California English Journal
The Report of the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges will not set hearts beating more quickly, but it does draw attention to a problem at the center of American school and college life, the fact that large numbers of students have great difficulty expressing their ideas clearly in writing. The report argues that this is an especially serious problem in an economy where increasing numbers of workers are called on to use writing on the job, and where even popular culture depends on writing “in ways hard to imagine even a few generations ago.” It also makes a number of recommendations for policy makers and practitioners. In a nutshell, the report argues that we need clear state and federal writing standards, better-trained teachers of writing across the disciplines, more resources and better assessment. Students also need to spend more time writing.
Titled The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution, the report claims that once upon a time, before education became so universally available, writing policy and pedagogy “united around the proposition that how to say things correctly, how to say them well, and how to make sure that what one said made sense were important educational values.” We can argue about what saying things “correctly” might mean, but no one can argue with the claim that writing well and making oneself understood are clear and appropriate goals. Fortunately, the report does not take a narrow, career oriented approach to the importance of good writing, arguing that “[t]he reward of disciplined writing is the most valuable job attribute of all: a mind equipped to think.”
Those of us who teach writing on a regular basis, and especially those of us who have been connected with the National Writing Project Network, will not find anything in the report that we didn’t already know. I certainly do not see anything “revolutionary” in its recommendations. But we will be able to draw on it to reinforce many of the arguments we have been advancing for years. One of the report’s many findings will serve to illustrate this point.
The report notes that “most fourth grade students spend less than three hours a week writing.” Based on the informal studies my future elementary school teachers have been conducting for the last ten years, I would be very surprised to find that many elementary school students spend anywhere near three hours a week writing. For the past six years, students in my “Literacy and Language Development” class have collected writing samples from elementary students. In addition, they have interviewed the writers, their teachers and parents, and have spent time in classrooms when language arts was being taught. Time and time again, my students have been saddened and depressed to find that (a) they are able to collect very few student writing samples over the course of a semester - at any grade level, and (b) the samples they do collect tend to be very short or to consist of one sentence answers to simple comprehension questions.
I point out to my students, as the report does also, that one of the problems confronting teachers is the lack of time they have to address the teaching of writing. Time is a major consideration when considering any educational reform. The report notes that high school teachers who face between 120 and 200 students a week and who ask for “a weekly one-page paper are immediately overwhelmed with the challenge of reading, responding to, and evaluating what their request produces.”
In an earlier essay in this journal (“Responding to Student Writing,” California English, June 2001) I explained the mathematics of responding to student writing. Allow me a brief repetition. If 150 students write a weekly one-page paper and you take just five minutes on each one, asking questions, making comments, correcting a few errors and recording your assessment, you’ll need 750 minutes, 12.5 hours each week for that task alone. That’s why it doesn’t happen. None of us can afford that kind of time. But the report also offers us a partial solution to this problem. And this solution, it turns out, is also one that many of us have been advocating for years: writing across the curriculum. If just two of your students’ subject matter teachers (science and social science, for example) shared responsibility for this minimal writing task, a weekly one-page paper, the time required of each teacher would immediately come into the realm of the possible - a little over four hours a week or one hour each weekday evening.
But if our colleagues are to share the teaching of writing with us, at least two things will have to change. First of all, English teachers must stop being snotty about the teaching of writing. English teachers are not the only ones who can recognize when an essay is disorganized or when a sentence does not make sense. English teachers do not have a monopoly of wisdom on what constitutes good writing or on how to help students produce it. Second, other subject matter teachers must give up the convenient fiction that they have too much content to “cover” to be able to spend time teaching writing. As the report notes, “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else.” If students are to understand scientific concepts, in other words, they must be explaining their ideas in writing. And in reading and responding to their ideas, the science teacher becomes a writing teacher.
But students don’t have to “struggle with the details” if they’re simply copying passages from a textbook or parroting ideas from their notes. And they don't have to “wrestle” with anything if, in despair over their weak skills, you simplify the writing task to the point where there’s no struggle at all. Students, whatever their level of skill or competence, must be assigned authentic and challenging writing tasks if they’re going to be engaged. And the only way they can get better at communicating with someone else is if we tell them when we don’t understand and help them to express their ideas more clearly.
