Writing revolution: Back to the past

A Staten Island high school with mostly poor and working-class students, New Dorp High was tired of failure. After trying various reforms, such as small learning communities, Principal Deirdre DeAngelis and her faculty set a goal:  Teach students to write clearly.

When students learned to write — in history and science, as well as English — they learned to read, argue and analyze, writes Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. Test scores rose significantly and the graduation rate soared.

Nell Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, worked with teachers to figure out why New Dorp students couldn’t write. The poor writers had basic reading skills, but didn’t use “coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like forandnorbutoryet, and so.”

Teacher Fran Simmons asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and answer a prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

. . . More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

Twenty-five years ago, schools of education began teaching new teachers that writing should be “caught, not taught,” says Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State.

Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. . . . Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

. . . For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in “peer editing,” without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction.

Many kids didn’t “catch” writing, writes Dorp.  Pressured to raise reading scores, secondary school teachers neglected writing instruction.

The principal sent New Dorp teachers for training at Windward, a private school for children with language-related learning disabilities.

Children . . .  are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—butbecause, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.

In every class but math, New Dorp students wrote.  In chemistry class, Monica DiBella had to describe the elements with subordinating clauses.

Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

Learning parts of speech improved Monica’s reading comprehension. Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

In class discussions, students were required to use certain phrases, such as: “I agree/disagree with ___ because …”

In Monica’s fifth-period-English discussion of the opening scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, teacher Angelo Caterina asks why Willie Loman is so tired.

“Willie Loman seems tired because he is getting old,” ventured a curly-haired girl who usually sat in the front. “Can you explain your answer?,” Monica called out. The curly-haired girl bit her lip while her eyes searched the book in front of her. “The stage direction says he’s 63. That’s old!”

. . .  “I agree that his age is listed in the stage direction,” said John Feliciano. “But I disagree with your conclusion. I think he is tired because his job is very hard and he has to travel a lot.”

Robert Fawcett, a loose-limbed boy in a white T-shirt, got his turn. Robert had been making money working alongside the school’s janitors. “I disagree with those conclusions,” he said, glancing at the prompts. “The way Willie Loman describes his job suggests that the kind of work he does is making him tired. It is repetitive. It can feel pointless. It can make you feel exhausted.”

New Dorp is now considered a model school, writes Tyre.

Common Core Standards stress expository and analytic writing over personal narratives, she notes. But many writing experts think students will be bored by lessons in grammar, sentence structure and argument. Creative writing will motivate students, they believe.

Meanwhile, Monica DiBella is applying to college. Her Regents scores predict she’s ready.  “I always wanted to go to college, but I never had the confidence that I could say and write the things I know.” She smiles and sweeps the bangs from her eyes. “Then someone showed me how.”