Rewriting how we teach writing: Not everyone cares how you feel.

Do we teach children how to emote rather than how to explain in their writing? (AP Images)

Do we teach children how to emote rather than how to explain? (AP Images)

I have judged more than a dozen student writing contests over the years and found that we often rewarded trauma rather than talent. The prize would go to the student writer who survived a house fire or a serious illness. And that was because the writing simply wasn’t strong in any of the entries so we went with pathos.

Many high school and student newspapers today are full of essays and columns rather than news or investigations.  As a college newspaper adviser, I pushed students to write about regents’ meetings or tuition hikes. They preferred to pen opinion columns or movie reviews. They found covering meetings boring and restrictive. And they often were unable to summarize what actually happened at the meetings.

Another challenge was getting them to understand that they can’t rely on anecdotes to build their case. Just because a friend’s car was ticketed unfairly by campus police did not mean that abuses were widespread. They would have to sift through campus police reports and appeals to get a sense of how many other students were making such allegations.

Often, my push for more facts in a piece would be met with, “But this is about what I feel.”

The Atlantic has a great story on the shortcomings of writing instruction that values personal narrative and memoir over  informative and persuasive essays.

It includes this passage, which I can’t print verbatim because it won’t pass the filter:

Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-­expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s*** about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York. Early accounts suggest that the new writing standards will deliver a high-voltage shock to the American public. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.

The piece profiles a high school in Staten Island, N.Y., that adopted analytic writing in every class and saw tremendous improvement in student performance:

Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach. The popular thinking was that writing should be “caught, not taught,” explains Steven Graham, a professor of education instruction at Arizona State University. Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will “catch” what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression.

With its students unable to write coherent and clear essays, New Dorp High School adopted the Hochman Program, developed by Judith Hochman, a former headmaster of private school in suburban New York.

The Atlantic explains:

Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

Take a look at the entire Atlantic piece as it details how New Dorp High integrated Hochman’s method across all subjects. As a result, the magazine reports that “pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog.

60 comments Add your comment


September 22nd, 2012
6:36 am

Snicker. Seeing a piece on the defects of thinking and writing from American kids on a blog devoted public education is a joke. Where do you think the over focus on the liddle darlings feewings came from from? Public education has been a leader in pushing self esteem as overarching goals. Seeing you complain about the consequences is a little rich.


September 22nd, 2012
6:59 am

I agree with the article’s assessment. Our kids believe that only things that are fun for them should be required. The idea of having to do anything that is tedious, or hard work is anathema to them. Sometimes you just have to learn and follow rules. Sometimes (a lot of times), facts count more than feelings. I would love for the teaching of writing to shift direction and for grammar to be taught more explicitly.

The only thing I don’t like about the Common Core approach is the fact that, at least in elementary school, each genre is taught in each quarter. It’s making it really difficult to get completed pieces from start to finish when every week you’re working on a different genre. I also wish we had more time for explicit grammar instruction. I don’t think practicing through writing is enough. People say it’s more “authentic” but, kids tend to apply what is “authentic” to them. In other words, if they hear “we was” at home, that’s what they write. We don’t have enough time to explicitly teach grammar to help them understand that that is so wrong. They memorize rules but don’t have enough exposure to apply them uniformly.

William Casey

September 22nd, 2012
7:14 am

Interesting article. I agree that the pendlelum has swung too far toward opinion and feelings. However, there was a reason why this happened. Go back and read the stilted, formalized newspapers of the 1950’s and earlier. Of course, our schools took a good thing (adding “life” to writing) and overdid it. Organization, logic and factual information bit the dust. Perhaps the pendlelum is swinging back.

bootney farnsworth

September 22nd, 2012
7:21 am

about stinkin’ time


September 22nd, 2012
7:22 am

Now I understand why we learn so little from news reports today

bootney farnsworth

September 22nd, 2012
7:26 am

you catch a cold, a ball, even a falling start (for those old enough to get it).
you don’t catch an education


September 22nd, 2012
8:03 am

Sadly the GHSWT still favors the personal in an argumentative essay. High schoolers are hitting common core like a wall. The true NCLB babies, they have spent their whole lives on bubble tests and personalized writing and now, suddenly, are being told they must master open ended, expository, non-personal writing and texts. I firmly believe that is the reason tests like the one in FL have such dismal results. We should roll out CC progressively, not wholesale. It is insane to assume kind who have spent a decade being taught in method A to perform in method B, to turn on a dime, so to speak. they literally have no concept of how to do so, and it is difficult to undo a lifetime of “learning” in a year or so.


