On Writing and Teaching Writing–Part One

This is the beginning of a series.  Today is just a rough consolidation of various thoughts I’ve had over the years about teaching writing and how it affects my own writing process.  I apologize in advance because I’m dashing this off before dedicating some time to copyedit revisions on Netwalker Uprising and then running up the Mountain to do flooding prevention on a rental as well as a quick photo shoot of the Sandy River in flood before going to the Day Jobbe….so it may be discombobulated.  However, this is laying the groundwork for the series.

Anyway.  One concern I’ve had over the past eight years of teaching is that, while there has been a slow but steady improvement in test scores in the areas of reading and writing (in spite of what reform rhetoric would have you believe), there has NOT been a matching improvement in writing.  One study that came out in the state of Oregon several years ago flat out stated that test scores in writing have been static for thirty years.

Why is this happening?  We’re now requiring a more rigorous program in reading and math, to the degree that kindergarten curricula don’t resemble what they did thirty years ago.  Why isn’t writing showing a similar improvement?

I have several theories.  First of all, back about 20-30 years ago, a study came out asserting that teaching grammar did not improve writing quality.  My reaction to that study when I read it was somewhat unprintable (My Masters project focused on a specific writing remediation technique that my group’s adviser was testing out; it was my assigned job in the group to do the lit review and write that section of the paper).  I won’t go into the problems with that study but let’s just say that in general education it got picked up and applied, especially at the K-8 level.  Special ed was an entirely different proposition.  Sped does not agree, and there are many excellent studies which demonstrate the need for grammar and conventions instruction along with other means of writing remediation.  If you want to look them up, I suggest starting with Karen Harris and Steve Graham’s work in Self-Regulated Strategy Development (University of Kansas and University of Nebraska both have excellent linkage and materials).  Cognitive Strategy Instruction is another keyword.

Secondly, many (but not all, definitely not all, I do know some fine writers in this group!)  K-8 teachers admit to an uneasy relationship with writing.  It’s my thesis that in order to teach writing, you need to be comfortable with the process of writing. Doesn’t mean you have to be a professional-level writer or be selling your writing, but you do need to be able to write clearly, concisely, and correctly (I dearly enjoy the exceptions to the rule and had a lovely discussion with another teacher yesterday where we agreed that the use of the Oxford comma would have clarified a murky phrase in a news story affecting our building).

Thirdly, most consultants who teach teachers about writing can’t write narrative to save their lives.  They can’t write creative nonfiction, and their technical work product, while grammatically correct, isn’t written to clarify understanding.  It attacks understanding and buries it under snowdrifts of jargon.  The moments when they seek clarification are painful because they then trend toward the cutesy end of the swimming pool, complete with perky fontage. There are good consultants out there but again, many of them trend toward a special education background and they tend to minimize the ky00t.

Add all this together and you get major problems.

That’s it for now; must do other stuff.  Let me know if you want more of the same….

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