The most serious problem I see in my students’ writing is not that they can’t spell or that their punctuation is poor. It’s not that they have a limited vocabulary or unsophisticated sentence structure. It’s not that they tend to be disorganized, illogical or simplistic in expressing their ideas, though I see all of these problems. It is that all too often sentences are simply incoherent. They do not write what they mean, and they cannot possibly mean what they write! By helping students to make their sentences express more clearly what they mean, every teacher could become a writing teacher. And to do this one needs no technique more sophisticated than the ability to ask the kind of questions that are part of almost everyone’s rhetorical arsenal. Every teacher can become a writing teacher by asking writers questions such as the following:
It is not easy teaching students how to write well and it is not easy for students to learn to write well, but it really is not difficult to make a good start. Here is my concrete suggestion for how any teacher could start improving student writing today, without investing in any new technology and without arguing about standards or curriculum or anything else:
My suggestion has the following virtues. It
My suggestion, however, also has what some will see as drawbacks:
Of course, I am oversimplifying. All change is hard, and change that requires more work on the part of teachers already burdened by unprecedented political interference is even harder. But students’ writing cannot get better unless (a) they write, and (b) we respond to their writing. If we agree that learning to write well is important, as the report claims, and if we agree with Sheridan Blau that “[t]here is nothing else that we ask all our students to do in school that even approaches writing in the intellectual and psychological demands that it makes on students,” then we have to stop doing something we are currently doing so we have the time to become writing teachers.
In April 2003, the College Board's National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges published The Neglected "R" The Need for a Writing Revolution. After reading the useful report and being asked by parents how they can support their children's development as writers, I decided to use our local newspaper to share what I knew. The article has prompted some interesting responses, including several requests from grandparents about how to publish their life stories. It occurs to me that awakening parents' imaginations about writing can only help our students.
You may have seen that The College Board just released The Neglected "R" The Need for a Writing Revolution, and that Bob Kerrey will lead a five-year implementation campaign, whose purpose will be to put writing "squarely at the center of the school agenda," as the College Board's press release puts it.
The report itself makes a variety of hard-headed recommendations, including the need for states to have writing standards; the doubling of the amount of time that students write, in all subjects and all grade levels; completion of a course in the theory and practice of teaching writing as a prerequisite for a teacher's license; appropriate use of technology to enhance writing instruction; university-schools partnerships to improve literacy education, especially for English-language learners; and the necessary funding to accomplish these ambitious goals. Perhaps you're a parent of a school-age child, and you're wondering how you can help your daughter or son to become an effective writer who derives pleasure from what many see as a lifelong process. Perhaps you agree with Bob Kerrey that our democracy and freedom depend on children learning to write.
I've taught writing at the university for over thirty years, and for almost that long I have worked with kindergarten through college teachers to improve the teaching of writing as director of UCSC's Central California Writing Project. Hundreds of Monterey Bay area teachers have participated in our intensive summer institutes, in which they share their best teaching practices, study the relevant research, and do a great deal of their own writing and rewriting. We often talk about what parents can do to enhance teachers' efforts, and this is a small fraction of what I've heard:
**As with your child's early education about the birds and the bees, let him or her lead the conversation to define what sort of help would be welcome. By listening to what your child would find useful, you'll be reinforcing the idea that an author has some authority, especially when it comes to revising his or her own text.
**Ask teachers to talk to you about their writing program and to define one or two roles for you to play that won't intrude on their instructional plans. They may ask you to help your child to imagine readers' needs by posing questions like, "Who would benefit from reading what you're writing and what does he need to know about your purpose?" Don't try to displace your child's teachers; collaborate with them.
**Parents should try to be interested readers of their child's writing. This means asking lots of questions, showing curiosity about the subject your child is addressing, sustaining an openness to learning from what your child writes. **Parents should avoid being obsessed by errors. If all you do is point out what's incorrect, you'll neglect what your child is trying to express and engender defensiveness and impose humiliation. If your child asks advice about spelling, punctuation and usage, for example, be modest in your responses. You don't have to do everything all at once. It will be overwhelming to your child and compromise the value of producing drafts that are meant to be revised over time. In conversation with teachers, find out when and how they teach editing, and ask if they want you to pay attention to other aspects of the writing process. **Parents should let their child see them writing and, from time to time, read aloud or let their child read their unpolished prose or poetry. Even reading a letter or postcard before it is mailed will give a child access to adults who write. Ask your child for advice about word choice or sentence structure when you're writing. Invite him or her into the universe of writers that exists outside of school.