September 22nd, 2012
8:10 am

In my experience teaching English at the high school level, I’ve found that too many students have been taught to disassociate writing from thinking. I welcome the analytical and non-fiction focus of Common Core. And I think I do a decent job teaching students how to write. But no one has found me a study that evidences that 37 students, many who lack experience with higher-level thinking and who need constant feedback, will benefit most from such a large writing class.

Aren’t college writing classes capped at 25? Why would high school “leaders” think that writing could be taught any better in a larger class?

Maureen, Does the article address “peer feedback’? Too many administrators tout this as an effective, efficient way to grade or give students feedback. But in my experience studying it and using it, too many students don’t know what they’re looking for. So heaps of students write essays and give feedback, but still lack any fundamental understanding of writing.With more proficient students and a limited focus, it can work.

Cindy Lutenbacher

September 22nd, 2012
8:26 am

Please, please, please–let us not conflate the hateful words of a self-serving man like Coleman with the problems we see in student writing.

To imagine that the inclusion of feelings and personal experience in student writing is THE cause of problems in formal English does not serve the discussion. I believe the issue is much more complex, and one of the factors is the increasing reliance upon standardized testing, which, at its best, reveals nothing of value. Standardized testing has replaced and curtailed the efforts of teachers who DO challenge students to think, question, seek valid proof for opinions, organize thoughts, and convey thoughts using formal grammar.

Study after independent study has shown that explicit teaching of the “rules” of grammar has little lasting effect, despite many of our own personal anecdotes. We’re not wrong to do a little explicit teaching, but not much, for it’s a waste of time without a ton of writing to accompany it. And what high school English teacher has enough hours in the week to give sufficient response to the daily writings of 150 students?

There are other factors, and we should be spending our discussions on all of them. Let us not waste ourselves upon the words of a small mind like that of David Coleman.


September 22nd, 2012
8:31 am

This debate obviously needs more of us on board. Balancing content with a child’s self-expression should be the point of all writing instruction. I’m in full support of getting children to think out of their own heads and us grading them on their accuracy of interpretation rather than heart felt opinion.


September 22nd, 2012
8:37 am

My first job after graduating high school was in an elementary school as a teacher’s aide, and I was constantly reminded, ‘don’t correct their spelling’ when they write. Fine, for a first draft! I was appalled then, and have seen education as a downward spiral since. And now, the ‘it’s all about me’ generations are discovering how inadequate it is- and look what’s happening to our ’standard English dictionary’- all kinds of words, from slang to tech, added and degrading any inkling of ’standard English’.

Cindy Lutenbacher

September 22nd, 2012
8:46 am

I think you are so right, and your numbers are the source of my comment about high school English teachers not having enough hours in the week.

My institution supposedly caps first-year composition classes at 25, but those numbers are often ignored. However, a few years ago, I surveyed all the English departments in the Associated Colleges of the South, and ALL of them either cap or informally cap their first year comp classes between 15 and 17 students.

(Grammarians, please forgive my use of numerals or other MLA errors–having to use one hand to type…)

The Conference on College Composition and Communication ( the primary organization for teachers of college-level writing) recommends that no comp teacher ever have more than 45 students in a semester (three sections of comp). That number is only 8 more than you have in ONE class.

Blog responders, I’m nigh upon 60 in years, so I remember the “old” days of public ed in the south. Let’s not hear anecdotes about our school days. The society in which we live has experienced so many changes since those days, and I hope for discussion about grappling with those changes and the ways that we can best help our students think, question, challenge, seek answers, and powerfully write.


September 22nd, 2012
8:46 am

Is this the pendulum swinging too far? In Language Arts teach this. In science, only expect this. Let’s not fall even more behind in science by over-reacting…


September 22nd, 2012
8:49 am

I don’t think we do a very good job teaching writing, nowadays. However, we do many kinds of writing in third grade: personal narrative, persuasive paper, etc.

For a time in grad school I graded 8th grade writing CRCTs. Oh, my!

In defense of the students, the adults around them also use “Auntie Em” stories to “prove” their allegations for or against their candidate. We see it every day on these blogs.

