Let's make writing pleasant

Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, explains why writing instruction in the U.S. has failed: we dare not make it hard. This pillowed approach comes not from novice teachers, but from the NCTE itself.

Writing has “historically and inexorably been linked to testing,” says the NCTE. Moreover, it has been “associated with unpleasantness–with unsatisfying work and episodes of despair–and thus evoked a good deal of ambivalence.”

Fitzhugh takes us to the consequences of this strange historical analysis:

So, how does NCTE propose to free writing from its unhappy association with testing, episodes of despair, and so on? By encouraging students to do what they are doing already: texting, twitting, emailing, sending notes, sending photos, and the like-only this time it will be part of the high school “writing” curriculum. In other words, instead of NCTE encouraging educators to lift kids out of the crib, it wants them to jump in with them.

What happens when teachers encourage kids to just keep on doing what they’re already doing? They don’t learn how to write about anything. Lucy Calkins told Fitzhugh once, “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much.” But what happens when you teach writing without “getting into content”?

For one, students don’t write about the topic at hand, even if they have one. On a NAEP test, students were asked to write a brief review of a book worth preserving. of Fitzhugh cites part of a student’s review of Hermann Hesse’s Demian :

High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life.

I get it! I could write about Paradise Lost:

Life is full of trial and error. Sometimes we make big mistakes, but most of the time we make little ones. We should always remember that mistakes are surmountable–even when we make someone mad or fail a test. No matter how embarrassed we are, we can laugh at ourselves, learn from our mistakes, and move on.

Very pleasant and very sad.

For another excellent piece by Will Fitzhugh, see “Critical Likability.”


  1. NCTE makes me shake my head quite often — although English Journal carries some good stuff that does’t toe their policy line, and therefore makes the membership worth it.

    That said, I’m not sure you’re being fair to Calkins. If I were teaching a comp class, I wouldn’t be teaching much traditional content. All our courses are Lit & Comp, and while the kids are absolutely writing about something specific, sometimes the comp part gets skimped I think. That’s the issue Stanley Fish was lamenting a couple of weeks ago.

    Surely there’s a pragamatic approach that allows plenty of good comp instruction in which the students are writing about something.

    (Twitter class exercises are a fun way to teach summary, fwiw.)

  2. Diana Senechal says:

    True, if you are teaching a comp class it’s not the same as teaching a history, science, or literature class. But you can require the class to read certain essays and books, and you can challenge students on their arguments.

    A problem arises when teachers avoid making any judgment about the substance of the students’ writing. If students are not challenged on the substance, their writing will not improve.

  3. Diana makes a good point. I send my kids to school to be challenged to think and defend their point of view but also to learn how to see things from another’s view point. If teachers are not challenging my child to think about what they believe and why…then the teacher is not doing my child any favors.

    My experience of 14 years in government schools is my kids were challenged in this manner. However, they have been in their private school experience.

    Personally…I believe many public schools are too easy both in curriculum and expectations of students…that, to me, is a complete waste of my taxpayer dollars and does the kids much more harm than good….

  4. You can’t really teach comp without addressing substance — that’s cohesian, controlling idea, etc.

  5. Last night I watched (a part of) Bill Cosby’s symposium on children and education at Howard Univeristy. One of the panel members was the principal of a charter school in Harlem–located on the fourth floor of a building that housed a traditional public school on the first three floors. Cosby made the point that in (public) education we are reluctant to accept that what works in one location might very well work in another–even within the same building.

    The principal refused to take the bait in making a comparison between her school’s test scores (100% proficient) and whatever was happening downstairs (pointing out instead that NYC overall has shown improvement). But, she did make one very interesting point about how frequently we get caught up in these sorts of bashing dichotemies. She made reference to a recent flap–also discussed here, over whether it was better for students to read following their interests or to be assigned “the classics.” She summarized, of course they need both.

