Why American Students Can't Write: Responding to the Atlantic
The Atlantic is doing a month-long series on teaching and learning writing in primary and secondary schools. Naturally, I have some thoughts.
Her name was Mrs. Thompson, but behind her back we called her “Sarge” because rumor had it she’d been a WAC in WW II, and also because in class she took no crap, and so no crap was given.
This was eighth grade, which we called English “Language Arts,” maybe we still do, I’m not sure. History was “Social Studies” back then too, but I doubt we still call it that because that sounds dangerously close to “socialism.”
Mrs. Thompson had short, salt and pepper hair, worn in a bristle. She had black-rimmed glasses and was a little jowly, with a loud and commanding voice. What she did, among some other things, was make us diagram sentences, and in doing so, she taught us how to write.
I’ve been thinking about Mrs. Thompson because the Atlantic is running a series online about “Why American Students Can’t Write.” For some reason, possibly because they don’t know that I exist, they didn’t ask me to contribute, so I figured I’d weigh in here.
We should take note of the title of the debate, in that it is a given that American students can’t write. This is not up for discussion, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any opposition to the claim among America’s teachers of writing.
There are exceptions, of course. Those of us working in selective universities often encounter students that can write, except that you will also hear a lot of discussion wondering why more of the students can’t write better at the time they arrive. As measured against the average, we’re talking about a fairly elite group of students, and yet it is far from a given that a successful high school student shows up in my Academic Writing course with the level of mastery one would expect.
In fact, if there is indeed a mess, it isn’t being cleaned up by a university education. According to a comprehensive 2006 survey assessing workplace readiness among different levels of educational achievement, while 81% of high school only graduates were rated “deficient” when it comes to their ability to communicate in writing, the number is still 28% among graduates of four year universities.
The lead article at the Atlantic by Peg Tyre that kicks off the debate explores the curricular transformation at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, a notoriously low-performing school primarily consisting of “at-risk” students. With nowhere else to turn, New Dorp adopted a curriculum with “an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing.”
This embrace of analytical writing is a departure from previous approaches where students, “learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction.”
David Coleman, the “architect” of the Common Core State Standards, which Tyre reports will be adopted by 46 states over the next two years, and which champion the same focus on analytical writing, feels we have spent too much time encouraging students to get in touch with themselves, and it’s time to teach them how to communicate with others.
Tyre quotes Coleman in an address to New York educators where he said, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”
Tyre reports that Coleman’s criteria is going to upset some academic apple carts, “Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.”
Oh, how we groaned when it was time to drag out the grammar text. Our copies had the sturdy canvass covers, passed from year to year, the student names trailing down the inside front. Every so often I'd get the actual book used by my older brother. Usually Mrs. Thompson ignored our moans, but if they were loud enough, she’d glare over her shoulder, even as she was drawing the basic form for subject and predicate on the blackboard with a straight, even hand.
Mrs. Thompson did not lecture, she guided. We would look at the sentences in the book and she would wait at the board, chalk poised over the surface, for us to tell her what kind of line to draw and where to fill out the diagram. If we were wrong, she would say so and then ask us why, encouraging us to (demanding that we) figure it out for ourselves instead of filling in the right answer.
I was pretty good at identifying the parts of a sentence, but not so good spatially, or at drawing straight lines, so I never left sufficient space to fill in my diagrams, making my answers correct, but ugly.
There were no stenographers in Mrs. Thompson’s class. We were problem solvers, detectives, labelers of modifiers and antecedents, direct and indirect objects. We learned how to pull sentences apart in order to put them together. I'm sure I thought it was boring. I probably fell asleep once or twice, but clearly something stuck. To this day, whenever I see an indirect object, I silently put a "to" in front of it because that's how she taught us to identify that sneaky little bugger.
When I read Peg Tyre's article in the Atlantic, I posted it to my Facebook feed with an “Amen!” attached. Admittedly, some of this is possibly rooted in confirmation bias, as the approach at New Dorp emphasizing academic writing also happens to be mine, but all that aside, they’re totally on target and I would love to see this curricular wave wash over the nation.
As Tyre explains in the article, this movement seeks to undo the excesses of the notion that writing can be “caught, not taught,” that creative assignments targeted towards the students as individuals were the best way to encourage them to write and therefore get better at writing.
But, as Tyre makes clear, and my own experience teaching supports, this didn’t work for enough students, with many of them only catching snippets of what they would need to craft a complete and coherent piece of writing. No Child Left Behind, which has turned English into a kind of reading comprehension test, has only made things worse.
In class discussion, my students can identify the main ideas or argument of a complicated piece of writing, and even build on those ideas by offering their own insights with ease. Ask them to summarize that argument for the benefit of an outside audience in writing, however, and they often struggle. We’ve spent so much time asking them what they think, they haven’t learned the skill of first being able to articulate the core idea of what they’re responding to.
And the sentences they use often betray the principles of “caught not taught,” employing syntax and word choice that are, on the surface, sophisticated, but when peeled back are often ungrammatical. In class, I call it “pseudo-academic bullshit,” and when asked, the students assure me this is the kind of expression for which they’ve been praised and rewarded. They’re sheepish when they say it, knowing that they’ve been playing a kind of game, which many of them have gotten very good at figuring out.
But there I am, standing in front of them, explaining that writing isn’t a game.
Except that it is, isn’t it?
Mrs. Thompson didn’t only have us diagram sentences. She also had us write essays, poetry, plays, and short stories. She let us play with words. Professor and author Charles Wheelan, whom I interviewed earlier, and who also matriculated through Mrs. Thompson’s class, reminded me that we had Lanugage Arts twice each day, once in the morning where sentence diagramming ruled the period, and once in the afternoon where literature and creative writing were on tap.
I remember writing a series of stories about a family called The Bagelson’s because every member of the household was round with a hole in the middle, an affliction that I played for all of the junior high-level comedy it was worth. (Oh, the hilarity, that was Junior Bagelson's tryout as goalie on the school soccer team!) Mrs. Thompson would respond with smiley faces in the margins and express appreciation for my inventiveness, even as that red, felt pen marked over my bad sentences.
Those lessons sweating over my diagrammed sentences are essentially what gave me both permission and confidence to go play with words in a more serious way, first in college, and later professionally. Like any good coach, she made sure we had our share of infield practice before playing a game with real stakes. I've had students entering their freshman writing course who fear it because they sense they are not properly armed for the task. I feel like we owe them an apology. I wish they'd had a Mrs. Thompson.
And so now, I feel confident that I can break a “rule” by starting a sentence with “and so,” because I like the effect the sound will have, that it gives my writing a specific voice, my voice.
It’s possible, maybe even probable that David Coleman is right, that “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.”
But that shouldn’t stop us from making the attempt. If you’re going to get someone to care, the message better be interesting and well-presented. I try to make my students believe this, and because they are bright and hard-working they very quickly grasp these new demands. Sometimes it seems like they were actually hungry for someone to hold them accountable. The progress already this semester is pretty remarkable.
At the same time, I hope that my students experience the thing about writing that's more important to me, and something for which I will be eternally grateful to Mrs. Thompson: being able to write actually helps reveal to me what I think. That is power.
The self-esteem movement in education was a well-meaning attempt to encourage and empower students by showing them they have value. I can’t really argue with those motives, but what I learned from Mrs. Thompson is that while our voices do have value, if you can’t sing in key, no one is going to hear you.
Why not share the teacher who helped you learn to write? @biblioracle
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