Cindy Lutenbacher

September 22nd, 2012
9:00 am

Catlady, your observation about third grade writing is exactly what I have observed in my daughters’ public schools. Writing that includes personal feelings and experiences is far from the entree in writing assignment menus.

Atlanta Mom

September 22nd, 2012
9:07 am

What a great article. It seems many of the ideas could be easily incorporated into the school day. I am amazed that these concepts could be introduced as late as HS and be successful.

HoneyFern School

September 22nd, 2012
9:10 am

It’s not that schools do a bad job teaching writing; it’s that they don’t generally teach it at all. Very few students come to me knowing how to organize a story, much less an essay, and some make it all the way to their 11th grade year without knowing excatly what a thesis statement is.

Becuase they have not been trained in the writing process and required to revise, students feel the first draft is the final. Imagine their surprise when we go through (at least) two more, and then imagine their surprise when we compare their first to their final. Writing is yet another thing that falls by the wayside in the wake of overwhelming test prep.


September 22nd, 2012
9:39 am

I teach English at Georgia Perimeter College. Many of the students I see in my freshman composition classes have weak to almost nonexistent writing skills. So about a year and a half ago I began to create writing assignments for them that spell out in detail what I want to see in each and every paragraph of their essays. I mandate everything from minimum word counts per paragraph to where I want them to introduce an opposing point of view in an argumentative essay.

Some of my teaching colleagues might disagree with my “mandated” approach, especially at the college level. I will admit it doesn’t seem that I should have to do this. But after reading hundreds of poorly structured and inadequately developed essays every year, I felt there was no other choice. And even though these assignments take a lot of the guesswork out of essay writing, the students are still responsible for working with the topics, which I also mandate, and doing the writing.

The way I view freshman composition has changed because many high school graduates are not taught the basics of writing. I’ve had plenty of students from private as well as public schools who don’t know the first thing about how to structure a paragraph let alone an entire essay.

And just in case you’re wondering, I have had very few students complain that I am hampering their style or creativity. Best of all, the essays they turn in a for a grade are better than the ones I used to get when I assumed high school graduates knew how to write.


September 22nd, 2012
9:56 am

This reminds me of the debacle surrounding Whole-Language. There was nothing inherently wrong with the whole-language concept from my perspective. The failure was in the implementation, and this underscores many of the concept failures in education over the years.

The initial core group of educators who have developed a construct probably spent years doing so. They gather their data, modify their approach, test, test & test again until they are comfortable in presenting the findings/results to the world. The powers that be see it as a good thing and tell their district to adopt the new way of doing things. That is the first mistake, using the top-down approach invariably alienates a percentage of those who need to buy in.

Mistake number two revolves around implementation. The district sends a few people for training, they come back to share/train the district but invariably, ego & opinion seep into the training. Some of the trainers see a “better way” of implementing some component and that will also manifest right down into the classroom level where a teacher, caught between a rigid schedule for delivery & the realities of their class, outright drop a component because they could not fit it in.

The end result is a bastardized version of the original proven concept actually being delivered.

That is what happened with whole-language IMHO. A critical component was dropped because of imposed time limits. That being the final stage, where kids were taught to edit their work for public presentation. I remember walking down the halls in my kids’ ES with their very UNpresentable writing prompts displayed for our viewing pleasure. Being familiar with the concept (I was using it in middle school), I asked why the prompts had not gone through the final phase and was told there had not been enough time to do so. I never followed up but expect the kids never went through the process of fixing their mistakes (I did ask my kids if they had done so but have always weighed what they said about school & teachers with a grain of salt).

I saw the same degeneration in my own building until the next great thing came along, replaced whole-language, and the process began all over again.

Typically, over time, shortcuts like this become accepted and commonplace and the original concept is bastardized to the point of ineffectiveness.

I’ve been around long enough to have seen it happen with a number of nationally promoted ed concepts which either are no longer around or currently in their death throes. Not because they were flawed concepts but because the implementation was modified to the point the construct was no longer valid.

But what do I know…?


September 22nd, 2012
10:36 am

I should add…

When the “new” concept begins to falter, the outside attacks begin. The problem here is that the attacks are aimed, not at the root cause of the failure (implementation), but at the concept itself. Various groups will attack a concept citing whatever is their bone of contention of the day. The public reacts to the “sound bites” and instead of fixing the self-inflicted problems, the district drops the program and tries another.

