Tag Archives: real world writing

Getting students to write well without writing at length

Photo of students writing In mid-January, Marc Tucker wrote a piece  for Education Week‘s Top Performers blog, “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why.”

Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is noted for his research and writing on the policies and practices of the countries with the world’s best education systems.

His EdWeek article is blunt. After noting that American high school students rarely are required to read entire novels, let alone read entire nonfiction books, Tucker says:

High school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. [boldface added]

I empathize with Tucker. I’ve not had notable success finding qualified applicants either.)

As my regular readers know, for decades I’ve toggled together a living as a writer-editor (books, magazines, newspapers, an academic journal, marketing materials) and a college writing teacher, thanks in no small part to temporary and part-time jobs in places such as a hospital, the IRS National Computer Lab, and a resort hotel.

I’ve learned far more about writing from the places at which I’ve worked than I ever learned from my academic studies.

I believe deliberate practice is the key to learning to write.

I’m not, however, convinced that reading widely produces good writers: I see a reciprocal rather than a causal relationship.

I agree with Tucker that too many students are getting through school without learning to write.  As Steve Graham‘s research has shown, most teachers either don’t teach writing or don’t know how to teach writing, or both.

Besides that, teachers often have very little idea of what people in jobs outside education must write, the conditions under which they write, or the standards to which writers are held in jobs outside education. The typically English teacher is a person (usually a woman) whose out-of-education employment consisted of summer jobs waiting tables or working as a retail clerk — jobs that don’t entail writing complex documents or writing semi-technical documents such as are needed for the job Tucker was trying to fill.

If we want students to write on the job, they need to be taught to write, not just given writing assignments. In my experience, short papers on topics related to their courses are the best vehicles for teaching writing.

Students in an English class may not be interested in writing about why word choices matter or why English spelling is so difficult, but they can at least see it has some connection to English class. Similarly, students in science classes may not care about chemistry, but they can at least see that an assignment to compare the tone of an article in USA Today about a newly discovered use for tomato peels with the tone of an article in Scientific American on the same topic has some relationship to chemistry.

When I’m lucky enough to have students for an academic year,  I teach students a set of strategies I use in my own writing and stick to just what Common Core calls informative/explanatory writing. My students write in class every period for at least half the year so I can give them feedback orally as they write.

Whenever I can get away with it, I guarantee students that as soon as they demonstrate on two papers in a row that they have met my standard for competent writing, I will drop every writing grade up to that point. If they are happy with a C, they don’t have to do anything else the rest of the term.

I’ve done this when I’ve had three preps: five, 20-student, composition classes, one ed psych class, and one magazine journalism class. I thought I’d die before that year was over, but no student earned less than a B.

When students are competent at I/E writing — I estimate that they’ll need to write at least 20 complete, short papers to become competent — they will be able to start paying real attention to what they have to say.

That’s when they can profit from an across-the-curriculum expository writing program in which they get experience writing the kinds of longer papers Tucker expects from applicants for jobs at his organization.

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Expand learning at shrinking playground

Expand learning at shrinking playground

When money is tight, schools need not only to watch how they spend money but also to look for ways to make money while expanding learning opportunities, as I’m discussed before here and here. Ways to make those connections are all around if you are open to seeing them.

For example, my Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District newsletter arrived this week.  The newsletter contains a flier in it from the Greenlawn [Elementary School] Playground Committee, which says:

Our current playground has been shrinking due to the safety of its elements and due to the nature of its materials it has been recommended that we phase it out completely.

That made me laugh out loud.

I had a mental image of a playground constricting, squeezing large groups of children into a small space, ejecting kids on swings across town, popping a kid from the top of a slide into the air.

Then I thought, The Incredible Shrinking Playground would be a great kids’ picture book.

Suppose instead of just asking the community for money, the school turned this into a learning opportunity that raised money for the playground.

Have students:

  • Write that book.  (A picture book text is roughly 20 140-character Twitter posts.)
  • Illustrate that book.
  • Design and layout that book.
  • Design a cover for the book
  • Research how to secure an ISBN number for the book
  • Research the process of copyrighting the book.
  • Research what state and local business regulations they have to comply with to sell the book in New York State.
  • Research ways to publish that book.
  • Do a cost-benefit analysis for various publication methods.
  • Develop a marketing plan for the book.
  • Prepare ads for the book.
  • Make a book trailer for that book.

Could the book make a profit? That depends on the publishing costs. Full-color print books are tremendously expensive to produce, but a full-color flip book costs almost nothing.

Would it be worth doing? Definitely.

Those activities would require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of saleable skills. When I went to the BG art students’ portfolio show a week or so ago, there was not one example of digital art in the show.  That flabbergasted me. Right now in my publishing business I need a graphic designer to do digital ads and ebook covers, a mobile app designer, and a database developer; not one of those jobs requires more than a high school diploma and the market for those skills is huge and pays very well.

The traditional methods of balancing school budgets by belt-tightening are not going to work much longer. It’s time all schools, but especially rural schools, start looking for new revenue streams that enhance and support the schools’ educational mission.

Photo credit: roos5 uploaded by halvemaan

[Broken link to photo credit removed 2014-05-08]

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Filed under School-community relations, Teaching methods

Real writers write for strangers

Writers who have not developed the knack of writing about topics in which they have no interest for audiences to which they have no emotional ties have not learned to write for the real world.

In the workplace, writing topics are almost always given. A nonfiction writer is rarely free to choose what she or he wants to write about.  Of course, freelance writers can pick their topics, but if they pick topics publishers won’t buy, they may end up having to eat their words instead of groceries.

Typically, audiences to whom a writer must communicate are people who don’t share the writers’ background, beliefs, and experience. Often writers must espouse positions they don’t believe in: Writing what students describe as their “honest thoughts” is rarely welcomed by employers.

Writing for one’s self or even for close friends and family isn’t real writing — not even if the topic is astrophysics.

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