Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

How to improve the teaching of writing
     Five steps to a better high school writing program

After the Revolution

We’ve gone through something of a revolution in teaching writing since the late 1970s, when “the writing process” began to be championed throughout the land. Most state teaching guides now talk about the writing process. Everyone’s been trained in it. And yet.

And yet, skillful and vivid writing remains far from the norm among high school students. Indeed, there’s been scarcely any measurable improvement in student writing. James D. Williams noted that “over the last 20 years, during which process has been integrated into instruction nationwide, all NAEP reports have shown a gradual decline in writing performance.” ( James D. Williams, Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2003, p. 99.)

He was looking at the NAEP 1996 Trends in Writing. We can be thankful that between 1998 and 2003 there were slight improvements in the NAEP scores for 4th and 8th graders. Unfortunately, there were no such improvements for 12th graders, and since in Montana scores stayed flat during that time, it appears that our students slipped downward in the national rankings.

It appears that the widespread adoption of process teaching has not led to notable improvement in writing, I don’t take this to mean that the approach is wrong. Indeed, as one who has spent countless hours both writing and teaching writing, I am quite sure it is not. Good writing really does require planning, and drafting, along with revising and revising and revising.

What the scores suggest to me is not that writing teachers are inept or their methods wrong but that we haven’t yet made the commitment to teaching writing that’s required to make much of a difference. Nothing that schools attempt is more difficult than teaching writing. Writing may be the most intellectually challenging thing many students are asked to learn in school, and teaching writing requires individualized coaching, which is laborious and time-consuming.

Time is the resource that has often been lacking.

If kids do not write a lot and do not get quick and useful feedback as they work, they are not going to get much better, regardless of whether the teaching takes a pedagogical or a process approach. What this means in practice is that if most students are going to learn to write skillfully, the school day needs to include substantial blocks of time for writing, and the writing teachers’ work day needs to include substantial blocks of time for coaching student writers.

The College Board created the National Commission on Writing to call attention to the teaching of writing, and its first report to Congress in 2003, the Commission called for a revolution in the teaching of writing. The Commission urged schools to “double the amount of time most students spend writing.” Maybe they should have specified a minimum number of minutes, since two times zero still isn’t much. In any case, last year’s Carnegie Report, Writing Next, warned that “American students today are not meeting even basic writing standards.”

That failure is of fundamental importance, the report said, because “young people who do not have the ability to transform thoughts, experiences, and ideas into written words are in danger of losing touch with the joy of inquiry, the sense of intellectual curiosity, and the inestimable satisfaction of acquiring wisdom that are the touchstones of humanity.” This has implications for civilization itself: “What that means for all of us is that the essential educative transmissions that have been passed along century after century, generation after generation, are in danger of fading away, or even falling silent.”

A Practitioner’s View

Based on my experience as an administrator and a writing teacher, these are five things that I think people in schools could be doing.

1. Clarify and articulate the vision of why writing matters. Be able to say clearly why it is important. Then say it often.

Kids do learn what they are taught, and they do believe what they are repeatedly told, if what they are told isn’t so foolish that their own experience contradicts it, and if the tellers aren’t obvious hypocrites.

I believe writing matters because it’s impossible to do large, complex thinking tasks without it. I believe writing matters because without being articulate in language, we are at the mercy of the large bureaucracies that govern modern life. Theodore Dalrymple, in his work as a physician in the London slums, commented on the way the inarticulate are held hostage by the very bureaucracies that were invented to serve them:

In their dealings with authority, they were at a huge disadvantage, a disaster, since so many of them depended upon various public bureaucracies for so many of their needs, from their housing and health care to their income and the education of their children. I would find myself dealing on their behalf with those bureaucracies, which were often simultaneously bullying and incompetent; and what officialdom had claimed for months or even years to be impossible suddenly, on my intervention, became possible within a week. Of course, it was not my mastery of language alone that produced this result; rather, my mastery of language signaled my capacity to make serious trouble for the bureaucrats if they did not do as I asked. I do not think it is a coincidence that the offices of all those bureaucracies were increasingly installing security barriers against the physical attacks on the staff by enraged but inarticulate dependents.

I believe writing matters because I believe every human life matters, and to the extent possible each should create a history of its significant experiences and insights. I believe writing matters because organized society–with its miracles of medical science, of improved production and distribution that make life less painful and more enjoyable, of social linkages that help us find and stay connected to those who are important to us—depends on dense communication, including written communications, at every level. I believe writing matters because I agree with Francis Bacon that “Reading makes a full man, . . . writing an exact man,” and all the higher occupations require the sort of analytical exactness that can only be learned through writing.

Oh, and then there’s this:

The bottom-line problem and opportunity remain the same: The correlation between career success and writing proficiency is extremely strong. Government and private sector employers alike have told us that those who can write well will advance in the workplace and those who cannot write well will struggle to be promoted or even retained. (Bob Kerrey, National Writing Commission Chair)

2. Ensure that all teachers hired can write well. Don’t assume any teacher has much writing skill just because he or she has a teaching license. Don’t assume all English teachers can write or teach writing well.

Require a writing sample created at the interview site at the time of the interview. Make sure a skilled writer is available to evaluate the samples.

3. Develop the writing skills of teachers already on staff.

This is challenging. “Drive-by” inservice workshops won’t do it. Further, much of the advice out there about the teaching of writing really has little to do with the foundations of powerful writing, which still include knowledge, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The first rule of powerful speaking, Cicero taught, was to know your subject. He observed that unless a speaker “grasps and understands what he is talking about, his speech will be worthless.” So it is with writing.

