One cringe-worthy moment that still gives me angst occurred in a college writing class more than 25 years ago. The mandatory course was designed to tighten writing skills that had atrophied between high school and our freshman year. It also set clear standards and expectations for expository writing across all departments. A classmate, absent the week before, missed the crucial information that all the writing samples we would critique were written by students within the class.
One hapless student -- whose skin tone went from wan to floridly flushed over the course of the anonymous grilling -- withstood my friend's harsh (but admittedly accurate) assessment that this student could not write well. From the weak introduction to the unorganized argument, it was -- in my friend's sneer-filled critique -- "hard to believe this person's a college student." Despite my glares and desperately arching eyebrows, the crushing criticism continued: "What? I'm sorry, but it's the truth! This person can't write." Ouch.
In her defense, my buddy later blanched (then turned crimson herself) when I told her that the writer on the receiving end of her pummeling sat across the seminar table from her. But she still couldn't quite let it go: "Clearly, she's smart. But how did she get here without learning to write?"
Research from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education -- an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit -- indicates that 60 percent of students at nonselective (open access) four year colleges require significant remediation to prepare them for college work. And 75 percent of community college students do not possess adequate skills in English or math to perform college-level work on Day One. Although the readiness gap shrinks to 10 percent for students at highly selective institutions, still, students like my unprepared classmate arrive at the school's hallowed gates unable to write tight, persuasive, expository essays.
In the late 1970s my dad's job with Ma Bell took us from a well-funded school district near Albany, N.Y., to a decidedly grittier one on the northernmost edge of Westchester County. When we loaded up our wholly unreliable VW microbus and moved south, I left behind a middle school writing program focused on creative writing and self-expression; I was dropped into one steeped in grammar, usage and mechanics. I remember the heat snaking up my neck as I tried to sort out my first English assignment: diagramming sentences.
A perennially high-performing student, I had no idea what to do. In my previous school we'd talked in general terms about the parts of speech. But it was assumed I would naturally pick up (through complex speech patterns and constant reading) how intricate sentences sounded and functioned. I didn't need to study it; I lived it. I would "catch" what I needed in order to write well. And mostly this was true; I didn't know much about the parts of speech beyond the School House Rock videos, but I was still a competent writer.
What do you do, however, when a huge percentage of your students comes from families who don't speak like mine?
Principal Deirdre DeAngelis faced this problem in 2006 when 82 percent of freshmen at New Dorp High School on Staten Island entered school reading below grade level. Award-winning writer and journalist Peg Tyre wrote about New Dorp in a piece entitled "The Writing Revolution" in The Atlantic last year. She detailed Principal DeAngelis's attempts to improve her failing school: firing ineffective teachers, employing new technology, and implementing extensive afterschool programs. Nothing worked until -- facing school closure -- DeAngelis, in the words of Tyre, "went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytical writing, every day, in virtually every class." Her school's improvement was astounding.
DeAngelis and her staff concluded that the difference between passing and failing students consistently came down to one major factor: successful students ably expressed their thoughts in writing. Tyre explains, "Students' inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects." Several New Dorp teachers devised simple tests to determine whether students could use conjunctions (like but, yet, and) properly or utilize dependent clauses (although, despite); they were shocked to learn that many could not.
A decade into No Child Left Behind, "literacy" instruction means reading. "Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding has become increasingly rare," according to Arthur Applebee, director of the Center for England Learning and Achievement at SUNY Albany. A generation of students has not learned how to adequately express complex thoughts in writing.
The strategy that DeAngelis and her staff now use across the curriculum was developed by Judith Hochman, former head-of-school at Windward School in White Plains, N.Y. Hochman created a style of writing instruction that has become de rigueur for struggling private school students in the Northeast. New Dorp teachers adapted her strategy to their classrooms, and each used prompt posters that required students to employ particular phrases whenever responding to a written or verbal prompt, including: "I agree/disagree with -- because ..." and "I have a different opinion ..." In each class students had direct instruction and practice in using phrases such as "specifically," "for example" and "for instance" to help add detail to a paragraph. As one student remarked to Tyre, "Who could have known that, unless someone taught them?"
I have poets in my family and extended family; I believe self-expression through creative writing is vitally important. But we cannot expect students to play with, tease, and transform a system without first understanding it.
And if that doesn't convince you, remember, we must strive to protect our students and children from another cringe-worthy writing disaster.