Highlights of “The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre from “The Atlantic”

3rd shelf, left bookcase, writing resources

3rd shelf, left bookcase, writing resources (Photo credit: Yvesanemone)

How can students become betters learners? Writers? Thinkers? The success of a writing across the curriculum program in Staten Island indicates that writing, writing frequently, and writing about challenging topics leads to improved test scores.

As a college teacher, instead of giving quizzes to show that students completed the required reading, I have my students write 2-3 page reading responses about what they read: They must summarize, analyze, and respond with their own opinion; they must include quotes about the readings to support their ideas. The students then read and respond to each other’s brief essays, then I do. Over the course of a semester, they compose (and I read!) 20 or more of these 2-3 page papers. As much as the students complain about them, they also give credit to these assignments for helping them to learn how to read, write, and think critically. Each class we tackle a new element of how to write these (from citing sources to writing a thesis) while they are grappling with conveying their ideas in writing.

So you could imagine that I was pleased to read Peg Tyre’s article The Writing Revolution (published in October 2012 issue of The Atlantic as well as online) to learn about a writing across the curriculum program on Staten Island that has some wonderful results. Here are a few hightlights from the article:

According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-­organized essay. Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly. Over the past 30 years, as knowledge-based work has come to dominate the economy, American high schools have raised achievement rates in mathematics by providing more­-extensive and higher-level instruction. But high schools are still graduating large numbers of students whose writing skills better equip them to work on farms or in factories than in offices; for decades, achievement rates in writing have remained low.

In the coming months, the conversation about the importance of formal writing instruction and its place in a public-school curriculum—­the conversation that was central to changing the culture at New Dorp—will spread throughout the nation. Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-­school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.

Teacher surveys conducted by Arthur Applebee, the director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany (part of the State University of New York system), found that even when writing instruction is offered, the teacher mostly does the composing and students fill in the blanks.

“Writing as a way to study, to learn, or to construct new knowledge or generate new networks of understanding,” says Applebee, “has become increasingly rare.”

Classroom discussion became an opportunity to push Monica and her classmates to listen to each other, think more carefully, and speak more precisely, in ways they could then echo in persuasive writing. When speaking, they were required to use specific prompts outlined on a poster at the front of each class.

“I agree/disagree with ___ because …”

“I have a different opinion …”

“I have something to add …”

“Can you explain your answer?”