Atlantic Article and Thoughts on Writing

Dear Reader,

My attention was drawn recently to this article in the Atlantic. In it, the author, Peg Tyre, tells the story of a New York school which dramatically improved its students’ test scores and graduation rates by focusing intensively on their ability to write. They had tried other approaches to improving education in the past, but it was only when they began to teach kids how to write as a part of every class that they saw real progress. It is hard not to applaud this school’s work and not to be touched by the story of Monica, the student the article singles out as its success story.

For me, when I read an article like this, I wonder how does this affect my homeschool? Are there lessons here I can learn? What can I apply? Writing is an area we have been revamping this year so this has given me a lot of food for thought.

Reading the comments that come after the article has helped me to clarify my thoughts somewhat (I only read the beginning of the 140 comments that were posted at the time). There are two closely related subjects discussed here: grammar and actual composition skills. Some commenters seem to take this article to show that we should return to a system that teaches the rules of grammar much more diligently and much earlier on. I don’t see this as being what this school did. Grammar no doubt played into what they were teaching but only in the service of their greater goal, composition. For example, at one point the article says that students did not know what a preposition was or why they should not say “between you and I.” This is grammar. But the reason to learn it is so that one can write correctly. I do believe grammar is important, but it should be in the service of something, not taught for its own sake. This is why I like our grammar curriculum, KISS grammar (free online!). It looks at words based on their function. It does not start out by memorizing the parts of speech and it acknowledges that (as an example) a noun may function like an adverb. It also uses sentences from real writing and does not provide endless repetitive exercises.

I believe that children (of close to average intelligence at least) should pick up the rules of their native language automatically. They may not be able to explain them but they can apply them correctly. The students in the school the article is about could not. As many commenters observed, this shows that there was something very wrong in their backgrounds. If it were an isolated example, I would say there could be dysfunction in the family. Perhaps the parents really never talked to the child. I have heard of cases of this happening. But since this problem seemed to affect so much of their student population, we must look for broader causes. It can’t be that all the parents are really so disconnected. Instead, there are likely cultural issues at work. Presumably these children just aren’t growing up in homes were this variety of English is the native language. It may be that there are other languages spoken (the article mentioned that a third of the students were hispanic) or some conglomeration of languages (Grandma speaks Spanish, mom speaks a combination of English and Spanish, kid speaks ??). Or it could be they are just speaking another dialect of English. I have heard it said that every native speaker speaks his langauge perfectly. To a certain extent, I agree with this. The problem is that the langauge these kids are speaking is not the dialect that they need to be able to read and write to have successful careers. Most of us write at least slightly differently than we speak, but we need to be able to do both and to be able to switch on that more polished style when formal writing is required.

So my own kids do not have as large a gap between their oral and written language. They are not going to need as much help as the kids in the article. And I think it helps a lot that we read good books that use elegant prose. But we still need to work on writing. I can tell that the younger two particularly when they do written narrations (which they usually dictate to me) write as they speak, meaning they use lots of ands and run-on sentences.

I guess part of what made me uncomfortable is that the approach used by this school sounded a lot like the Institute for Excellence in  Writing (IEW) which a lot of homeschoolers around here use. Though I haven’t used it myself, I am told that it is very formulaic and requires students to use a certain number of adjectives or prepositional phrases or to vary their sentence structure according to certain rules. The children in the article were not able to use or make sense of sentences that began with the word “although.” They didn’t use relative clauses. The solution the school  has found is to take a very formulaic approach which teaches these constructions. Does this mean that that is what my students need too? I am skeptical. Maybe I am just trying really hard to avoid IEW-like teaching but I don’t think every student needs this.

The approach we have taken this year, which is based loosely on the classical method known as the progymnasmata, bases writing on classic examples without teaching specific formulas. Though we have only done assignments based on fables and narratives so far, I feel that this is a happy medium between completely creative writing and that very structured approach which turns me off.

To a large extent, I do rely on my children “catching” good writing. The school in the article rejected the idea that this can be done, opting instead to teach rather than to depend in students to catch what they need to know. I guess I am hopeful that since my children are not starting out at such a disadvantage that they will be able to do a lot more of the catching. Charlotte Mason’s approach to education which is what we try to use relies heavily I think on students’ ability to catch what they need to know as long as they are exposed to really good materials.

I was reminded of Charlotte Mason by a couple of other things in the article as well. Near the beginning the initial resistance of the teachers to the new method was expressed; largely it amounted to “our students just aren’t smart enough.” Charlotte lived and worked in a time when it was believed many children from poorer backgrounds just could not learn. She rejected this idea and said all kids were capable of learning. This school seems to be showing that that is true given the right methods.

There is also this quote: “‘Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,’ says Applebee, ‘has become increasingly rare.'” Charlotte’s method relies heavily on narration, asking even young students to take what they have learned and tell it back in their own words. Such narration is the foundation of composition. And it need not wait till high school. Many of the commenters talked about teaching grammar in the early years and then writing in high school. But Charlotte does not put off the groundwork of composition. Even elementary students are expected to compose their thoughts (orally first and only later in writing).

So what conclusions are there? I think this school’s experiment has shown that writing skills are important to overall academic success. They were dealing with students who for whatever reason were very remedial in this area. They didn’t even understand basic constructions of English. A very formulaic approach worked with them. I don’t think that this means that we all need such an approach. Grammar is important but it is not all about teaching the rules of grammar. That wasn’t what they did. Though they were dealing with high school students only, I think the article can also make a good case for beginning to work on composition skills much earlier. The kids shouldn’t have ben allowed to get to the point they were. Charlotte Mason’s approach of using narration as a way to teach composition from age 8 on still seems like a great way to go to me.


One response to this post.

  1. […] our kids to write. (And how many times have I addressed this issue already! Here are posts one, two, three, four, five and […]


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