CY 2.0

September 22nd, 2012
10:53 am

Writing and reading use to be taught separately, but because they are so deeply linked, someone decided to put the classes together (that may be oversimplified, but it’s more or less what happened in a nutshell). Since then, English teachers (like me) have had half the time to teach the same amount of stuff to more students. Reading and writing are linked, and we know that if you improve in one area, the other area improves as well. However, I believe we should go back to two separate classes that have closely aligned and linked curricula. Students would get better instruction in the two skills, teachers would have more time to make sure things are taught fully rather than glossed over, and teachers would (in theory) have more time to give students meaningful feedback. I can hear the uproar now. How dare we stick kids in reading and writing classes for two hours! They hate those class! It will make them hate school even more! I hate to tell you it, but your student is in reading and writing classes all day. They must be able to do both things in each and every class. Imagine, if they really knew how to read and write, they might actually enjoy it.

As many others have pointed out, writing classes need to be capped. I know many people will argue that their classes were just as big back when they were in school. While that may be true, there are so many more factors making large class sizes a larger issue now. I won’t rehash all of them here (they are well documented throughout the blog/blog comments), but I will point out that teachers have not always had as many classes. Rather than talking about how many students are in each class, we should be talking about how many total students the teacher has. You come grade 160 English papers while teaching and all the things that come with that. Let me know how it goes. During fall break this week, I will be grading the 160 papers that students just completed. Even though I have the entire week to work at home without having to teach my classes, it will be a struggle to get through all the work on time. I also know that anything I grade after hour two each day will not get the same attention and feedback from me. I hate it, but I need to grade. I won’t have another chance, and some feedback is better than none (I hope). If I had half as many students (or even a third as many), I know my students would learn more because I could give them better feedback.

Believe it or not, teachers know how to teach. We know what works and what doesn’t, but we are rarely given the opportunity to do what we know is best. Until teachers are treated like the professionals that we are, education in this country will continue to go downhill.


September 22nd, 2012
10:54 am

I teach at the technical college level. I have been so disappointed in the papers my students have turned in, I question whether I want to keep assigning papers. There is such an abysmal lack of good writing skills among our students that I wonder how they ever made it to high school, let alone college. Many of them plagiarize their content, even after being given a reminder on what plagiarism is. To make matters worse, many of them can’t even seem to copy and paste accurately; their plagiarized content has grammatical errors even when written properly in the original article. They simply can’t communicate their understanding of an article in their own words. And then there are the problems with subject/verb agreement, proper punctuation, sentence fragments, coherence, random capitalization. Why are these students allowed to progress to the college level? I’m not an English teacher, but excellent verbal skills are critical to the jobs for which I train students. What’s a college educator to do? I do the best I can to teach the ones who are willing to learn and weed out the rest.

And whatever you think of David Coleman, this statement is priceless and true: “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s*** about what you feel or what you think.” Some would do well to keep this in mind as they post their comments on various AJC blogs. If the internet has shown us anything, it’s how much ignorance mixed with arrogance there is in the U.S.

The Dixie Diarist

September 22nd, 2012
10:59 am

A while back I got a bunch of unmotivated and uninterested and nearly illiterate kids to write stories and essays. To write something every week by Friday. I sure did.

I told them I borrowed this one from the working world, especially the newspaper news room. Every Monday the kids got a fun subject to write about, a low word count, the opportunity to be edited by me, and then I would read their work, out loud, in my goofy announcer voices, to everybody else every Friday. My God, did it work. The first couple of Fridays were horrifying to the students, but then they finally got whacked each week by a sense of pride and Fridays became the most looked-forward-to day of the week. Not because it was the last day of the week.

It became the proudest day of the week because they learned that hard work and a dedicated routine always has a payoff. When you see emotionally fragile kids pat each other on the back—literally pat each other on the back—because they liked each other’s stories, it’s hard not to get teary-eyed right in front of them. Every Friday.


September 22nd, 2012
12:16 pm


Are you serious? A formula for writing? Do you have no respect for our craft? Any teacher that uses a formula to teach writing is just lazy.

Claudia Stucke

September 22nd, 2012
12:54 pm

Hallelujah. I can’t count the number of times students have told me, “But it’s my opinion! I don’t have to support it!” Critical thinking goes hand-in-hand with good writing. I’m agree that the ever-swinging pendulum of that’s “in” for education has swung too far in the wrong direction, giving students (and unfortunately sometimes teachers as well) the notion that the sole function of writing is to express ourselves. Even when teaching creative writing, I had to pry students away from their attachment to the idea that emotional expiation is poetry. “Writing can be good therapy,” I told my students, “but theraputic writing belongs in your journal.”

