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.
My decision to focus on expository writing was driven by my belief that it was impossible for students to reach their potential -- either academically or in the workplace -- if they could not write well. The schools in which I worked became labs, developing the strategies that would move us toward our goal. As we achieved success, there were many requests for professional development, coming from affluent suburbs as well as the inner city. Visitors on tours of our school saw the astonishing progress the students were making and their enjoyment and pride in their work.
When my colleagues and I began presenting our principles of good writing instruction at other schools, we expected resistance, skepticism and maybe even hostility. Self-centered writing has been encouraged for so many years that there are many teachers wedded to the "creative" approach when they develop writing assignments. Much writing instruction prior to ninth grade, and at times even in high school, is based around journals, free writing, memoirs, poems and fiction.