American Schools October 2012

The Writing Revolution

For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs. So, faced with closure, the school’s principal went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class. What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform.
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Monica DiBella had trouble writing a coherent paragraph as a freshman, and her future seemed limited. Now a senior, she is applying to colleges. (Kyoko Hamada)

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”

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.

The catch method works for some kids, to a point. “Research tells us some students catch quite a bit, but not everything,” Graham says. And some kids don’t catch much at all. Kids who come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties, he explains, “can’t catch anywhere near what they need” to write an essay. For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction.

Then, in 2001, came No Child Left Behind. The program’s federally mandated tests assess two subjects—math and reading—and the familiar adage “What gets tested gets taught” has turned out to be true. Literacy, which once consisted of the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and express complex thoughts about the written word, has become synonymous with reading. Formal writing instruction has become even more of an after­thought.

Teacher surveys conducted by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany (part of the State University of New York system), found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks. “Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

Back on Staten Island, more New Dorp teachers were growing uncomfortably aware of their students’ profound deficiencies—and their own. “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?

Seeking out ideas, DeAngelis took a handful of teachers to visit the Windward School, a small private school for first-through-ninth-graders located in a leafy section of White Plains, a suburb of New York City. To be accepted there, children have to possess at least average intelligence, have a language-based learning disability, and have parents who can afford the $45,000 yearly tuition. Students attend Windward for two or three years before reentering mainstream schools, and because so many affluent children move in and out of Windward, the writing program there, which was developed by the former Windward head Judith Hochman, has become something of a legend among private-­school administrators. “Occasionally, we’d have a student attend Windward. And they’d come back and we’d find that that student had writing down,” says Scott Nelson, the headmaster at Rye Country Day, an exclusive independent school in Westchester County. Nelson figured that Rye Country Day kids could benefit en masse from the Windward expository-writing program. Three years ago, Nelson sent his entire middle-school English and social-studies staff to be trained by Hochman.

“Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, 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!”

Hochman, 75, has chin-length blond hair and big features. Her voice, usually gentle, rises almost to a shout when she talks about poor writing instruction. “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.” Because the tenets of good writing are difficult to teach in the abstract, the writing program at Windward involves a large variety of assignments, by teachers of nearly every subject. After DeAngelis visited the school, she says, “I had one question and one question only: How can we steal this and bring it back to New Dorp?”

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Peg Tyre is the director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation and the author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.

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