Creativity Is Not the Enemy of Good Writing

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Teaching is a compassionate profession, and caring about kids' feelings should be a crucial part of helping them learn. 

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Parasites were the subject of inquiry on a recent broadcast of Radiolab, a National Public Radio science show. Prior to hearing this broadcast, Bob, like most of us, was given to depicting parasites in cold, harsh terms. They were ugly and repellant organisms that lived off the nutrients of others. They conjured up images of the leeches covering Humphrey Bogart's body in The African Queen and, as the Radiolab broadcast suggested in its opening sequence, the alien that emerged from the chest of the space crew of that eponymous movie.

However by the end of the broadcast, Bob had a revelation: the relationship between humans and parasites is far more complex than he had ever imagined or his high school science teacher ever let on. Among several enlightening aspects, the show dealt with the finding that parasites, particularly hookworms, help control hyper inflammatory response in people with allergies. To this end, scientists are experimenting with parasite therapy with fairly positive results.

What does a story on parasites have to do with the administration, teachers, and students of New Dorp High School and their writing instruction as highlighted in "The Writing Revolution" by Peg Tyre? We suspect that Bob's initial understanding of parasites was based on a rudimentary inquiry into the subject, a reliance on what is often construed as established fact, and a desire to come to a simple, but satisfactory conclusion.

We, Stephanie and Bob, worry that the writing initiative at New Dorp is being viewed with a similar kind of narrow vision, perpetuating the simple and unhelpful dichotomies often construed as established fact in education rather than a deep inquiry into the complexities inherent in teaching and learning.

When positive change occurs in schools, there is a tendency to want to treat the experience like a controlled experiment in a lab, latch on to the latest innovation at that school, and then market it to schools everywhere. In the case of New Dorp, it's the twin ideas of focusing on expository writing and the direct teaching of language structure. These two ideas are set in opposition to two others in the story: creative expression in writing and writing skills being "caught" (rather than "taught") in student-centered classrooms.

These dichotomies don't exist in real classrooms, nor in the theories and practices grounding powerful literacy teaching.

One example is the "structured speaking" highlighted in the article: Students were asked to respond to specific prompts during class discussions (e.g., "I agree/disagree with ____ because..."). However, similar kinds of exchanges can also be heard in student-centered reading and writing workshops, which have long embraced direct teaching of language, reading, and writing (including expository writing). Evidence of such explicit teaching can be found in volumes of books and dozens of binders produced through New York City's own Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, arguably an epicenter of workshop teaching where it is always assumed that nothing can replace strong teaching and never assumed that writing will simply be "caught" by students.

Beyond our uneasiness with such dichotomies, we believe the key to the revolution at New Dorp is much more powerful and foundational than a particular approach to teaching writing or even an emphasis on language education. Empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see in Tyre's article.The principal and faculty, Tyre writes, "began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp's students were failing."

In other words, instead of looking outside to standards, new materials, high-tech resources, and external experts for the illusory magic writing solution, New Dorp began a research project conducted by their teachers in their own school. In doing so, teachers were positioned as researchers of students and student work in their classrooms. They began a deep inquiry into what students were and were not doing, which became data they used to shape their instruction and tailor it to the needs of their students.

In doing so, perhaps teachers became less interested in assigning blame, which is too often heaped on working-class and poor students who are perceived as having low intelligence and limited capabilities because of their "non-standard" oral English.

This points to a more subtle and insidious threat to teaching and learning in schools like New Dorp: classism. Linguists concerned with issues of social class demonstrated long ago the fallacy of correlating oral language with intelligence, and yet this myth persists and often shapes assumptions educators and others have about working-class and poor students, making them already "known" to be less capable and more culpable for their own failures to succeed.

Learning about both the strengths and struggles of students can help teachers rethink their instruction. By viewing their students as capable learners, it seems New Dorp teachers innovated methods that -- with concerted, consistent, and compassionate support -- led the students to conceive of themselves as writers, particularly of academic prose. The fact that this initiative was taken on as a school-wide effort impressed upon the students and the teachers that what they were doing was important for learning.

"We teach students, not programs," a local administrator recently told Stephanie. If we had to guess, it sounds as if New Dorp High School, as portrayed in Tyre's article, has decided to teach students. Teachers were positioned to use their professional knowledge and experiences to learn about their students, analyze their writing, and be invested in their success.

Despite David Coleman's despicable charge that "people really don't give a shit about what you feel or what you think" in the real world -- when teachers teach as if they do give a shit about what students feel or think, revolutions like the one at New Dorp take hold. David Coleman is dead wrong about the real world and his advice for teachers is dangerous. Instead, when teachers invest themselves in deep inquiry into their own practice, they gain the intellectual and emotional commitment necessary to teach in ways that are in the best interest of students.

What worries us about most media portrayals of education is the emphasis on results over process. As new teachers enter New Dorp, for example, they might be told to teach this writing "program" without having engaged in the intellectual work of searching for and responding to the most pertinent needs of their student writers.

And it can't be assumed that the students of New Dorp five years from now will be more or less the same as current students and in need of the same kind of instruction. Nothing, given our globalized and technological world, could be less true. Unless attempts are made to replicate the inquiry process and reassess student needs and teacher instruction, then, if we had to guess, the program won't be nearly as successful, and a new crisis will emerge that only committed and empowered teachers will be able to solve.

Desperate educational situations all over the country are emerging out of the ashes of more than a decade of policies that forced schools into narrowing their curriculum and teaching to the test. Should we be surprised that students from under-resourced schools haven't learned to be the strong analytical writers we wish they were? They have spent their entire school careers in the very places where surveillance was the most stringent, teaching the "standards" most scripted, and controlling the pace and content of instruction the most rigid.

Despite such restrictive policies and in the face of harsh criticism from media and politicians infatuated with tests and scores, many teachers in marginalized schools have struggled to hold onto their professionalism and integrity. As a result, and with few exceptions, underprivileged schools have suffered most deeply the consequences of poor state and national policies promoting test preparation as a guise for education.

But a return to more rigid teaching methods is not a way to solve the writing crisis in underprivileged schools. Actually teaching writing will help, and it seems that may begin to happen again after a decade of No Child Left Behind and the emphasis on skills-based reading instruction as a placeholder for literacy writ-large.

Teaching language will also help, though most of us equate language learning to parts of speech and diagramming sentences, which isn't the kind of language learning we are necessarily talking about. Instead, we argue that helping students inquire into the way language is used for them, against them, and by them will help them to see the written word as something they control rather than it controlling them.

If anything should be replicated from the experience of teachers, administrators, and students at New Dorp High School, it's the process they used for inquiring into the needs of their students and the cohesive and comprehensive plan they developed for addressing those needs. It is in that complexity, not the misguided adoption of programs from school-to-school, that new and insightful revelations are born.

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Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones

Stephanie Jones and Bob Fecho are two of the co-directors of the Red Clay Writing Project at the University of Georgia in Athens. Fecho is the author, most recently, of Teaching for the Students. Jones is co-author, most recently, of The Reading Turn-Around. She blogs at Engaged Intellectuals.

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