Monday, June 19, 2017

WRITING IS IN A "SKILLS" RUT


A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing [Lucy Calkins] once told me:

“I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much…” 

That is a splendid example of the divorce between content and process 
in common writing instruction.

Houston, Texas

Process vs. Content

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review


When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the 500-word personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.


On the one hand writing is difficult enough to do, and academic writing is especially difficult if the student hasn’t read anything, and on the other hand teachers feel the need to have students “produce” writing, however short or superficial that writing may be. So writing consultants and writing teachers feel they must come up with guidelines, parameters, checklists, and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something they have learned.


Samuel Johnson once said, “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book,” the point being, as I understand it, that good writing must be based on extensive reading. But reading is just the step that is left out of the “Writing Process” in too many instances. The result is that students in fact do not have much to say, so of course they don’t have much they want to communicate in writing.


Enter the guidelines. Students are told to write a topic sentence, to express one idea per paragraph, to follow the structure of Introduction, Body, Conclusion, to follow the “Twelve Steps to Effective Writing,” and the like. This the students can be made to do, but the result is too often empty, formulaic writing which students come to despise, and which does not prepare them for the serious academic papers they may be asked to do in college.


I fear that the History book report, at least at the high school level in too many places, has died in the United States. Perhaps people will contact me with welcome evidence to the contrary, but where it is no longer done, students have not only been discouraged from reading nonfiction, but also have been led to believe that they can and must write to formula without knowing something—for instance about the contents of a good book—before they write.


A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing once told me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much...” This is a splendid example of the divorce between content and process in common writing instruction.


Reading and writing are inseparable partners, in my view. In letters from authors of essays published in The Concord Review over the years, they often say that they read so much about something in History that they reached a point where they felt a strong need to tell people what they had found out. The knowledge they had acquired had given them the desire to write well so that others could share and appreciate it as they did.


This is where good academic writing should start. When the motivation is there, born from knowledge gained, then the writing process follows a much more natural and straightforward path. Then the student can write, read what they have written, and see what they have left out, what they need to learn more about, and what they have failed to express as clearly as they wanted to. Then they read more, re-write, and do all the natural things that have always led to good academic writing, whether in history or in any other subject.


At that point the guidelines are no longer needed, because the student has become immersed in the real work of expressing the meaning and value of something they know is worth writing about. This writing helps them discover the limits of their own understanding of the subject and allows them to see more clearly what they themselves think about the subject. The process of critiquing their own writing becomes natural and automatic. This is not to deny, of course, the value of reading what they have written to a friend or of giving it to a teacher for criticism and advice. But the writing techniques and processes no longer stop up the natural springs for the motivation to write.


As students are encouraged to learn more before they write, their writing will gradually extend past the five-paragraph size so often constraining the craft of writing in our schools. Our Page Per Year Plan© suggests that all public high school Seniors could be expected to write a twelve-page history research paper, if they had written an eleven-page paper their Junior year, a ten-page paper their Sophomore year, and a nine-page paper their Freshman year, and so on all the way back through the five-page paper in Fifth Grade and even to a one-page paper on a topic other than themselves their first year in school. With the Page Per Year Plan©, every Senior in high school will have learned, for that twelve-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.


Writing is always much harder when the student has nothing to communicate, and the proliferating paraphernalia of structural aids from writing consultants and teachers often simply encumber students and alienate them from the essential benefits of writing. John Adams urged his fellow citizens to “Dare to read, think, speak and write” so that they could contribute to the civilization we have been given to enjoy and preserve. Let us endeavor to allow students to discover, through their own academic reading and writing, both the discipline and the satisfactions of writing carefully and well.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

BIBLIOPHOBIA


Education Week Commentary
BIBLIOPHOBIA
by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
4 October 2006 
The Boston Globe reported recently that Michelle Wie, at 16, in addition to getting out now and then for a good game of golf, not only speaks Korean and English, but has also taken four years of Japanese, and is starting Mandarin Chinese. She is planning to apply early to Stanford. I would venture the opinion, however, that in her high school, not only has her academic writing been limited to the five-paragraph essay, but it is very likely that she has not been assigned a complete nonfiction book and will not be given such an assignment at any time in her high school years.

For the last two [13] years, and especially since the National Endowment for the Arts’ large study of the reading of fiction in the United States, by young people and others, I have sought funding for a much smaller study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in U.S. public high schools. This proposed study, which Diane Ravitch has called “timely and relevant,” has been turned down by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of large and small foundations and institutes so far.

I have a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, even from people who would be quite shocked to hear that high school English departments are no longer assigning any complete novels, that they understand (and accept) that nonfiction books, for instance history books, are not being assigned at all. 

One partner in a law firm in Boston, who went to Phillips Academy in Andover several decades ago, commented that there was no point in such a study because everyone knows there are no history books assigned in schools. Even at Andover in his day, he had only selections, readings and the like, never a complete book. A Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, sometimes thought of as a conservative place, told me, when I commented that I couldn’t find anyone who agrees that our high school students should read one book, that “The only hope is parents introducing their kids to reading, and that’s a mighty slim hope.” 

For the last two (three) decades, I have been working to encourage the writing of history research papers by our high school students, but it has become apparent to me that one of the many problems in getting students to undertake such a task is that so many do not read any history, and so have nothing to write about. But as I began to try to find out about the reading of nonfiction books, I have found more and more apathy and acceptance of the situation in which as long as the English department controls reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative or the five-paragraph essay.

Now consider the fact that while most of our high school students are not fluent in English and Korean, and are not studying Japanese or Mandarin, tens or hundreds of thousands of them are expected to manage Chemistry, Calculus, and Physics. I don’t understand the view that reading a good history book is more difficult than Calculus, but there it seems to be.

Why is this important? ACT found this Spring that 49% of our high school graduates (half of the 70% who do graduate) cannot read at the level of freshman college texts. Common sense, buttressed by such work as that of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., for instance in his most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit, would lead to the assumption that perhaps the reason so many students need remedial work in college (65% of those in Massachusetts’ community colleges and 34% of those in Massachusetts’ four-year colleges, according to The Boston Globe), and the reason so many do not return for their sophomore year, may be because they have never faced a nonfiction book before, and they may have so little knowledge that they do not know what their professors are talking about.

These days, of course, there is a great deal of attention given to many educational issues, and one of the current Edupundit maxims is that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. So lots of attention and many millions of dollars go into teacher training, re-training, professional development, and the like.

I believe the truth is otherwise. The most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work. Those who concern themselves with teacher quality only assume that better teachers will lead to more student academic work, but if they would care to look, the examples of the lousy teacher with the diligent student who does well, and the superior teacher with a student who does no academic work, are everywhere to be found.

Ignoring academic writing and the reading of nonfiction books at the high school level can only prolong, it seems to me, the high levels of remediation and failure in college that we already have. I hope that it may soon become possible to discover if our high school students are indeed discouraged from reading a history book and from writing a serious term paper, and that then we might turn more of our attention to asking for the student academic work that alone can lead to the academic achievement we all wish to see for our students.

The Concord Review, 730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24, Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776
www.tcr.org     978-443-0022     fitzhugh@tcr.org