can write coherently. No wonder Twitter is such a big hit. Reduce everything to 140 characters and you don’t have to master grammar and sentence structure.
Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.
I can’t count how many of my friends’ children have had to keep journals as part of their writing assignments. A journal where you are urged to write your feelings is not writing. It is vomiting your thoughts on a page, which is also known as stream of consciousness. To create a coherent narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end, was no longer taught well in school. But the educators discovered there was even more to the problem: Students were no longer able to use simple conjunctions to form complex sentences.
What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.
New Dorp High School created a program to change all that, and student pass rates improved dramatically. Nationwide, a program called Common Core is going to be introduced in all but four states that–gasp–teaches the basics.
Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-school students—who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.
Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York.
And for that, we thank you. I have a real-life example of the awful communications skills they’re taught now. An HR employee at my company was doing a phenomenally bad job of communicating to me why my medical benefits had been terminated in August, and how I needed to fix them. When I emailed her that what she was asking was idiotic, she called to tell me that her feelings were hurt by my use of that term. I’m going to guess that she was taught that in some seminar somewhere, instead of taught how to write a coherent email so that I would understand that she was waiting for me to answer before moving ahead with fixing my benefits. (Which is incredibly stupid in and of itself, but I digress.)
Educators discovered that the old-fashioned teaching methods–the ones that taught explicitly, step by step, how to write simple and complex sentences–worked. But of course, there are those who think that rote instruction is too restrictive.
Some writing experts caution that championing expository and analytic writing at the expense of creative expression is shortsighted. “The secret weapon of our economy is that we foster creativity,” says Kelly Gallagher, a high-school writing teacher who has written several books on adolescent literacy. And formulaic instruction will cause some students to tune out, cautions Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. While she welcomes a bigger dose of expository writing in schools, she says lockstep instruction won’t accelerate learning. “Kids need to see their work reach other readers … They need to have choices in the questions they write about, and a way to find their voice.”
And that is exactly the kind of thinking that brought our students’ writing levels down to their current level. The point of teaching writing is to give students the skills they need to write coherently. Their voice comes naturally, and if they want to develop it, they will. Nothing can stop a writer from writing.
Read the whole article. It’s a refreshing change that I hope will be sweeping the nation, and possibly making work emails a lot more coherent. There’s little hope for my HR department, but there are always the ones in school now, who will be replacing them. With, it is to be hoped, better communications skills.