Why Kids Can’t Write

Photo

CreditAngela Asemota

On a bright July morning in a windowless conference room in a Manhattan bookstore, several dozen elementary school teachers were learning how to create worksheets that would help children learn to write.

Judith C. Hochman, founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, displayed examples of student work. A first grader had produced the following phrase: “Plants need water it need sun to” — that is, plants need water and sun, too. If the student didn’t learn how to correct pronoun disagreement and missing conjunctions, by high school he could be writing phrases like this one: “Well Machines are good but they take people jobs like if they don’t know how to use it they get fired.” That was a real submission on the essay section of the ACT.

“It all starts with a sentence,” Dr. Hochman said.

Focusing on the fundamentals of grammar is one approach to teaching writing. But it’s by no means the dominant one. Many educators are concerned less with sentence-level mechanics than with helping students draw inspiration from their own lives and from literature.

Thirty miles away at Nassau Community College, Meredith Wanzer, a high school teacher and instructor with the Long Island Writing Project, was running a weeklong workshop attended by six teenage girls. The goal was to prepare them to write winning college admissions essays — that delicate genre calling for a student to highlight her strengths (without sounding boastful) and tell a vivid personal story (without coming off as self-involved).

Ms. Wanzer led the students in a freewrite, a popular English class strategy of writing without stopping or judging. First, she read aloud from “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s 1995 classic on how to write with voice. “You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind,” the memoirist writes. “Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”

Ms. Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt. Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook. She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. But she was struggling with how to get started and what exactly she wanted to say.

“What voice in my head?” she wrote in her response to the Lamott essay. “I don’t have one.”

Photo

At a Manhattan bookstore, elementary school teachers take a Writing Revolution workshop that stresses the mechanics of writing over self-expression. CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Lyse needed a sense of “ownership” over her writing, Ms. Wanzer said. Lyse had solid sentence-level skills. But even when Ms. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement. “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.

So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.

The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.

A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.

“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”

There is virulent debate about what approach is best. So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision. Adherents worry that focusing too much on grammar or citing sources will stifle the writerly voice and prevent children from falling in love with writing as an activity.

Photo

A pre-assessment in social studies by a Staten Island ninth grader, part of a Writing Revolution program.

That ideology goes back to the 1930s, when progressive educators began to shift the writing curriculum away from penmanship and spelling and toward diary entries and personal letters as a psychologically liberating activity. Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, this movement took on the language of civil rights, with teachers striving to empower nonwhite and poor children by encouraging them to narrate their own lived experiences.

Dr. Hochman’s strategy is radically different: a return to the basics of sentence construction, from combining fragments to fixing punctuation errors to learning how to deploy the powerful conjunctive adverbs that are common in academic writing but uncommon in speech, words like “therefore” and “nevertheless.” After all, the Snapchat generation may produce more writing than any group of teenagers before it, writing copious text messages and social media posts, but when it comes to the formal writing expected at school and work, they struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences.

The Common Core has provided a much-needed “wakeup call” on the importance of rigorous writing, said Lucy M. Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, a leading center for training teachers in process-oriented literacy strategies. But policy makers “blew it in the implementation,” she said. “We need massive teacher education.”

One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer. The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.

As part of its program at Nassau Community College, in a classroom not far from the one where the teenagers were working on their college essays, a group of teachers — of fifth grade and high school, of English, social studies and science — were honing their own writing skills. They took turns reading out loud the freewriting they had just done in response to “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love:

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren. It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point. A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.

“I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher. She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them.

Sometimes, she said, she will reinforce grammar by asking students to copy down a sentence from a favorite book and then discuss how the author uses a tool like commas. But in general, when it comes to assessing student work, she said, “I had to teach myself to look beyond ‘There’s no capital, there’s no period’ to say, ‘By God, you wrote a gorgeous sentence.’ ”

Photo

In a Long Island Writing Project workshop, Lyse Armand analyzes essays and literature to find her own voice. The Writing Project stresses freewriting and revision.CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Mrs. Sokolowski is right that formal grammar instruction, like identifying parts of speech, doesn’t work well. In fact, research finds that students exposed to a glut of such instruction perform worse on writing assessments.

A musical notion of writing — the hope that the ear can be trained to “hear” errors and imitate quality prose — has developed as a popular alternative among English teachers. But what about those students, typically low income, with few books at home, who struggle to move from reading a gorgeous sentence to knowing how to write one? Could there be a better, less soul-crushing way to enforce the basics?

In her teacher training sessions, Dr. Hochman of the Writing Revolution shows a slide of a cute little girl, lying contentedly on her stomach as she scrawls on a piece of composition paper. It’s the type of stock photograph that has probably appeared in a hundred educators’ PowerPoint presentations, meant to evoke a warm and relaxed learning environment, perhaps in one of the cozy writing nooks favored by the process-oriented writing gurus.

“This is not good writing posture!” Dr. Hochman exclaimed. Small children should write at desks, she believes. And while she isn’t arguing for a return to the grammar lessons of yesteryear — she knows sentence diagramming leaves most students confused and disengaged — she does believe that children should spend time filling out worksheets with exercises like the one below, which demonstrates how simple conjunctions like “but,” “because” and “so” add complexity to a thought. Students are given the root clause, and must complete the sentence with a new clause following each conjunction:

Fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of wholes.

Fractions are like decimals, but they are written differently.

Fractions are like decimals, so they can be used interchangeably.

Along the way, students are learning to recall meaningful content from math, social studies, science and literature. By middle school, teachers should be crafting essay questions that prompt sophisticated writing; not “What were the events leading up to the Civil War?” — which could result in a list — but “Trace the events leading up to the Civil War,” which requires a historical narrative of cause and effect.

“Freewriting, hoping that children will learn or gain a love of writing, hasn’t worked,” Dr. Hochman told the teachers, many of whom work in low-income neighborhoods. She doesn’t believe that children learn to write well through plumbing their own experiences in a journal, and she applauds the fact that the Common Core asks students to do more writing about what they’ve read, and less about their own lives.

“I call it a move away from child-centered writing,” she said approvingly, and away from what she considers facile assignments, like writing a poem “about a particular something they may have observed 10 minutes ago out of the window.”

“I don’t mean to be dismissive,” she continued, “but every instructional minute has its purpose.”

Photo

Kathleen Sokolowski leads a workshop for teachers that focuses on narrative skills, part of the Long Island Writing Project. CreditYana Paskova for The New York Times

Her training session lacks the fun and interactivity of the Long Island Writing Project, because it is less about prompting teachers to write and chat with colleagues and more about the sometimes dry work of preparing worksheets and writing assignments that reinforce basic concepts. Nevertheless, many teachers who learn Dr. Hochman’s strategies become devotees.

Molly Cudahy, who teaches fifth-grade special education at the Truesdell Education Campus, a public school in Washington, D.C., said she appreciates Dr. Hochman’s explicit and technical approach. She thought it would free her students’ voices, not constrain them. At her school, 100 percent of students come from low-income families. “When we try to do creative and journal writing,” she said, “students don’t have the tools to put their ideas on paper.”

There is a notable shortage of high-quality research on the teaching of writing, but studies that do exist point toward a few concrete strategies that help students perform better on writing tests. First, children need to learn how to transcribe both by hand and through typing on a computer. Teachers report that many students who can produce reams of text on their cellphones are unable to work effectively at a laptop, desktop or even in a paper notebook because they’ve become so anchored to the small mobile screen. Quick communication on a smartphone almost requires writers to eschew rules of grammar and punctuation, exactly the opposite of what is wanted on the page.

Before writing paragraphs — which is often now part of the kindergarten curriculum — children do need to practice writing great sentences. At every level, students benefit from clear feedback on their writing, and from seeing and trying to imitate what successful writing looks like, the so-called text models. Some of the touchy-feel stuff matters, too. Students with higher confidence in their writing ability perform better.

All of this points toward a synthesis of the two approaches. In classrooms where practices like freewriting are used without any focus on transcription or punctuation, “the students who struggled didn’t make any progress,” Dr. Troia, the Michigan State professor, said. But when grammar instruction is divorced from the writing process and from rich ideas in literature or science, it becomes “superficial,” he warned.

Considering the lack of adequate teacher training, Lyse may be among a minority of students exposed to explicit instruction about writing.

In Ms. Wanzer’s workshop, Lyse and her classmates went on to analyze real students’ college essays to determine their strengths and weaknesses. They also read “Where I’m From,” a poem by George Ella Lyon, and used it as a text model for their work. Lyse drafted her own version of “Where I’m From,” which helped her recall details from her childhood in Haiti.

Lyse wrote: “I am from the rusty little tin roof house, from washing by hand and line drying.” It was a gorgeous sentence, and she was well on her way to a moving college application essay.

Advertisements

3 Strategies to Improve Student Writing Instantly

Edutopia

Ali Parrish

Educator, Educational Consultant

//

<img class=” field-cover-media” src=”/sites/default/files/styles/feature_image_breakpoints_theme_edutopia_desktop_1x/public/parrish-hero-update-improve-student-writing-460×345.jpg?itok=MqeUy2VD” alt=”” />

Editor’s Note: A version of this post first appeared on Techie Teacher and Character Coach.

“But Miss Parrish, I can’t think of anything to write!”

Haven’t we all heard similar lines in our classrooms? We see hesitant writers sit with a pencil in their hands and a paper on their desks, almost as if they have been handicapped by the task we asked them to do.

How is it that some students have so much to say when talking out loud, but when a pencil is put into their hand they suddenly hesitate, struggle and have nothing to say? How can you help those hesitant writers eliminate the “handicap” or barrier that suddenly appears when asked to write?

The answer is to simply have them produce “writing” without technically “writing” at all. That’s right, the way to get hesitant writers to produce as much “writing” as they do “talking” is to have them do exactly that — talk.

Strategies That Work

1. Student Talks, Teacher Writes

  • Have your student stand up while you sit in his or her seat.
  • Pick up the student’s pencil and simply state, “You talk, I’ll write.”
  • This usually catches students off guard and takes them a minute to realize that it’s a real option for them.

2. Audio Record It

  • Identify a way that your students can audio record themselves “speaking” their essay rather than “writing” it. This could be a tape recorder, digital audio recorder, student computer with a microphone or even an audio recording feature on your phone.
  • Hand that recording device to your student and say, “Step out in the hall and ‘write’ your essay using this.”
  • See confusion, sheer awe, and then signs of relief come over the face of your student.

3. Audio Transcribe It

  • Identify an app or tool that will transcribe speaking into text. Some options for this include PaperPortNotes, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Dictation Pro, VoiceTranslator, or a text-to-speech tool that is built into many smartphones. Try one of these to your phone, tablet, or computer.
  • Before I had an iPad in my class, I usually opened a blank email on my iPhone, touched the text-to-speech button, handed my phone to my student and said, “Go ahead — ‘speak’ your paper.”
  • Next, see confusion, sheer awe and then signs of complete relief come over your student’s face.
  • After speaking/typing it, the student can simply email him- or herself the text and work on the draft from there.

Inspire Thoughtful Creative Writing Through Art

Edutopia

Image Credit: “The Volunteers” ©2012 Denise M. Cassano

A few years ago, I showed my sixth graders The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer. It’s an epic painting of a young black sailor in a small broken boat, surrounded by flailing sharks, huge swells, and a massive storm in the distance. I asked my students the simple question, “What’s happening?” The responses ranged from “He’s a slave trying to escape” to “He’s a fisherman lost at sea.” The common theme with the responses, though, was the tone — most students were very concerned for his welfare. “That boat looks rickety. I think he’s going to get eaten by the sharks,” was a common refrain. Then a very quiet, shy girl raised her hand. “It’s OK, he’ll be fine,” she said. “The ship will save him.”

The room got quiet as everyone stared intently at the painting. I looked closely at it. “What ship?” I responded. The young girl walked up to the image and pointed to the top left corner. Sure enough, faded in the smoky distance was a ship.

This revelation changed the tone and content of the conversation that followed. Some thought it was the ship that would save him. Others thought it was the ship that cast him off to his death. Would the storm, sharks, or ship get him? The best part of this intense debate was hearing the divergent, creative responses. Some students even argued. The written story produced as a result of analyzing this image was powerful.

Since this experience, I have developed strategies that harness the power of observation, analysis, and writing through my art lessons.

Children naturally connect thoughts, words, and images long before they master the skill of writing. This act of capturing meaning in multiple symbol systems and then vacillating from one medium to another is calledtransmediation. While using art in the classroom, students transfer this visual content, and then add new ideas and information from their personal experiences to create newly invented narratives. Using this three-step process of observe, interpret, and create helps kids generate ideas, organize thoughts, and communicate effectively.

Step 1: Observe

Asking students to look carefully and observe the image is fundamental to deep, thoughtful writing. Keep this in mind when choosing art to use in class. Look for images with:

  • Many details: If it is a simple image, there’s not much to analyze.
  • Characters: There should be people or animals in the image to write about.
  • Colors: Find colors that convey a mood.
  • Spatial relationships: How do the background and foreground relate?

Lead your students through the image. “I like it” is not the answer we are looking for. Ask questions that guide the conversation. Encourage divergent answers and challenge them. Try these questions:

  • What shapes do you see? Do they remind you of anything?
  • What colors do you see? How do those colors make you feel?
  • What patterns do you see? How are they made?
  • Do you see any unusual textures? What do they represent?
  • What is the focal point of the image? How did the artist bring your attention to the focal point?
  • How did the artist create the illusion of space in the image?
  • If you were living in the picture and could look all around you, what would you see?
  • If you were living in the picture, what would you smell? What would you hear?

Keep your questions open-ended, and record what students say so that they’ll have a reference for later. Identify and challenge assumptions. At this point, we are not looking for inferences or judgments, just observations.

Step 2: Make Inferences by Analyzing Art

Once they have discussed what they see, students then answer the question, “What is happening?” They must infer their answers from the image and give specific reasons for their interpretations.

For example, while looking at The Gulf Stream, one student said, “The storm already passed and is on its way out. You can tell because the small boat the man is on has been ripped apart and the mast is broken.” That is what we are looking for in their answers: rational thoughts based on inferences from data in the picture. No two responses will be exactly the same, but they can all be correct as long as the student can coherently defend his or her answer with details from the image. When children express their opinions based on logic and these details, they are analyzing art and using critical thinking skills.

Here are some tips to model a mature conversation about art:

  • Give adequate wait time. We are often so rushed that we don’t give children time to think and reflect.
  • Ask students to listen to, think about, and react to the ideas of others.
  • Your questions should be short and to the point.
  • Highlight specific details to look at while analyzing art (characters, facial expressions, objects, time of day, weather, colors, etc.).
  • Explain literal vs. symbolic meaning (a spider’s web can be just that, or it can symbolize a trap).

Step 3: Create

After thoughtful observation and discussion, students are abuzz with ideas. For all of the following writing activities, they must use details from the image to support their ideas. Here are just a few of the many ways we can react to art:

For Younger Students:

  • Locate and describe shapes and patterns.
  • Describe time of day and mood of scene.
  • Describe a character in detail with a character sketch. Characters may be people, animals, or inanimate objects.
  • Write a story based on this image including a brand new character.
  • Give students specific vocabulary that they must incorporate into their story.

For Older Students:

  • Write down the possible meaning of the image, trade with a partner, and persuade your partner to believe that your story is the correct one based on details in the image.
  • Identify characters and their motives. Who are they and what do they want? Explain how you know based on details.
  • Pretend that you are in the image, and describe what you see, smell, feel, and hear.
  • Describe the details that are just outside of the image, the ones we can’t see.
  • Introduce dialogue into your story. What are they saying?
  • Sequence the events of the story. What happened five minutes before this scene, what is happening now, and what happens five minutes later? How do you know?
  • Write from the perspective of one of the characters in the image.
  • Explain who is the protagonist and antagonist. What is their conflict?

Thinking and Communicating

We don’t know what the future holds for our students, but we do know that they will have to think critically, make connections, and communicate clearly. Art can help students do that. During this year’s commencement speech at Sarah Lawrence College, Fareed Zakaria said, “It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them [ideas] and sort them out.” Art can be that link to helping students organize their ideas and produce coherent, thoughtful writing.

As you consider teaching writing through art, I recommend reading In Pictures and in Words by Kate Wood Ray and Beth Olshansky’sPictureWriting.org website.

How have you used the arts to inspire creative thinking in your students? Please tell us about it in the comments.

Twitter For Writers

The Twitter Story, by George Couros

In less than 140 characters, there is a funny little story that is topical and pointing out some of the funny characteristics of Canadians (very polite and that we are big fans of rapper Jay-Zed).

So why are we so hard on kids that they “overshare” on social networks?  Much of what they do would be considered a short “story” that they are often telling in 140 characters or less to an audience.  Stories have been, and always will be, an important part of our world.

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. —Ursula K. LeGuin

The mediums to tell these stories have not changed; they have expanded.

In the recent article, “Twitter is the New Haiku”, the author shares Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s belief in the artistry that can come from a simple tweet:

“Sometimes I get asked, ‘Don’t you feel that the 140 characters has meant that people don’t think about things deeply anymore?’ The reality is that you don’t look at haiku and say, ‘You know, aren’t you worried that this format is going to prevent people from thinking deeply when you can only use this many words and it has to be set this way?’ I think that people develop language for creatively communicating within whichever constraints you set for people.” Dick Costolo

The author then continues to discuss that with this type of communication, less can often mean more:

“The power of communicating in fewer words is that those words mean more, and in their best forms, those words can inspire thousands more in discussion and speculation.” Emma Green

So are all tweets powerful stories?  Absolutely not.  A lot of what is shared is absolutely terrible, and many would say that Twitter is really harming our use of language.  Yet more people are moving to Twitter to share short stories that often turn into something more:

More recently, Twitter, too, has been coopted as a tool for fiction. Last year, Jennifer Egan wrote a short story in 140-character nuggets, which were posted on Twitter before they were published in The New Yorker as “Black Box.” A few months later, novelist Elliott Holt wrote her own Slate opined. “With its simultaneous narrators and fractured storyline, this is not the kind of tale that could march steadily across a continuous expanse of white space. It’s actually made for the medium.”

The major difference with something like Twitter is that it immediately can give our students an audience.  Looking at the traditional time it takes to publish a book, it can almost take a year from the moment it is finished until it is ready for an audience.  I am not saying that it is not a worthy endeavour to try writing a book, but we live in a world with multiple opportunities to try different mediums.  We do not have to focus on one.

Almost 700 posts into this blog, I first found my voice through Twitter, which expanded into a blog, and may now expand into a book next year.  By learning to use the first medium. it helped build my confidence in expanding to the next.  The ability to share short little messages and stories, has helped me to move to actually expanding my thoughts.  Wouldn’t starting with the 140 character story be a good start for our students?