Friday, October 05, 2012

Writing Old School

Earlier this week I wrote about urban homeschoolers and the way that the homeschool movement is expanding and going more mainstream. That entry was inspired by The Atlantic magazine's special report on education. This entry is as well. One of three proposals for reforming and improving our national education system included homeschooling and another was teaching writing 1950's style. The Writing Revolution by Peg Tyre makes the case for returning to a more traditional form of teaching writing and veering away from the creative and social style that has been de rigor for the past couple of decades. I wholeheartedly agree. I would highly recommend clicking the link above and reading through the article.

According to the article, for the past twenty to thirty years educators have not had formal training in teaching writing and have adapted to a process championed by some educational reformers that promoted the idea that writing could be "caught, not taught." The theory stated that if children could work together on "creative expression" projects, they would automatically pick up what they needed to know about writing. "Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression." Add to the mix the No Child Left Behind policies that only tested reading and math and you have a situation ripe for failure. As schools increased the focus on reading and math, writing was pushed even further down on the list of educational priorities. As many of us have personally experienced, it seems that this experiment has been a dismal failure. American high school graduates, for the most part, are unable to write coherent essays or express a logical flow of ideas. Anyone who has had to grade college papers knows that the state of writing in our country leaves much to be desired! As quoted in the article, "Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding has become increasingly rare" said Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany.

Enter New Dorp School, a troubled school that has made a revolutionary change. In a new program instituted in 2009 the school is now focussing on writing in every subject area. Whether it's science or history, students must write papers in every class and these writing assignments are specifically designed to help students develop a logical and rhetorical way of thinking. Every aspect of the paper writing process is guided. There are prompts to help students think more clearly. Learning how to use phrases like "specifically, for instance, for example" enables students to express their thoughts clearly and concisely. Even discussion in the classroom is governed by specific prompts in order to reinforce the ideas espoused in the writing curriculum. A poster in front of each class provides the following prompts:
"I agree/disagree with ___ because..."
"I have a different opinion..."
 "I have something to add..."
"Can you explain your answer" 
Such simple cues have resulted in remarkable changes at the school. In 2007 the school had a 40% graduation rate and was one of the "2000 or so lowest-performing high schools in the nation." Today their program is being looked to as a model for improving student performance. In addition to the improved test scores, it seems that learning how to write and express oneself is empowering. Students who thought high education was not an option no longer accept that as fact.

This has all reinforced my belief that one major reason so many students and graduates now struggle with writing is due to the fact that they have never been given the tools they need. Just like you cannot ask a carpenter to create a cabinet with a shovel and some cardboard, so students who have never been taught the fundamentals of writing will be frustrated and develop an intense dislike of any assignments in which writing is required. Give them the tools and training and writing can become a skill that is not only useful but maybe even enjoyable. It provides a creative outlet, a way to be heard, a valuable job skill, and a vehicle for personal fulfillment.

Again, the article is fascinating and provides a glimmer of hope for educational reform. While most of you are homeschoolers I thought it may also be encouraging to you as nearly all the home educators I've encountered over the past 20+ years do focus on developing their students' writing abilities. At BFB we believe that writing is essential and all of our study guides have writing prompts, research assignments, and comprehension questions designed to help students assimilate the information they glean from their reading, process it, form opinions, and express those opinions.

I would love to hear what you do to teach writing in your classroom? Is your program more traditional? Is it a mixture of creative and rhetorical training? Do you struggle in teaching writing? Do you have tips for making it easier?

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All quotes above taken from "The Writing Revolution" by Peg Yyre, The Atlantic, Oct. 2012, 96-101.


  1. This is very good news, I am glad to see this push. It will also mean homeschool families will be pushed as well to improve writing with their kids. Right now writing seems to be the most difficult subject to teach. Over and over again I hear and read about homeschool moms who struggle with teaching this. I also got caught up in the whole creative writing and personal expression, and now my son is in 5th grade and can't even write a paragraph. So, now we are going back to basics and will be incorporating the Well Trained Mind for our language arts.
    I also think all the social media outlets perpetuate the problem with writing.

    1. Thank you for the comment Nancy! Sounds like you're taking the best approach for your son. Going back to the basics is always a good approach. I have an old English textbook that I used in middle school and I still refer to it when I have questions. The basics of writing can never be overvalued in my opinion. Teaching writing can be difficult but I think that the Well Trained Mind, as well as the Institute for Excellence in Writing, both have great tools. All the best!