A wide-ranging debate on how to best teach writing begins here on Tuesday, September 25.
In 2009, when Monica DiBella entered New Dorp, a notorious public high school on Staten Island, her academic future was cloudy. Monica had struggled to read in early childhood, and had repeated first grade. During her elementary-school years, she got more than 100 hours of tutoring, but by fourth grade, she’d fallen behind her classmates again. In the years that followed, Monica became comfortable with math and learned to read passably well, but never seemed able to express her thoughts in writing. During her freshman year at New Dorp, a ’70s-style brick behemoth near a grimy beach, her history teacher asked her to write an essay on Alexander the Great. At a loss, she jotted down her opinion of the Macedonian ruler: “I think Alexander the Great was one of the best military leaders.” An essay? “Basically, that wasn’t going to happen,” she says, sweeping her blunt-cut brown hair from her brown eyes. “It was like, well, I got a sentence down. What now?” Monica’s mother, Santa, looked over her daughter’s answer—six simple sentences, one of which didn’t make sense—with a mixture of fear and frustration. Even a coherent, well-turned paragraph seemed beyond her daughter’s ability. An essay? “It just didn’t seem like something Monica could ever do.”
For decades, no one at New Dorp seemed to know how to help low-performing students like Monica, and unfortunately, this troubled population made up most of the school, which caters primarily to students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams, a New York State graduation requirement: the essay questions were just too difficult. Many would simply write a sentence or two and shut the test booklet. In the spring of 2007, when administrators calculated graduation rates, they found that four out of 10 students who had started New Dorp as freshmen had dropped out, making it one of the 2,000 or so lowest-performing high schools in the nation. City officials, who had been closing comprehensive high schools all over New York and opening smaller, specialized ones in their stead, signaled that New Dorp was in the crosshairs.
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And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”