Thursday, July 7, 2011

Resource Book Review: Because Writing Matters

Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our SchoolsBecause Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools by National Writing Project

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I should establish that the 3 star rating exists only because I am looking for books which can help teachers in their classroom now.  As you'll read this is a book with a long-range goal and noble message which all teachers should read.

Quite honestly, this is really a book for administrators and school boards or people who pull the strings. It is an excellent call to action for our nation's schools.  While the teachers are on the front lines, we can only march or fire or set up camp at the direction of those in command--we can't just teach what we matter how correct it is.  For there to be change, real change, our leaders need to work together to inspire the change...or acknowledge the change which needs to occur.

What alarms me is that Because Writing Matters reminded me that the famous Newsweek article "Why Johnny Can't Read" hit the scene in 1975.


I was 7.

Actually, this belief that young people can't write is nothing new. We can go all the way back to Harvard University's creation of a writing course for all incoming freshmen in 1875.

Yet, writing scores across the nation continue to decline or remain well below expectations.


We talk about at work.  We make professional suggestions.  We encourage growth and offer professional feedback.  We read, and share, and discuss the scores from state testing.

Yet, all across the nation, Johnny still can't write.

What I gather from this book as well as others is that we value other things more. We may say students need to write better, but in order for that to occur they need to write more.

Many studies suggest they write less in all of their classrooms.

Or if they do write, teachers have been trained or permitted to teach to the writing piece. Teachers have learned to assign writing and not teach the writer--and there is an enormous difference.  We lean on rubrics (some catered specifically to narrative, informative, or persuasive) and we point to hamburger charts and teach the correct composition of the five-paragraph essay.

Many studies suggest that students not only write less in language arts classrooms but they may not write at all some of their other classes. Writing, in our nation, has been swept into a tidy pile to be covered almost solely by English teachers...who teach content-based curriculum.

They have content to get to and through.  They also have traditional points of view to deal with when it comes to writing--the notion that if you are noting every error or slip in grammar then and only then are you helping them be a proficient writer.

We know enough to understand that literacy influences the rate of success and growth potential in our career.  People who do not write well, unfortunately, find fewer doors open to them in this world.

Yet, ask ten English teachers across the nation in 2011 if their classes are content-based or writing-based.  Don't be surprised by the response.

What good is it if a student knows about the different types of clouds or rocks, or the causes of the Civil War, or the Pythagorean Theorem if they can't write about it...especially with the technological revolution swirling around us.  As Kelly Gallagher suggests in Teaching Adolescent Writers, the merging of technology and literacy is a stampede heading dead at these kids.  They either need to start running with it, or they'll be passed by, or worse yet...crushed.

What good is it to ask our science, math, and social studies teachers to use writing in their classes if they have not been trained?  I can make a pretty solid prediction that many teachers outside of the language arts classroom would assume that they are not qualified to handle a steady diet of student writing because they do not feel capable of helping students with the conventions of grammar.

I'll also assume that many of those same teachers might be willing to do it if they were trained...and there will be still others who will want to be assured that they only need to assess the content of the piece..and leave the grammar to the English types.

A teacher reading this book might find it simultaneously enlightening and frustrating. We know where we need to go, we even know how we might get there...we are willing to do it as I imagine many were when I was 7 and Newsweek printed "Why Johnny Can't Write" but some of the roads are still closed.

So, when I say that this book is best suited for administrators or people who make the big decisions it is because this kind of evolution has to begin at the top. Otherwise, we're just a bunch of teachers in a bunch of different districts in a bunch of different states trying to do the right thing within a system which has not adjusted the rules of the game in spite of the evidence.  Among teachers, writing is called the Silent 'R for good reason.

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