    I wonder if we are not going down this same rather useless path againg, here. Certainly there must be a place for exploring written communication through many media–including those that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago. I don’t tweet (yet), but I imagine that it challenges one to be succinct. I frequently email, and have watched colleagues grow in their ability to learn and observe the norms and etiquette for this medium. I recall an evaluation of a program that used email pen-pals in a structured program to teach writing skills (pen-pals were trained students of education). Compared to a tradition pen-pal program (where results were nil), this one was preferable–it had the advantages of immediacy and quantity.

    This does not in any way discount the need to be able to write with a consideration for particular content–whether the content is drawn from literature, from science, mathematics or history. In fact the bulk of writing–in a professional sense–has nothing whatsoever to do with literature. I have sometimes summarized my personal employability skills as the ability to read, write and understand great volumes of very dull material. A contract, a grant proposal, or a bulleted summary of legislation are not very sexy. But, if I never actually write a novel, I will know that my ability to write has made a difference in the world.

  6. “A contract, a grant proposal, or a bulleted summary of legislation are not very sexy”…but if the document involoves selling someone on something (and a grant proposal certainly does) then making it subtly sexy can be of great advantage.

  7. In Lionel Trilling’s story “Of this time, of that place,” an idiot student writes an essay about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”..

    “Coleridge invites us to enter with him into a warm, sunlit universe of human possibility”

    The professor/narrator given him an “F”; however, the student’s rich alumnus father gets involved and the professor is forced to change the grade to a C+.

    Today, the guy would probably have gotten an “A”.

  8. It used to be understood that education required persistence and effort. As a teacher/principal relative said, “learning is an active process, not a passive one.” Somehow, the idea that learning should be both effortless and fun has taken over the system. It’s all about entertainment.

  9. My college students enjoy being in the crib with the NCTE and their college “writing” teachers. It’s so much more fun than having to write well.

  10. A person will never be a good writer unless he or she is a good reader. You don’t learn to write by writing; you learn to write by reading… a lot.

    And of course, by and large, our students are atrocious readers. Many attest, often with great joy, how much they hate to read.

  11. timfromtexas says:

    Writing has failed in this country, because the methods used to teach it to those who need the lesson is false, failed , ridiculous and counter productive. It’s as all things educational in this country. It is all imagined by those who are legends in their own minds, but left the classroom after about 2 or 3 years to become an administrator or a consultant of some sort or another.

    There are proven methods. Using a proven method would eliminate, however, the education-goose that keeps laying the golden egg.

  12. timfromtexas says:

    The three most effective methods used in many other countries are the dictation, the reproduction, and transcription. Heaven forbid, could it be so simple? Yes.

  13. timfromtexas says:

    Yank the teachers, “administrators” “consultants” , and let’s not forget the “professors, out of their fiefdom. How, one might ask? Attack on the money side. For instance, is there a need for a 1045 page algebra textbook, or 745 page history text. Why is this?

  14. A Florida teacher just asked her class to write on this topic: “If you knocked your brother down, would you urinate in his mouth?”

    Maybe we shouldn’t give teachers too much leniency with creativity?

    Hall Monitor

  15. How long did you teach, timfromtexas?

  16. timfromtexas says:

    I taught 17 years in the U.S. and 3 years in Europe.

  17. And you taught writing through transcription? Really?

  18. timfromtexas says:

    Yes, however, transcription is the third step. The dictation is the first step. The reproduction follows, then transcribing. It seems absurd. I will go on if you are interested?

  19. timfromtexas says:

    Our continuing here will probably not be possible,because blog sites are as tv and movies, a short attention span activity.

  20. timfromtexas says:

    The dictation, however ,is not a short attention span activity. It requires total attention, because the student is required to write exactly what is dictated. Everything is dictated including all punctuation. If the dictation method is continued until the 6th grade, for example, no punctuation instruction is necessary. In addition,heshe learns to sit still, listen,and take notes. This however, seems to take the teacher and teaching out of the equation. Not so.