30 September 2012

Fired up about the Idea of a Writing Revolution

Peg Tyre’s article captured my interest when I saw The Atlantic link in my twitter feed.  I read it quickly, feeling fired up and knowing it would lead to a blog post later when I had some time.  Coincidentally, within a few days, seven different friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from various walks of my life sent the link to me and asked for my thoughts. 
If you’ve read Tyre’s article, you will know that she argues for a return to writing instruction circa 1950.  My first reaction was one of alarm because all I could think of was moving backward at the same time we are trying to propel literacy instruction forward for the next generation of students.  But as I continued to read and continued to receive the link in my inbox, on my Facebook page, and again in my twitter feed, I began to consider more carefully exactly what Tyre suggests—teaching the fundamentals. 
And then, Arthur Applebee published a response that read like some of the thoughts which had been floating in my mind.  On most accounts, I agree with Applebee, so here I will provide the link to both pieces and share some thoughts about how, pragmatically speaking, a writing revolution could happen in classrooms and schools if we remember a few important points.
Although the fundamentals may need to be reintroduced or reemphasized, they also need to be updated to meet the demands of communications in the 21st century and beyond.  So instead of bringing back the 1950s with its “rigid unswerving formula” we should think about what we can learn from the 50s—good analytic writing, drawing evidence from text, being able to think critically and express that thinking in lucid thought.  It’s not about a secret recipe, but it is about effective tools to provide the explicit instruction and layered skills instruction our students need.
It’s about balance, not rigid formulas memorized for the sake of formula.  For example, my son was taught the basic five paragraph essay in the fourth grade, perhaps appropriate given his general lack of interest in writing.  In fifth grade he again wrote a basic five paragraph essay over a trite topic.  However, now (in 6th grade) that he’s mastered this formula, he should be taught to move beyond the basic five paragraphs and encouraged to explore his real interests in understanding how the world works, the scientific process and ancient history.  A discovery approach like this makes more sense than requiring him write yet another five paragraph essay convincing us we should buy him a dog or arguing that dogs in the city should be kept on leashes.   Consider Applebee’s fourth point in his essay about what effective writing programs do/provide—“there was a recognition that writing is tied closely to thinking about new material, and requires tools and strategies that can and should be taught…"
While the Common Core does require more expository and argumentative texts be written, we should balance our explicit instruction of writing skills within the context of the ideas being explored.  To do this requires a delicate balance by thoughtful and reflective teachers who are themselves consistently honing their own skills.   My eleven years in the classroom affirms my understanding of the importance of the right tools balanced carefully with the right approach to writing instruction. 
We need to remember
  •  to convey purpose in instruction
  • to utilize essential questions that make students think
  • to teach students to ask questions
  • to encourage students to discuss and explore topics which interest them
  • to teach writing skills, not just assign writing via a prompt
  • to study language with our students
  • to utilize writing as a way to improve reading comprehension
  • to make writing an important  focus of instruction throughout our schools
Befittingly, I’ll end with my favorite quote from Applebee—“ the most effective writing programs are able to embed what is required by high stakes tests and then move beyond to a much richer vision of curriculum and instruction.”