Originally published on: Friday, October 19, 2012
The Atlantic had an article called “The Writing Revolution” last month. It is noteworthy in that it promotes a classical method to teaching writing, and eschews the modern methods of the past 30 years, which have produced nothing except students who cannot write. My neighbor showed me this article, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a publication like The Atlantic pin the blame on the methods of writing instruction in schools. Modern public schools are usually beyond reproach. The ‘criticism’ that one usually sees is tepid – tinker around the edges type stuff that is meaningless and impossible to implement. After all, the public schools are bastions of good feeling, hard working teachers, and the students, but for a few minor tweaks, would be scholars in the lyceum mold.
The article analyzes New Dorp High School, a middling high school on Staten Island, in NY City, that recognized a problem, and was determined to actually fix it. The article mentions some admirable teachers and administrators, particularly the principal, who were willing to fix what was broken, and not just say the right things and ‘hope’ that they would get better. The article begins with a student, Monica, who was a decent student, but who had no idea how to write. Here was a high schooler who could not form a well done paragraph, let alone connect ideas for an essay. How does a teenager get that far and not know how to connect ideas in writing? The teachers realized that the crux of the problem was that Monica (and others) had no idea how to use conjunctions. This paragraph tells the sordid tale: “But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally. Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.” (bold and italics mine)
Imagine any part of a child’s life other than school. Would you accept a mentor, coach, guide – a leader of any kind – saying that the child will “catch” the skill and incorporate it into their lives? I think most of us would dismiss it as charlatanry and immediately fire the person who promotes the ‘catch’ strategy. Look carefully at the motivation: “In an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing”. Now look at the cure: “Give students interesting creative-writing assignments: put that in a fun social context in which kids share their work. Students will “catch” what they need in order to become successful writers”. Look at the results. Monica is asked to write a paper on Alexander the Great. She came up with six borderline coherent sentences and was unable to continue.
The article goes on to talk about other ‘feel good’ methods of writing instruction – peer editing, journal writing, personal narrative, poetry… None of these things involve grammar instruction or any type of drill activity. They are all ‘fun’. Peer editing is what I call ‘lazy teaching’. Having peers, who are no more knowledgeable about writing than you, editing and commenting on your work, is useless. What can they contribute? It does lessen a teacher’s workload, however.
“At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,” said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write? “
This small anecdote in the article is hugely important. Freire went into the jungles of the Amazon, and wrote socialist and communist friendly pap about how his work with them proved the merits of his leftist worldview. While he was right about the innate power, skill and ability to learn of the average person, he used this platform to push a political agenda. The colleges of education picked this up (along with the fraudulent Jonathan Kozol) and used it to dumb down teachers and students. Aspiring teachers get a lot of theory, about politics it turns out, and not instruction on how to teach children how to write. My experience was similar. I was introduced to Freire’s work in graduate school, while getting my MS in Instructional Technology.
If one wants to express complex thoughts in writing, he must get formal (and not always fun) writing instruction. This was talked about in the article, and it reinforced my study of the Trivium, as rhetoric, the third leg of the Trivium, instructs how one might share, via speaking or writing, complex ideas. Yet more evidence that multiple choice exams are useless. They were abandoned by the Elite universities over one hundred years ago. This is not a coincidence.
THE CLASSICAL FIX
Here is the author on the Hochman Program – a program that would “not be unfamiliar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950”: “Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but,because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”
What I put in bold letters has been almost totally abandoned in the garden variety public schools today. Grammar instruction – appositive clauses (!) – as part of a formula for formal instruction? I was taught in the Colleges of Education that this is no longer done as it is no longer necessary and it is so boring that who could do it anyway? The experience shown at New Dorp HS by the teachers willing to adjust and the principal to subsume her ego and try something new shows that the old classical ways weren’t broken, and the politically correct feel good approach has been an abject failure.
A litmus test for the efficacy and usefulness of a program is now to look at the Education Establishment’s reaction to it. If it dislikes the approach, adopt it. If it loves the approach – abandon it. Here is the response to this successful paradigm shift by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College: “While (Calkins) welcomes a bigger dose of expository writing in schools, she says lockstep instruction won’t accelerate learning. “Kids need to see their work reach other readers … They need to have choices in the questions they write about, and a way to find their voice.”
So despite the evidence in the article, and the evidence in the nation as a whole, the evidence at your local public school – Prof. Calkins says lockstep instruction “won’t accelerate learning”. My track coach in high school told me in the late 1980’s that Teachers College had done more to ruin education in the United States than any other institution. Now I can see why.
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