@Teacher: “Any teacher who uses a formula to teach writing is just crazy.” Maybe–but when a student comes to you (in eleventh or twelfth grade) and can barely write a sentence let alone a whole essay, you have to start somewhere. I was a journalist and editor for twenty years before becoming a teacher, and I used every tool available to me in both careers to help writers face the blank page. A colleague of mine used to refer to the five-paragraph essay as “training wheels.” Once a student becomes comfortable with the process, he or she can branch out–and yes, you have to scaffold and then gently–but consistently–push them beyond their comfort zone. But you can’t put a blank piece of paper (or a blank computer screen) in front of a kid and say, “Give me a well-supported argument for or against [school uniforms, lowering/raising the legal drinking age or driving age, etc.].” Of course, the risk is formulaic-sounding writing; and I always showed students examples of good five-paragraph essays and bad, repetitive, formulaic ones so they’d see the difference and strive toward better writing.

I believe that writing is not taught enough in schools, probably because it is so time-consuming–both on the students’ and the teachers’ part. I used to give multiple opportunities for rewrites, because that’s how we learn to write. But it also burned me out quickly and aged me in dog years.


September 22nd, 2012
12:54 pm

@ redweather. I can see using such a formula for the first few papers assigned. But at some point, the students should have learned these organizational skills for themselves so that they can write an acceptable essay without outside assistance. If they can’t, that’s why grades were created.

There’s a lot more to a good piece of writing than correct grammar and the proper word-count—critical thinking and the clear expression of ideas, among other things. However, your papers must be a lot easier to grade.

Claudia Stucke

September 22nd, 2012
12:58 pm

OK–if I’m going to pontificate about writing, I should do a better job of proofreading! “I’m agree that the ever-swinging pendulum of that’s “in” for education has swung too far in the wrong direction” should obviously be “I agree . . . what’s ‘in’ for education . . . .” And there should be a comma after “sentence” preceding “let alone a whole essay.”

John Konop

September 22nd, 2012
1:17 pm

Great post !! All should read!!


September 22nd, 2012
1:18 pm


This high school English teacher understands your promotion of formulaic writing. I wonder if teacher and Prof have any idea how many of your freshmen are lacking in writing (and thinking) skills.
What type of writing assessment does Perimeter even use for its incoming freshmen?


I agree that college students should have these “organizational skills,” but many of the students graduating from our public high schools-at least the ones in Dekalb-don’t. Unless Georgia is going to implement a more rigorous writing test and high schools or colleges are going to allow more students to fail, what’s the option?


What’s crazy is allowing so many students lacking fundamental reading and writing skills to move up grades and graduate from high school with college preparatory diplomas.


September 22nd, 2012
1:34 pm

I’m curious about grades and writing. In Dekalb high school English classes, only 15% of a student’s grade is determined from reading and writing. Projects and class work determine 50%-25% each;homework and test determine 20%-10% each; participation determines 5%; and the final exam determines 10%.

For EOCT courses, the EOCT determines 15% of the grade-even for AP classes (and these classes also give students a grade point average bump).

When you consider how many assignments one teacher has to grade (up to 111 for teachers working with a block schedule or as many as 185 students for those that teach 5 classes every day), you can see why so many students’ writing skills suffer.

In the case of Dekalb, the grading percentages and the class sizes don’t make writing a priority.

And when you start looking at SAT scores and AP scores as well, you can see the consequences of ignoring proper, effective writing instruction.

Atlanta Mom

September 22nd, 2012
1:45 pm

My child was joint enrolled at Ga State three years ago. She took a sociology class that required 5 papers. Not only did the teacher explain what she wanted in each paragraph, I believe she gave them opening lines for a couple of the paragraphs. I was surprised but could see the benefits for not only that class but future writing assignments. It gave the student a framework to work with and hopefully carry with them for the remainder of his/her education.

bootney farnsworth

September 22nd, 2012
2:39 pm

@ teacher
tell you what: come teach at GPC for a year. experience what they have – more importantly don’t have-to work with. then revisit your comment.

could easily be argued your inattention to detail and lack of respect for the craft are what pushes red
into his/her position.

bootney farnsworth

September 22nd, 2012
2:45 pm

@ prof,

while you are correct in a nominal world, most GPC students present from less than nominal circumstances. the foreign ones often have no real grasp of correct grammatical structure.
the locals tend to come from families who have even less grasp then the foreign ones.

walk before run – expect in GPC’s case, they gotta teach them how to crawl.

bootney farnsworth

September 22nd, 2012
2:46 pm

@ red

so how is life in hell (GPC) these days?

