Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Simple Truth about Writing

In response to the article Writing Lessons by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post:

I teach 8th grade, and at times I can’t help but think about myself when I was in 8th grade.  This is natural for most people; we tend to lean on our experiences as a student when we deal with the ups and downs of our own kids.

Sometimes a colleague may ask the group in the faculty lunchroom, “which of these 8th graders were you most like?”  I used to have fun with that question, but I now have an answer for the entirety of the rest of my teaching career: none.

I was like none.

If we include technology (email, chat, texting, et al.), the students I teach today write more than I ever did at their age.  Recent research by the National Assessment of Education Progress indicates that while most students have mastered the basics of writing, they can not write well.

The research by the NEAP specifically states that few students are able to produce meaningful writing which engages a reader with any precise, engaging, or coherent prose.

Today, young people compose writing with their thumbs at a blinding rate of speed and a highly skilled aptitude on an area of screen the size of a few postage stamps.  When I was in 8th grade, I either held a pencil or I used a typewriter.

Today's students truncate words to their benefit, and sometimes for humor.  They use symbol and code to communicate efficiently.  When I truncated words I had to learn how to use white-out and then retype over the dried white-out.

My high school typing instructor, Brother Joe Mulholland, seeing my students use their thumbs to type, would have shuddered in his white cassock.  Don't kids know what pica and elite are anymore?  Don't they know the five-paragraph essay?

I was, indeed, like none.

Since social networking saturated the free-time of young people in the mid-2000s, our students have
written more collectively than young people ever did in the history of mankind.  When I typed at home, there as no immediate audience.

Today, when students write on their personal devices they do so to an active and immediate audience.
Yet, few, adolescent or adult, call this act writing.

There is a disconnect between what our students are writing online and what they are able to produce on paper.  The NEAP data explicitly states that when students are asked to write on paper most produce rudimentary and uninteresting ideas.  Their writing satisfies only the basic skills most associate with their adolescent writing experience—grammar and structure.  It underscores what our nation demands, believes, and emphasizes: when classroom instruction is hammering the kids on grammar and structure, great teaching is occurring.

Because that is what most people remember from their own experiences.

Furthermore, mom and dad are less likely to raise a stink with the current English teacher if they see an abundance of errors noted on their child’s essay.  They see evidence of correction, it likely resembles their childhood experience; therefore, it must be right.

Today’s student has been thrust into a society where strong writing is implicit in order to work towards a successful and abundant life.  To borrow from Troy Hicks, adolescents are natives to digital writing and adults are the immigrants.  While young people may not exactly be native to digital writing they are certainly "tech comfy."  They were and are being born into this nano-age.  Yet, we are the ones teaching.

The digital immigrants are in charge. 

If we do not act, we will miss out on a tremendous opportunity to help our young people develop an already critical skill on which new premiums and new criticisms have been placed.

There does not need to be a disconnect between the writing for technology and writing as a basic and necessary social and professional skill.  Part of the lag in our nation's writing is that professional development programs generated by districts or county intermediate units rarely invite teachers to see themselves as writers--until they meet the National Writing Project.

It took me 15 professional years to find the NWP.  I'd always dabbled as a writer, but it took me 15 professional years to see myself as a writer.

Student teachers and student observers come into my English classroom from all of our local universities without any sense of themselves as a writer.  I've asked them.  And I've asked them if they have ever had any instruction through the National Writing Project--I have yet to meet one.  I know many are out there--I've met parents of my students just this year who are also Fellows in the NWP.

They came to be Fellows only after 10 or more years of establishing a teaching career.

It isn't their fault.  After all, they are (we are) teaching what we have been taught, following the wishes of our community and administrative leaders, and we are also drawing back on our own experiences in the classroom as students.

What's worse, having secured a teaching position, many English teachers typically receive little instruction in how to teach writing—and by that I do mean to stress and repeat that the ability to correct grammar and usage does not in and of itself lead to any instruction on writing.

Additionally, few teachers outside of our English departments receive any instruction on writing at all, let alone receive encouragement to be a writer and see themselves as a writer.

The simple truth is, in many schools, writing is generally assigned to the students by teachers who do not see themselves as writers because they do not write themselves. As such, writing is not a shared experience.  Writing is not produced for authentic audiences and for authentic purposes.

With a wealth of research and technology around us, many are still using the traditional techniques used on them.  We are back in typing class, fingers curled, typing to no one together.  Students are cringing at their returned papers; the red slashes symbols of their failure and editors.

We've made ourselves judges of writing.  Subsequently, the students are trying to please to gain the prize of an A...or a 6 on a rubric. Their voices stripped down to following state guidelines, conventions, and a teacher's taste, they produce writing which is technically acceptable but says nothing.

When we write with our students and share our imperfect drafts we elevate the significance of the very act of the process of writing.  We move away from judge and closer to mentor.  And this act of the mentor in the classroom writing alongside of them—this elevation of the act of writing in a student's eyes—should not exist just inside the English teacher’s classroom.

When colleagues outside of the English classrooms suggest that they can’t teach writing in their classes, they say so out of fear.  Without the proper knowledge of knowing how to root out errors they believe, indirectly, that writing serves little purpose in their classes beyond providing an answer to a specific question. Some may not feel qualified.  Some may defend themselves and suggest that they already assign some writing.