But if you look for help with teaching writing many of the promotional materials you find might lead you to believe that good writing is mostly a political affair, having to do with empowerment, authenticity, and voice. “Voice” is the somewhat unfortunate word many of today’s “writing experts” use instead of “style.” I prefer “style” because it mystifies less and leads more directly to what is teachable: active voice, specific nouns, vivid verbs, clear and simple sentences.

It would also be refreshing if more of today’s authorities on teaching writing believed that “research"—not just Googling but also interviewing, observing, and experiencing—was thought important enough to be it’s own trait. Also, some mention of truth and accuracy would be bracing.

In any case, having teachers write more is a necessary part of improving their skill at teaching writing. One thing that would make sense would be to have them write regularly about their practice: brief reviews of websites and other materials, introductory comments to units they want to use, reflections on student work, and so on. When I was a high school principal, we had teachers write as part of their in-service training, and we published teachers’ thoughts about using writing in their teaching. I was surprised at the generally high quality of the work we received.

Today, I would think long and hard about ways to use blogging to engage teachers in writing and collaborating about their practice. For one thing, I would design the school website so that each department was posting regularly for the public, for other staff, and for students about topics of interest in that discipline. Teachers would need to be given some time to write, but if they are not given regular time to write and, more important, a reason to write, they are not likely to get much better at it or give it serious thought.

4. Ensure that student writing is visible.

Both accountability and standards are best addressed by making the work real and public. Athletic programs provide a model--both accountability and standards grow out of regular games and tournaments. A writing program should also feature regular performances. The best of these, I think, involve writing for real world purposes which provide a natural audience. Having students research and write local history in an obvious example.

Blogging is a new genre of writing that should also have a place in the writing curriculum. What I have in mind is not so much the diary-writing that young people put on their My Space pages, but the focused and regular writing on specialized topics that have emerged everywhere. While journalism continues to decline as a profession, all sorts of businesses are adding bloggers to their payroll, recognizing the advantage of putting a personal voice before the public, along with a constant flow of information and links related to a particular area of expertise, whether that is gardening or automobile racing or software development. For students, the practice of regularly reading online information on a topic that interests them, and then summarizing it, commenting on it and providing links is an excellent way for them to advance their interests while doing large amounts of regular reading and writing.

5. Ensure that writing teachers have the time.

This is the main thing. A major reason students don’t write more is that teachers don’t have time to deal effectively with floods of student writing. I suspect that the real reason writing ability declined during twenty years of emphasis on the writing process was simply because all the workshops and exhortations were unaccompanied by any real increase in time to do the work.

All English teachers know the math: If a teacher assigns only fifty students an essay, that often translates into more than fifteen hours of reading and commenting. If those essays are taken through three drafts, you can triple that time. This is time that, for a typical teacher, will be spent after school and on weekends. A good writing conference with a single student can easily take a half hour, though such conferences are much, much more effective than scrawling comments in the margin.

But even those large investments in time aren’t enough. Except for teachers of honors classes, much of the writing will contain numerous basic problems, such as unclear pronoun references, which can’t be explained simply to students who are not eagerly seeking the skill. At the end of reading a batch of essays laden with problems of basic usage, problems of style, problems of coherence and organization, and problems of general mindlessness, the teacher needs to decide what to do about it all.

Writing comments on papers hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective. Even if it were feasible, re-teaching everything that needs to be re-taught tends to be similarly ineffective. Students who have failed to figure out active voice many times before are quite capable of ignoring yet another lesson.

And in any case, there isn’t time in class to re-teach everything, though if you add up the errors made in many typical classes, they will include pretty much everything. There have been dozens of suggestions for how to handle what is basically an impossible situation: have the students edit each other’s work, have students get their papers read by two or three other people before turning them in to the teacher, teach “mini-lessons” on all those problems that show up in the work. All of these work to a limited degree with a limited number of students, but a good many students continue to write poorly all the way through high school graduation, and then on through college, and not infrequently on through graduate school.

What works best is coaching: reading carefully through a students’ paper alongside the student, giving explanations and making helpful changes. To the extent that I have been able to do this, it has worked. I believe a good faith effort to teach every student to write competently would require a writing teacher’s load to be no more than three classes a day, with no more than fifteen students in each class. The other three hours a day would be spent reading student writing and holding conferences. Students enrolled in a writing class should be simultaneously enrolled in a computer-equipped study hall, both so they have time each day to write and so they are available for conferences.

Teaching writing to 45 students a day, who were actually writing for an hour each day, would be more than a full-time job. If this were done at least one semester each year for three years during high school, I would expect to see significant gains in the writing ability of a majority of students in such a program.

If this isn’t possible, for financial reasons, then I would advocate that such a program be available to those students who freely choose it. It is as impossible to teach a student to write well who hasn’t the least desire to learn it as it is to teach good basketball skills to a player who refuses to run at more than three-quarter speed or to pay attention to what is happening on the court.

Though sometimes a talented teacher can motivate a student, this is a difficult and inexact art, and I’m not of the mind that opportunities should be withheld from some students because no one has found a way to persuade all students to strive for them.

But of course, it is possible to give writing coaches teaching loads of 45 students. American schools have enough money to do nearly anything they want. The problem is merely that they don’t have enough money to do everything they want. So they do what matters to them most. Thus far, teaching writing has not been a priority.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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