**If you are unsure of your English, perhaps because it is your second or third language, share your writing in whatever language works for you. If you're self-conscious about your English and afraid that you will mislead your child by sharing your own uncertainties and errors, consider how your child will benefit from having an ally in what is sometimes a difficult relationship with writing.
**Parents should celebrate their child's effort to take risks as a writer, which often means that he or she will make new sorts of errors. That's how people learn to write, so pay attention to the aspirations and the progress that you see, and be supportive. **Parents should point out how conspicuous writing is in our civic lives by sharing newspaper articles that become our public record, letters to the editor that lead to conversations among neighbors, and the vast amount of writing that shapes television shows and movies.
**Finally, parents should do what they can to encourage adults in their family's circle of friends, including teachers, to write. Ask them if they've written anything that they'd like to share. Support efforts to give teachers time for professional dialogue during the workday, and express your interest in reading what they're discovering about education.
Parents have a vital role to play in furthering writing's potential to enhance democracy. The "writing revolution" called for in The Neglected "R" can't happen without you. If you'd like to hear more, please get in touch with me at The Central California Writing Project, (831) 459-4506.
In The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution, a report by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges released in April 2003, the commission recommends, That policy should aim to double the amount of time most students spend writing, require a writing plan in every school district, insist that writing should be taught in all subjects and at all grade levels.' (3) However, in recent years, our school district, like most, has focused attention, time, and money on the improvement of math and reading. How can districts, schools, or individual teachers begin to re-establish writing as an equal partner ãRä in our studentsâ educational experiences?
In 2001-02, Vista Unified School District, where I teach at Roosevelt Middle School, eliminated our district-wide writing assessment. The staff development time that had previously been allocated for scoring student papers was relegated to more 'content specific' workshops or trainings. The teachers whose focus is writing and the teaching of writing mourn the loss of opportunities for students to write and teachers, in all curricular areas, to score studentsâ writing using a rubric. It isn't so much the one-day assessment and subsequent scoring we miss (although the vision of specific days when all kids wrote and other days when their teachers scored their writing was powerful). No, it is the resulting lack of attention given to writing and practicing for the writing assessment, and the loss of time and value given to train teachers in all content areas to holistically score writing that we mourn. The elimination of this assessment means there is less writing in our schools.
Even before The Neglected "R" was published, my principal, Dr. Larrie Hall, had the foresight to realize how the loss of writing would impact student learning. After attending a series of summer institutes for principals at Harvard and working with Dr. Douglas Reeves from the Center for Performance Assessment at the institutes, Dr. Hall became convinced that students' learning in all curricular areas is increased and enriched through writing. Last school year, after the demise of our district-wide writing assessment, he asked that teachers in all curricular areas have their students produce at least two pieces of writing for each class. He also wanted to read the student writing, so he and the administrative team became readers for our students' work.
Dr. Hall didn't just demand and expect that writing would happen, he helped build a support network for teachers who were inexperienced or uncomfortable with writing in their specific curricular areas. Knowing that I am a Writing Project fellow, he asked that I present several ideas for writing across the curriculum and offer support for teachers who were uncertain how to use writing in their curriculum. During the presentation, teachers worked in curricular groups to generate ideas for writing that could be done within the context of their standards-based lessons. Some of the ideas included learning logs, short paragraphs at the end of tests reflecting studentsâ learning during a unit of study, news reports on games played at P.E. (imitating sports writers), and brief essay tests. By the end of the staff meeting, most teachers felt confident that they could assign writing that fit with their curriculum; however, some teachers (especially in our physical education department where classes are very large) voiced concerns about the time required to read and score so much student writing. Rubric scoring was presented as an option, but not all teachers had access to rubrics that fit with their writing assignments. In the Neglected "R" report, the authors recognized the challenge of assessing writing. 'More attention must be paint to writing. More time must be found for it. And teachers must be provided with the time and resources required if they are to perform their work professionally.' (21) With the budgetary restrictions so common in California today, both time and resources are scarce commodities.
