Writing Instruction in Schools: Fluff vs. Facts

An education colleague recently forwarded an article from The Atlantic Monthly called The Writing Revolution, by Peg Tyre.  The article outlined how a public high school serving mostly low income and working class families on Staten Island adopted a new form of writing instruction that put a greater emphasis on sentence structure than creativity.  The students at this school had an incredible turnaround that deserves notice, so stick with me through some statistics.  And my take on the topic leads to Mad LibsTM, so your students will thank you to keep reading for that reason alone.

The principal of New Dorp High School, Deirdre DeAngelis, investigated why the students were failing.  She concluded that the students were unable to put together their thoughts into coherent sentences, which ultimately impeded their intellectual growth in many subject areas.  DeAngelis argued that the students’ scores weren’t low because they weren’t smart enough or lazy; it was because they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works.  Although the integration of this new instruction across the curriculum divided the staff, after The Writing Revolution at New Dorp put an emphasis on good analytical writing in every subject area, the testing rates increased.  For instance, the English Regents exam jumped from 67% in 2009 to 89 % in 2011.  What principal wouldn’t want their test scores to take a jump that big?

The instruction change has been labeled as a revolutionary concept because it is both an old model and a drastic change from the current model in many schools.  The article explains the following:

About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

I was a recipient of this “catch grammar” theory and thrived with what was a new form of writing instruction allowing me to make things up as I went along, in the spirit of expressing myself.  Tyre attributed her students’ language gaps to this type of writing instruction with less grammar structure, yet I don’t feel that had a similar impact on my.   Tyre would likely attribute my skills to the higher language development I had available at home than most students at New Dorp have.  I also went to public schools with some great teachers who had taught the old model for years and still inserted the structure of the language where necessary.

My seventh grade teacher, Mary McCluskey, was a hold out of the old structure and stuck by sentence diagramming and memorizing lists of prepositions.  I’ll admit that I was a little scared of Mrs. McCluskey and her methods, but I later appreciated her.   Surprisingly, after Mrs. McCluskey’s grammar lessons in the 7th grade, I had no formal grammar instruction, and that includes my undergraduate years studying to be an English teacher where I had only one very unhelpful class in Grammar Theory.   I’m quite certain the Teaching Writing to Children (starting Nov. 17) class we offer in Continuing Ed would have made more of an impact on my education than the grammar theory class.

I have found that you never learn something better than when you have to teach it to someone else.  My grammar greatly improved when I was a high school teacher in Kenya, a former British colony, where even in my rural community they spoke the Queen’s English and made sure I gave them the rules to excel in formal English.  Even after I showed my students that the grading handbook of the national exam accepted both the British and American uses of the language, they preferred that I give them both.  Keep in mind that English was their third language.  I found myself studying my Longman English Grammar every night and coming up with examples that explained the usage in terms they could relate to in their village.  They absorbed every rule I gave them and usually wanted to give me more papers to grade than I assigned.  As a new teacher, I was very spoiled to teach to a population where secondary education was so important and a luxury to most.

The only weakness in the English skills of all of my Kenyan high school students was their ability to write creative essays, which was also on their national exam.  They focused on the tricks of getting the most points in this category whereas I focused on the enriching aspects of tapping into the creative strengths of the students.  I wanted them to use their brain and not use memorization techniques for a test that was several days long.  To help them better understand the formula side of sentences (that kept them closer to their comfort level), I used a technique similar to Mad LibsTM to show the impact word choice can have on the reader.

Mad Libs as an instructional tool, you ask?  Yes.  Here is one about teaching the parts of speech.  For the kids who haven’t caught on to the parts of speech, using Mad Libs should help to cement the concepts of nouns, verbs and adverbs.  If kids don’t know what know what a noun is, their Mad Libs won’t be funny at all.  It’s also a way to combine the creative, free-flowing form of writing that many of us benefitted from in the 80s.  Also, sometimes it’s good to let your students know that you were a kid once too.  I have adult friends in their 40s who still like to pull out Mad Libs at parties, but I should emphasize that these people are from a very old school, traditional profession where they are forced to use expository writing on a daily basis.  No.  Strike that.  They are in advertising, which is a long standing respectable, sought-after profession where the concept of free expression in writing with creativity has always been an asset.

Ironically, my best high school creative writing teacher, Chuck Hasenstab, taught me the most about the structure of the English language.  He forced us to think beyond the basic forms of description and gave us papers back asking us to provide a deeper expression of what we had so far, to get beyond the fluff.  In those early drafts, I don’t remember any feedback on my grammar.  It might have been there, but I remember a greater focus on the content of our fiction rather than the critical analysis of the grammar.  In our later drafts, he brought out the red pen and had brief lessons (in between the emotional pleas for creativity) about common grammatical errors students were making.  Those quick review lessons of basic grammar at a time that was relevant to my creative writing development were critical to the positive experience.

From my perspective, writing instruction to people of any age should not include only creative fluff or scientific facts.  Reducing both instructional models to either fluff or facts is an unfair depiction of either.  Creative writing that doesn’t have the flow of cohesive sentences loses the grip of the reader.  Expository writing that is merely factual regurgitation without word choices revealing some perspective of the author limit the composition to a formula that could be the same no matter who the author.

I am passionate about this subject and could go on and on for many more pages but I want to get to one timely idea that came up after the article came out.  In the author’s own response to the debate that arose from her article about The Writing Revolution, she mentioned that while she didn’t want to bring back some of the memorization and diagramming that I was also forced to do, at the same time, she would, “welcome a kind of education that helps the voters of tomorrow sort through the spin and think rationally and compassionately about the pressing issues of the day.”  I’m not sure that is possible in the current climate of the media-enhanced  propaganda in the election season leading up to November 6th, but I too would welcome an education that teaches students and voters of all ages to express themselves factually and be able to be see through the fluff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *