More Writing, Please

4 Jan

Writing — is there any more important skill in today’s world? And, more importantly for us educators, are we doing the teaching of it the justice it deserves?

In a perfect world, I think every high school would do what schools like Loomis Chaffee have done and require all students to take an additional writing-intensive course, outside their English course, as a graduation requirement. Most schools that do this offer the course to all sophomores and any new juniors. I’ve seen models of the course in which students only meet for a long block once a week, and others where the schedule allows the students a whole extra class. At some schools the class is taught by one teacher all year; at others, like Loomis, a rotating cadre of teachers teaches a pre-set curriculum.

The result is that students have English class to work on several skills: reading critically, speaking, presenting, and writing. But it almost isn’t enough anymore to rely on English class, which in some systems only meets twice a week, to fulfill the role of writing instruction in a high-school student’s life. Ideally, students are writing in math, science, history, and the arts on a regular basis, but the reality is that this is not always (and even sometimes rarely) the case. And even if they are writing in those classes, they are rarely learning the craft of writing in them. There is little time for it, and, frankly, a great math or music teacher may not be skilled in the finer points of writing instruction.

This is where a strong writing program can pay huge dividends, both to the school as a whole and the student’s future. Imagine the outcome if all sophomore students in all high schools had a required writing course that covered a handful of relevant writing techniques — from how to write a clear, succinct email, to how to write a college essay, to how to write a tweet that will most likely be retweeted, to how to write an ironic opinion piece on the value of homework. The course could cover the most important conventions and usage problems that always crop up in student writing, and its focus would be to engage students in writing that is varied, interesting, and useful — instead of a repetition of the same multi-paragraph literary essay they will likely see often in their English courses.

Teachers, students, and graduates of schools that offer programs similar to this sing its praises and credit it as being one of the most salient, important features of their high school education. There are few skills that cut across so many other fields as writing, and we are doing students (and their teachers) a disservice by not requiring more skilled, focused, teaching of it in a purposeful way.

I was just speaking with a friend who is a big-wig in the banking world. She cites the ability to communicate, both in team-work and in writing, as the single most important success factor in the business world. She also said it’s a hard talent to come by these days.

My advice to those heading off to college soon: double major in English, journalism, or creative writing in addition to whatever your field of interest is. If you want to be a doctor, do what my aunt did, and major in English while fulfilling all the pre-med course requirements. She credits her strong writing ability with her early success in publishing in the medical field, helping to advance her career. Double major in English and Business, and you’ll have an advantage over your business-only peers when it comes time to find a job. First, you are more likely to be able to write a cogent, fluid cover letter that impresses; second, you can promote yourself as someone who has specialized in writing and tout this skill as being essential to whatever it is you want to do in the business world. When it comes time to apply for graduate school, whether it’s law, business, social work or acting, you will need to write impressively on your application in order to set yourself apart from all the other students applying for limited spots.

I am hard pressed to think of a field you could choose in which being a strong writer doesn’t help — psychology, business, education, medicine, engineering, social work…I was always surprised by the argument that there “won’t be anything you can do with an English degree.” Most of my friends and I who majored in English have been able to enter into the business, art, psychology, entertainment, and education worlds with no trouble at all. If anything, we feel that we’ve had an advantage because of it.

But I think students would be equally or better served by having intensive writing courses in high school. The obstacles to this always include administrative inertia, scheduling, and staffing. As an English teacher who cares deeply about writing, I can tell you that there isn’t enough time to do the skill justice in addition to everything else we do (reading, thinking, discussion, collaboration, presenting…)

In fact, because many of my current students have struggled greatly with writing this year, their first year of high school, I’ve started offering writing extra help every Thursday afternoons after school. Its only focus is writing, so students come and I give them a small task: Write three paragraphs in response to the question, “If school were optional, would you come? Why or why not?” I then go around to each student and go over his response with him, making some notes at the bottom on what he needs to continue to work on: Subject-verb agreement; responding to the question clearly; staying on topic. That’s it — just some extra writing practice and instant feedback, recorded then and there with the student. No homework, no pain. One of my best teaching moments this year was the last week of school before December break, when I gave back a round of essays. Three of my regular extra-help attendees were giddy with the improvement they’d seen. “Yes!” they said as they high-fived each other. Each had jumped a full grade in his writing assignments: two students from Cs to Bs, and one from Ds to Cs. They turned to their classmates and encouraged them to come — that extra help “really works.”

If this is the result for just 45 minutes a week after school, imagine the result with a whole course dedicated to strengthening this skill. And I believe that the course should be required for all students in order for the benefits to be real and universal, not just spotty. Ultimately, the students who come to me for extra help come of their own volition. Some of the ones who most need it refuse to come.

I think there are few skills such as writing that are as universally praised or desired by colleges and the workforce. So what are we waiting for? Let’s see if we can rally our schools, administrators, and even parents to make this more of a priority.

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