By Robert W. Andrews
I sat in the room flabbergasted. My colleague and I looked at each other in disbelief as we heard the principal suggest that the junior year English program should eliminate the “research paper” and add the “college essay” as the sole writing assignment for the year. He looked to me for support as a college counselor but could tell immediately that I was not on board. “Couldn’t they do both?” I suggested, trying to walk the political tightrope that was in front of me. A long pause followed. He repeated his suggestion, indicating that he did not think teachers would want to grade more than one paper nor that students would want to write more than one in the their entire junior year.
That was a number of years ago. Since then, the district has a new principal, and it appears that the district is undergoing a serious curriculum review. I cannot help but wonder how we got to a place where any educator would think that a junior year English class, regardless of level, should have only one long term writing assignment. No wonder so many college professors are lamenting their students' inability to write a coherent paper. Students are not getting dumber; we simply are not teaching them foundational skills. We need to roll up our sleeves and try to solve the problem. The bottom line is that many of our kids cannot write.
This problem has been going on for a long time. As someone who entered high school in 1989, I can tell you that I only remember one teacher (thank you Mrs. Duffy) who taught me grammar. She was seen by many as one of the last vestiges of an old way of teaching. Her class was often boring, as we had to diagram sentences and complete assignments out of our heavy grammar textbook. However, I learned enough basic grammar to be able to write a complete sentence and more. In retrospect, I wish I had more teachers who focused on grammar. I also wish my students had a Mrs. Duffy in their lives.
With college essay season underway, I have the good fortune of being able to review student writing from multiple school districts that partner with our program. There are some bright spots, but overall, the state of writing in our schools is abysmal. In this month’s The Atlantic, Peg Tyre adeptly describes one low performing high school in Staten Island and how it adopted pedagogical approaches to focus on writing across disciplines. At its core, the focus is on the actual teaching of grammar. I was thrilled to learn about a district that is attacking this problem head on.
I remember talking with a colleague stressing out that her students could only write in the “five paragraph” style, making the college essay process more difficult. I smiled, excited that at least some of our students actually knew how to write a five paragraph essay. I knew we could then take the time to foster creativity in our workshops on the college essay instead of largely focusing on remedial grammar.
Change comes slowly, and I do see glimmers of hope in most of our partner schools. However, too many of our students continue to struggle with their writing. Their schools are not requiring them to write often enough, and when they do, feedback regarding grammar is often nonexistent. Our program spends weeks on remedial writing for honors students to fill in these gaps. But a “college access” program staffed with recent college graduates, many of whom never formally learned grammar themselves, cannot be the answer. My hope is that New Dorp High School in Staten Island is closer to finding the solution – a system in which the educators collectively work to improve student writing by focusing on the basics of analytical writing. I hope more school systems will follow their lead.