As a parent whose children have been taught by NWP teachers, I know firsthand that these students are the lucky ones, for they see themselves as writers, too. With that identity comes the bonus of scoring better on standardized tests than students who haven't been taught by writing teachers. More importantly, though, they learn that writing is hard, joyful, worthwhile work that is meant to be shared with others.
One might imagine that the deeply inventive practice I experienced as Kelly Ford's student is no longer possible today. It's true that we are not immune to mandates like No Child Behind and the steady stream of scripted curricula and standardized tests that have spun out of it. Like the students at New Dorp High School, our students must perform well on tests like the Regent's Exam, too, or else. Many NWP teachers work in some of the toughest schools in the nation, schools that could also use a writing revolution. More often than not, the "solution" has been to tighten the screws so that the cogs that are our students and teachers will keep the wheel on turning.
The solution has been to scrap the poetry, the journals, and the peer writing groups. Dust off the grammar books because it's time to get back to the basics. It's time to teach to the test.
After all, the wholesale revision of the writing curriculum is the only way to bring about a writing revolution, right? At first glance, it appears to be just the thing that worked at New Dorp, the high school profiled in the latest issue of The Atlantic, where students have made undeniably remarkable gains in passing the Regents Exam and are graduating in record numbers compared to recent years.
It's true that New Dorp High School made drastic changes, replacing the old curriculum with a new focus on a single genre, argumentative writing, that is also emphasized on the Regents Exam. As a result of these efforts, it would be surprising if students didn't improve at least slightly on the Regents Exam. Yet many schools have viewed curricular changes as the silver bullet that will raise test scores and have not experienced such unprecedented results. A closer look reveals that the most important investment Deirdre DeAngelis, the school's principal, made was not in a new curriculum, but in teachers.
DeAngelis provided opportunities for teachers to visit a successful writing program at the Windward School in White Plains. She invited in professional consultants, not just for the one-shot workshop that is so common in schools, but over a sustained period. Teachers were given the space and time to reflect critically on their writing instruction and to comb through student work to determine what students were doing well, where the gaps were, and what they as teachers could do to fill them.
Meanwhile, students wrote every day and in every academic subject, and teachers began teaching writing, not just assigning it. They helped students attend closely to language, not merely by diagramming sentences or completing grammar worksheets, but by analyzing the function of transitional words like "although" and "despite" so that they could employ them for rhetorical purposes in their own writing.