What an ugly word when it comes to writing—assign.

What an ugly perception of our role—rooting out errors. 

We are to blame for that stifling language and perception.

We can begin to resuscitate writing by changing the way we all see writing: teaching writing is teaching thinking.  

Some of the seminal research in this area has been widely documented and tested.  In A Writer Teaches Writing, Donald Murrary observes the common and easily made mistakes by well-intentioned educators:
Meaning is not thought up and then written down.  The act of writing is an act of thought. [Teachers] give writing assignments based on the assumption that  writing begins after thinking is concluded, and they respond to those assignments as if the etiquette of language were more important than the thinking represented by language. (3) 
We are also to blame, as Tom Romano suggests, for the dinner party commentary we are all doomed to experience: “You’re an English teacher?  Oh—I should mind my grammar.”

We are, indeed, to blame for that language and that perception.  That is our legacy as English teachers as it currently stands. I have 17 years in the profession and that is a legacy I am not comfortable with.

We can all learn from and apply the research and inquiry by the NWP, the NCTE, the NEAP, and separate research, observation, and studies published by education pioneers: Don Murray, Ralph Fletcher, Nancy Atwell, Peter Elbow, Tom Romano, Lucy Calkins, Randy Bomer, Katie Wood Ray and many others.

We are too good, too talented, and there is too much accessible information available for us (especially through technology) not to rethink what we do when it comes to teaching writing. 

Teachers involved with the NWP are some of the most supportive and humble people I know.   Through this program, the opportunity is there for us to change the game.  When teachers are writers then they are using writing as active thinkers.  When our kids see writing as an opportunity to think and develop their unique voices, this changes the game.

It would be absurd to send your child to a piano teacher who does not play—even socially.  It is a waste of your dollar to sign your child up for batting lessons, soccer lessons, or dance lessons from someone who does not understand the first-hand struggle of improving in those pursuits.  One of the beauties about writing (and there are many) is it does not wear out your joints, it does not cause you to have a bad back—you can do it until you die.

The only thing stopping us is us…and time.  I’m proposing that we make that time in our profession.

Once teachers believe that they are writers and do it, the writing produced from our students will grow and improve.  Until that happens writing will not improve in our schools—we are doomed to repeat what we already do and know--the things we are already comfortable with because they were done to us.

Furthermore, unless it is important to us then this change will never get done.

At the rehearsal dinner for a close friend, his father lifted his glass high in a toast to the room and then looked at his son and offered his advice for all to hear: “Love is not what you say, it is what you do.”

Similarly, writing is not what we say, it is what we do.  Or should do.

We have to be the model of the change we desire--nothing is simpler, nothing is truer.

If you currently do not write regularly now, then write.  Take the journey again.  Write in a journal in the morning before school.  Write during class with your students.  Explore your own thoughts or confusion regarding a particular general, artist, or current event.  Write about math.  Write about science.  What about life.  Write not to be judged, but to model the process of creating precise, engaging, and coherent prose which our students can not produce.

If we are not a part of the solution then we are a part of the recurring problem; therefore, we must write.  

In the article on the student by the NAEP, The neglected “R”: The need for a writing revolution, part of the recommendation is for students to write every day in an environment fostered by teachers who have been offered support and professional development in order to “see themselves as writers—to experience the power and satisfaction of writing as a means of learning and self-expression.”

This is your staff development.  Ask for it; demand it.  We must do it first so that we can experience the age when all teachers in all subjects write and use writing with their students.

We must lead that evolution.  We can’t teach what we don’t know.  And if we do not write then we do not know writing.

We must write.

If you have not taken part in a NWP summer workshop then find one in your area and take one.  Build a professional library of writing texts in your home or school and set your mind to the fact that if you teach, then you should also write.

We must lead the evolution.  Writing is one of the few remaining common filters of thinking, discovery, and being human.  As Randy Bomer wrote in Time for Meaning:
Once I have identified myself as a writer, even if writing still scares me to death, I have located writing not as some school activity that is outside me, but as a part of my life, for better or worse, and that gives me the hope of being alive to change and growth. (22)
We can not continue to pass on the opportunity to use something so profound and powerful. Whether it is writing about scientific inquiry, or mathematical induction, or your thoughts on an upcoming family decision, writing shows us our humanity. 

Write.  Decades of research, study, and observation cannot implement itself.


Bomer, Randy. Time for meaning: crafting literate lives in middle and high school. BoyntonCook, 1995. Print.

Gallagher, Kelly. Teaching Adolescent Writers. Stenhouse Pub, 2006. Print. 

Hicks, Troy. The Digital Writing Workshop. Heinemann Educational Books, 2009. Print. 

Murray, Donald. A writer teaches writing. Houghton Mifflin College Div, 1985. Print.


Romano, Tom. Clearing the way: working with teenage writers. BoyntonCook, 1987. Print.


  1. Loved your piece and shared it on Twitter and Google+. You succinctly captured much of my own thinking, with a beautiful piece of writing to boot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Mass WP

  2. This topic sure showed a certain fact about it. I am a part of the kids before genre since I was taught to write with all of the important stuff to be remembered but the kids now as you have mentioned just write and write whatever they want without even knowing what they are writing about. This is really something that even with the rise of technology kids of today should still consider. Thanks for pointing this out.