Academic Writing Isn't a Throwback to the 1950s

The woman who inspired the "writing revolution" described in a new Atlantic magazine story explains why her methods are neither rigid nor formulaic.

old-classroom.jpgCharlie Dave/Flickr

Over the course of a long career, I have been a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, a head of an independent school for learning and language disabled students, and a superintendent of a public school district with a population of students from extremely deprived and troubled backgrounds.

It became obvious to me years ago that we educators were failing at teaching writing to all but a very small percentage of linguistically gifted students. Most of our students were not transferring and generalizing what they had been taught in one class to other subjects or to the next grade. I was acutely aware that despite three graduate degrees from a highly respected institution, I knew almost nothing about the research that would inform improved writing instruction.

This is the problem at the heart of Peg Tyre's Atlantic story "The Writing Revolution." The teachers at New Dorp, the Staten Island school she profiled, understandably expected incoming ninth graders to enter high school with a few fundamentals, such as how to construct a paragraph and write a simple essay. But the students there did not have these skills -- not because they couldn't learn them but because they hadn't been taught them.

Although "The Writing Revolution" is a fine description of the successful implementation of an innovative, evidence-based writing program, the article does not accurately reflect the instructional approach -- an approach largely modeled after the one I developed at the Windward School. It is definitely not the drill-and-kill 50's style writing curriculum, a throwback to a time when grammar was isolated from subject matter and feedback on student writing was too vague to help students truly improve their work.

Furthermore, it is misleading for Tyre to call the program "initially, a rigid, unswerving formula." The principles relating to sentences, outlines, and compositions are clearly established and remain the same from grade to grade. But from the outset, there is plenty of room for teachers to individualize lessons, adapt the strategies to any content area, and create a variety of activities that reflect the priorities that have been established for the class. And as Tyre makes clear, once students master the skills required for effective written communication, they are encouraged to bend the rules.

It is insulting to the students to assume that a topic has to be about their own lives in order for the assignment to be interesting.

The program adopted by New Dorp challenges the notion that preparing students to master expository writing will stifle their creativity. We've reared a generation of students on this diet and we see the outcome of that misguided thinking in test scores throughout the country.

But while the New Dorp program does focus on the fundamentals of writing, it doesn't do so in a dull, creativity-killing way. Assignments that ask students to explain a process, justify a position, describe a room, or trace the history of an event can be extremely engaging to them (depending on the topic, of course, and provided they are taught the skills needed to complete them). It is insulting to the students to assume that the topic has to be about their own lives in order for the assignment to be interesting.

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Judith Hochman is the founder and senior faculty member of the Windward Teacher Training Institute. She is the former superintendent of the Greenburgh Graham Union Free School District in Hastings on Hudson, New York, and former head of Windward School in White Plains.

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