Send this one to your English teacher friends

English teachers don't have time to read this blog. They're too busy. However, the Atlantic has assembled a great series of essays -- Why Students Can't Write. These are competing points of view about teaching writing to middle and high school kids.

Ahoy Randall: please consider these readings for our English teacher residents.

I blogged about the feature story. Since then, they've added over a dozen essays.

Here's one:

When my colleagues and I began presenting our principles of good writing instruction at other schools, we expected resistance, skepticism and maybe even hostility. Self-centered writing has been encouraged for so many years that there are many teachers wedded to the "creative" approach when they develop writing assignments. Much writing instruction prior to ninth grade, and at times even in high school, is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.

Here's another:

...the writing textbooks on the whole say nothing about abstractitis, mentioning it at most only in passing.

And instructors do not focus on over-abstraction, even though that's the major problem young writers have.

An alternate approach might be to start the course with physical objects, training students to write with those in mind, and to understand that every abstract idea summarizes a set of physical facts.

I do, in fact, take that approach. "If you are writing about markets, recognize that market is an abstract idea, and find a bunch of objects that relate to it," I say. "Give me concrete nouns. Show me a wooden roadside stand with corn and green peppers on it, if you want. Show me a supermarket displaying six kinds of oranges under halogen lights. Show me a stock exchange floor where bids are shouted and answered."

"What is a concrete noun?" a student might ask.

"It's something you can drop on your foot," I always answer. "It's that simple."

"So if I am writing about markets, productivity and wealth, I am going to...."

"Yes indeed -- you are going to write about things you can drop on your foot, and people, too. Green peppers, ears of corn, windshield wipers, or a grimy mechanic changing your car's oil. No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot."

From a teacher's perspective, the lovely thing about this technique of writing with things you can drop on your foot is that both the skilled and the unskilled can do it. Both kinds of students find the assignment intriguing. Students led into writing this way at the start of a course--writing about abstract ideas in terms of concrete objects--find it strange at first, but they are pleased that the task is actually doable. They start to write with good examples, though they don't think of them as examples, but as objects.

My colleague Alan is friendly with Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame; she wrote:

Students have to be able to think critically. But where I saw huge cause for alarm in that piece was the idea that we don't want to focus on memoirs. When I read that quote from David Coleman saying, "As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think" -- that's a very cavalier comment. It negates all of those kids who are marginalized.

At Freedom Writers, we do give a shit what those kids think and feel. We're training teachers who work with at-risk kids in some poorest schools in the country, kids who have been written off. So while I'm excited that New Dorp is trying a new direction, to throw the baby out with the bathwater is really unfortunate.

I am a fan of Robert Pondiscio, a former 4th grader teacher who weighed in with "How self expression damaged my students"

Far from imposing a cultural norm or orthodoxy--silencing their stories and compromising their authentic voice--teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining. Teaching grammar, vocabulary. and mechanics to low-income black and Hispanic students is giving them access to what Lisa Delpit, an African-American educator and a critic of progressive education methods, famously called the "culture of power."

Let me hasten to add that there should be no war between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics. It's not an either/or proposition. Kids are more likely to become engaged, thoughtful writers if they feel comfortable and competent with language. But at present, we expend too much effort trying to get children to "live the writerly life" and "develop a lifelong love of reading."

I loved this one by Jody Peltason:

So what was the New Dorp High revolution about? What made the difference?

First of all, it involved a single, sustained, school-wide focus. This is a much bigger deal than you might think if you do not work in schools. If you do, you will marvel at what principal Deirdre DeAngeles accomplished in picking one thing, getting everyone on board, and then sticking with it. Tyre writes,"By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject."

Reading that sentence as an English teacher who has been involved in more literacy-across-the-curriculum initiatives than I care to remember, I was filled with admiration and longing. How did they get all the teachers to do that?

As many teachers at New Dorp would surely acknowledge, changing your teaching practice is profoundly uncomfortable. Most teachers will eventually get on board with what works, but their schools often change course before they even have a chance to find out what that is. New initiatives are introduced every year, and the old ones die quietly in file cabinets.

Somehow, New Dorp stuck with its idea, and teachers across the building threw their shoulders to the wheel.

And most recently, Dan Willingham:

It's worth noting that these two advantages -- better writing and better reading -- will probably not accrue if most writing assignments consist of answering short questions, writing in journals, and completing worksheets -- exactly the writing tasks on which elementary school kids spend most of their time (Gilbert & Graham, 2010). Students need assignments that include writing in longer formats with some formal structural requirements.

A few essays are clunkers, in my view -- like a self-promotional one from some folks at Hampden-Sydney College -- but there are others worth reading. The Atlantic will be adding one a day during October.