Another way writing is becoming a less neglected "R" in our school is our Family Writing Night. During this yearly evening event, students and their families come to school to write and learn more about the writing standards for each grade level (6-8). The event was not nearly as well attended as our Family Reading Night, but the ten families in attendance reported that the evening was fun and well worth the missed evening of television. As they sat huddled in small clusters writing family stories, I was impressed by the richness of discussion and the value each family gave to the writing of their story. No one wanted to share their story that evening, but one father commented that he was saddened by the low attendance since this was "one of the best" activities he and his family had ever attended at school.
While these activities will not result in our meeting the neglected R's goal to "double the amount of time most students spend writing," they are a start. As we plan for next year, writing will continue to be a focus. There will be changes in response to teachersâ concerns about assessment of writing and more discussion about ways to increase writing in all curricular areas. Weâll schedule another Family Writing Night and offer some suggestions on ways that parents can help their student writers. Writing will remain a focus at our school. We have a principal and staff who recognize the importance of studentsâ writing because, as eloquently stated in the Neglected "R" report, "Writing is the way that students connect the dots of their knowledge." (3)
I read the headline of July 16, 2003 with mixed emotion: Exit exam pushed back 2 years. The sub-headline continued: High school students graduating in 2006 will be the first who must pass. Regardless of the vagaries of the political climate and serious concerns about equity and accountability, the test marches on. This September, once again, I will have a part in beginning the journey through high school with ninth grade students who must pass the CAHSEE.
One of my colleagues feminizes the test as "Cassie" (CAHSEE) which brings to mind pig tails, lacy anklets, and patent leather Mary-Janes. Another refers to the "Hissy" (HSEE), conjuring fits and fangs, and venomous vipers. I have preferred to visualize the California High School Exit Exam as the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy knew she had to get there, but it wasn't the end of the journey. Entering the Emerald City would allow her the access she needed to continue to achieve her long-term goals. Embracing this inevitable assessment helps to define my role for my ninth grade students. On the first Wednesday after Labor Day I become the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man, guiding them along the Yellow Brick Road to the Exit Exam - an apt metaphor because every single day, I need wisdom, courage, and lots and lots of heart.
Although ninth graders are not permitted to take the exit exam, the road begins here in preparation for the test. I give each student a copy of the English Language Arts Standards for ninth and tenth grades on the first day of class, along with the parent letter/syllabus. We begin the year focused on what they need to achieve two years in the future. Does this awareness of CAHSEE diminish wide reading, creative writing, and broad discussion? My answer is an emphatic no. Rich and powerful texts are vital to preparing students for this test, and I become a guide and resource for students in our learning community as they read, write, and discuss their way to understanding.
The CAHSEE asks students to read and analyze texts and to understand and explicate an author's diction, tone, and purpose. These CAHSEE goals are consistent with my goals for students. In our classroom, as we read a text (both silently and aloud), we analyze what the author is doing. Students practice metacognition, thinking about their thinking, with each other. When we begin talking about analyzing texts, we open our block class periods by singing "If I Only Had a Brain," as an example of metacognition?knowing what we know and don't know. Many of my students have not had to wrestle in this way with a text or to think about the possibility they may have to take a position on what an author is doing, not merely say if they liked a book or not.
Teaching them to read critically is the first step on the road. The State Board of Education voted to decrease the number of testing days from three to two by requiring students write only one essay instead of two. I believe that systematically, methodically, and consistently teaching them to be able to write an essay on demand is a vital next step toward the Emerald City.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is our first novel and we pay special attention to the chapter called "Rice Sandwich." In this chapter, Esperanza, the main character, argues with her mother about being allowed to eat lunch in her school's cafeteria. After students discuss Esperanza's problem, the homework for the night is to create a reasonable position with specific points on an issue that the student has argued about with his or her parents. Various topics have included being given a cell phone, enrolling in driver's training classes, receiving a new gaming system, or revising an existing family curfew. The next period, I choose a gregarious student who has done the homework to come to the front and to pick a partner to be his or her parent. The verbal argument ensues. The rules are that the argument cannot degenerate into name calling or "because I said so." This is silly and fun for students of any "ability" level, especially because it is oral. After this scenario plays out, we review what happened. The student had to have a position. S/he had to have points which supported the position, evidence to prove each point, and an analysis or explanation of how each piece of evidence verified each point. Then another parent/child group comes to the front to present an argument.
