OP-ED | Basic Misunderstandings Pervade Public Opinion About Teaching of Writing
In early August, Dana Goldstein published a back-to-school op-ed in the New York Times that explored the question of why students can’t write well. In her piece, Goldstein examines two national models for writing instruction — the National Writing Project and a newer program called the Writing Revolution.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: English and Social Studies teachers from Manchester High School are working with the Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut as part of the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program, learning how to better prepare their students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school. This is the first in a series of essays from participants in this year’s program.
Goldstein portrays the NWP as a proponent of “brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision” and an opponent of “grammar [and] citing sources.” She portrays the Writing Revolution as “a return to the basics of sentence construction” through exercises like sentence combining and the “fixing [of] punctuation errors.”
Goldstein contrasts two classrooms, one of high school seniors drafting college application essays and one of elementary school teachers learning how to work with much younger students at the sentence-level of composition.
In her final analysis, Goldstein arrives at a synthetic conclusion that neither old school direct instruction nor new school freewriting are sufficient, and that a successful approach to writing instruction must incorporate methods from both pedagogical models.
The problem with Goldstein’s analysis and conclusion, however, is twofold, and reveals some basic misunderstandings that pervade public opinion about the teaching of writing and “why kids can’t write.”
Although I am not familiar enough with the Writing Revolution to speak for it, as a National Writing Project site director, I can assure you that Goldstein’s portrayal of the NWP model of writing instruction is inaccurately outdated and reductionist. It portrays the NWP as the educational equivalent of a throw-back party, and results in a false dichotomy that pits skills against style.
The second part of the problem is that Goldstein has provided two radically different populations for points of comparison — a first-grader learning sentence-level mechanics and six high school seniors writing college application essays. The skills and needs of these students are radically different, and to dismiss a freewriting exercise intended to help high school seniors brainstorm topics as deficient because it does not involve the kind of sentence combining activity that might benefit a seven year-old reveals a profound misunderstanding of how students learn to write.
One of the reasons why it is so difficult to teach students to write is that some students will need to work on sentence-level writing while others will be more in need of practice developing style and voice, and often those students will be sitting beside each other in the same class. This is not to mention that the 120 or 150 students an English teacher might have on her roster will present her with a divergence in needs so staggeringly broad it would make your knees buckle.
I hesitate to critique Goldstein too strongly, however. Her book The Teacher Wars is a powerful historical analysis of teacher education that documents, among other things, the latent (and sometimes overt) misogyny that has always pervaded education policies, which is why teachers are so rarely allowed to craft policies and practices themselves. So let me turn toward one point that Goldstein is absolutely right about.
Goldstein writes, “[T]eachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves.” She cites two studies that demonstrate the dearth of instruction future teachers receive in how to teach writing. According to one study, nationwide, “fewer than half [of all grade 3 through 8 teachers] had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing.”
At UConn, fortunately, this is not the case. In addition to First-Year Writing and at least two writing-intensive courses (more like four for dual degree students in English and education), all students studying to be middle- or high school English teachers are required to take an English course called Advanced Composition for Prospective Teachers and an education course called Reading and Writing in the Content Areas.
However, contrast this with the ten or twelve literature courses or the five educational psychology courses the students are required to take, and it’s not surprising if even our students report similar levels of discomfort teaching writing. Imagine less exemplary programs!
There is no easy solution to this. The education students’ course loads are jam-packed, and writing instruction is hardly the only area that could benefit from additional coursework. But the suggestion that a better blend of grammar and freewriting will do the trick is puerile. The solution generally lies in advanced coursework and quality professional development, such as can be obtained through a National Writing Project site, where, I assure you, teachers do more than just journal and freewrite.
Jason Courtmanche teaches at UConn, where he is the Director of the Connecticut Writing Project, the Assistant Coordinator of the Early College Experience English Program, and Lecturer in English. Each summer he runs a four-week Summer Institute where teachers from all grade levels and disciplines write and learn to be more effective teachers of writing. He also reviews teacher education programs for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
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