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Yet another debate: How to teach writing

favicon This year, I’m focusing mostly on reading, but I’ve long been interested in writing and how best to teach it.

That’s why I enjoyed reading “The Writing Revolution” in this month’s Atlantic (and in Iserotope Extras!). Author Peg Tyre tells the story of how one school — New Dorp High School on Staten Island — dramatically improved students’ writing skills.

The article is about many things and has already sparked a vigorous debate. But mostly, it’s about how the school marshaled its resources to do one thing well. Instead of spreading itself too thin on a number of projects, and rather than changing the school’s focus from year to year, New Dorp worked painstakingly over time and across disciplines on meticulous writing instruction.

My favorite parts were the stories about teaching. Teachers at the school moved away from the “catch method” — sometimes incorrectly called the “workshop model” — in which students improve their skills by writing whatever they want (usually creative fiction) and sharing their work with others. The idea is that students learn best by “catching” skills and knowledge through a constructivist approach.

This method, New Dorp teachers found, did not work for the school’s students, most of whom come from poor and working-class backgrounds. Instead, a more explicit approach was necessary. (College Board President David Coleman, architect of the Common Core State Standards, would agree with this view.)

Influenced by Judith Hochman (right), New Dorp teachers explicitly taught and modeled a detailed writing “recipe” (don’t say “formula,” Hochman says!) that students could follow. In addition to the basic essay structure, students learned how to make their sentences more complex using subordinating clauses like although, unless, and if. One student said:

There are phrases–specifically, for instance, for example–that help you add detail to a paragraph….Who would have known that?

Yes, there are worksheets and fill-in-the-blank exercises, but New Dorp’s approach doesn’t sound like the old-school grammar drill-and-kill. Rather, it seems similar to a recent instructional trend to encourage students to emulate mentor texts rather than focusing on mechanical and grammar errors. (The logic here is: We’re teachers, not copyreaders.)

Where does this all leave me? Well, it gets me thinking again about what I could have done differently last year to help my students pass the AP English examination. But it turns out that they did fairly well on the writing portion, which suggests that my strategy of frequent practice (an essay every week or so) plus intense, consistent coaching (online writing mentors over Google Docs) was somewhat effective.

But this article made me consider that perhaps I needed to be even more purposeful about the specific writing skills that successful beginning college students demonstrate. What exactly is good writing, what does it look like, and what are the nitty-gritty steps to get there?

As always, please let me know what you think! favicon


    • Mark Isero

      Annotation makes me happy. I found out, by the way, that if I Annotate an article and then you Annotate it, our Annotations will not (yet) appear on the same article. But we can hope for the future.

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