After students model thesis and support through role playing, they turn their attention to writing and what it means to build an argument on paper. The creation of a position (thesis statement) and the subsequent support of that position with claims which can be verified by evidence analyzed by the writer is the goal. "T.E.A." is the heart of the essay writing process my students internalize from September through June. Using the acronym T.E.A. (Topic sentence which supports the student's thesis statement, Evidence, Analysis), I teach the students that the body paragraphs of their essays must contain each of these elements. The students copy the following essay format every time they write a literary analysis.
The first time we write one of these essays, I take suggestions from the crowd and we write the entire essay together. I write on the overhead and the students copy it as well. We agree on a thesis statement?the argument we want to make. We look for evidence?direct quotes?from the book, citing page numbers parenthetically. We discuss how our evidence supports the point we are trying to make and shoot for three body paragraphs. Students take the essay home, type it or re-write it neatly in pen, and bring it back the next class period. This essay counts for one of the required essays during the term. It is graded, every student who does this receives an "A." They have had their first guided practice writing an essay that is a literary analysis. They have made it "look" right. They have revisited the essay at home. They have "done" their first one.
Then we ease on down the road. We read our district core list: Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, the Odyssey, various poems and short stories, and Romeo and Juliet. And for every major work and most of the minor ones, we write an essay. With each essay I remove more and more teacher support and require students to own more and more of the process.
This happens with our next novel. Chapter Three in Of Mice and Men contains another wonderful example of an argument? Candy pleads for the life of his dog, foreshadowing Lennie's demise. We read that section of the book aloud in class, examining Candy and Carlson's statements. After the end of the book, the students circle their desks and discuss whether or not George was right to kill Lennie. This time, instead of evidence from their own lives, students must have evidence which supports their oral arguments from the text. The discussion prepares the students with arguments for both opinions. Their position on the issue becomes the thesis statement for their next essay?George was right to kill Lennie, or George was wrong to kill Lennie. The students copy the essay format again. As a class we compose an introduction, but then each person chooses one of the two thesis statements and writes the body paragraphs on his or her own.
Some are ready to go, others need more help and more practice. We write and write and write and they do get better at it. The English Language Learners, the resource students, the gifted students, and the "regular" students all strengthen their writing using the T.E.A. model. The format never varies so that they always know exactly what they will have to do. I do, however, differentiate for differing students' needs and abilities. The novels, poems, or short stories the students write about, the required length of the essays, the amount of evidence that is satisfactory to "prove" the topic sentence, and the level of the analysis are points for differentiation, but the format of the essay never changes.
By the end of the ninth grade year, my students have a portfolio which contains nine essays that analyze literature, two essays about an autobiographical incident, two first-hand biographical essays, a short story, a research paper, and a poetry anthology. Each semester's final exam requires students to write two timed, on-demand essays mimicking those in the CAHSEE and scored using CAHSEE rubrics. I know that as sophomores they will have another year of training and another year to improve and refine their skills. But I am confident that in June my freshmen are well on their way to entering the Emerald City; they just need to continue to follow the Yellow Brick Road.
No, you are not experiencing déjà vu. The June issue of California English focused on writing as does the magazine in your hands. So many teachers and researchers submitted outstanding articles that we have extended our professional conversation of this topic across two issues. Writing instruction is that important.
Last spring the National Commission on Writing in American Schools and Colleges released “The Neglected ‘R:’ The Need for a Writing Revolution.” The report declares that writing is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many. Their recommendations include:
In this issue Writing Project leaders: Angus Dunstan, Nancy Pace-Skinner, and Don Rothman offer insights into this report. Liane Cismowski presents ideas for helping students have success on California’s exit exam. Vicki Kurtz describes the challenges of a school-wide writing assessment. Joel Kammer, Robert Rempe, and Stephanie Patterson present models of effective writing pedagogy. I hope that these two issues of California English on writing will be valuable resources to you in the coming school year.
Before you get too deeply immersed in your new students’ papers, consider applying to be a presenter at CATE2004 in San Diego February 5-8. The form is easy to access at www.cateweb.org. Major speakers include Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Chabon, Sharon Flake, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Gail Tsukiyama. You want to be there!