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

September 22nd, 2012
2:56 pm

For me, the difficulty teaching writing come with the time issue. TEACHING good writing skills takes time. Unfortunately, I have so much curriculum to cover now, that I do not have time for the intense work with the writing process that makes for really good writing. The only school I have ever seen implement the full Writing Workshop with a full 45 minute writiing block a day was a one in which the students did not receive formal science or social studies instruction.That time was spent writing. The push now is to implement writing across the curriculum to encourage more analytic writing. However, writing more does not equate to writing better. You need time to review student work and show them good practices and how to improve. That takes time! One on one instruction is also very helpful, but again – a time issue. I do not know the answer. It would help if those implementing curriculum standards would understand that there simply is not time in the day for an hour of math, and hour of reading, and hour of writing, and hour of science, an hour of social studies, and an hour of enrchiment a day – as well as lunch, recess and activity time. Add in library, computer lab time, weeks of testing etc. and I run myself ragged trying to get through all the “requirements” for the year. If my students were all reading and writing on level, were all attentive, were all present each day, were all prepared each day, and were all motivated, we could move faster – but that is not reality. So I sneak in writing when I can, and know I am not doing the best job I could, due to lack of instructional time.


September 22nd, 2012
3:36 pm

@ dekalbed. “I wonder if teacher and Prof have any idea how many of your freshmen are lacking in writing (and thinking) skills.” Oh, yeah!

…”I agree that college students should have these “organizational skills,” but many of the students graduating from our public high schools-at least the ones in Dekalb-don’t.” Granted. So coach them through about half the term, if need be. But by the end of a freshman Composition course, they’re supposed to learn these writing skills because they’ll need them for many of their college courses to come. That’s why freshmen are supposed to take their Composition classes as soon as possible.

It does students no favors to send them through a freshman Composition class with a passing grade if they cannot write grammatical, well-organized papers on their own.

@ Atlanta Mom. You don’t say whether your daughter’s Sociology class was beginning or advanced. But in any case, this class was in a discipline that has writing conventions and language specific to the field. That’s likely why the teacher gave that training.

@ bootney. I agree with what you say about GPC. But redweather is making a blanket recommendation about teaching writing, and I’m a professor at a research university. I still think that at some point (at least midway) in a freshman Composition course, the student must be able to write a fairly well organized paper without such coaching. If the student is a non-native speaker, there are specialized classes for them at my University. But this is not a high-school class, and should not be run as one.


September 22nd, 2012
3:43 pm

@ Dekalbed, 1:18 pm. Believe me, my University, at least, allows students to fail! All the time.


September 22nd, 2012
4:06 pm

I thought @teacher was being just a tad sarcastic, but maybe I’m wrong.

@Prof, I didn’t say anything about grammar or proofreading in my post. That was strictly about content. And sooner or later the students do have to write without outside assistance. There’s no question about that. You seem to think I am trying to avoid failing any students. Not so. I’m trying over the course of 15 short weeks to make up for all the neglect they suffered in high school. My student fail rate in freshman comp averages about 30%.

@dekalbed, Incoming freshman take a writing placement test if their SAT/ACT scores aren’t high enough. It’s called the Compass. It doesn’t tell us much about whether they can structure an essay, or think.

@bootney, The audit report about the school’s finanaces that was just issued says it all. The people in charge are not paying attention and haven’t been for quite some time. Business as usual in other words.


September 22nd, 2012
4:20 pm

@Prof, I have had trouble with your comments before. You just don’t read very well or closely enough. I specifically said that I teach at Georgia Perimeter College. You should know that two-year colleges are what is known as open-enrollment institutions. That means we enroll almost everyone who applies with very few exceptions. That also means that as many as half of our students come to us with very marginal skills. My formula seeks to help them get up to speed. That was not a blanket recommendation about teaching writing. But I’ve got to work with the materials I’m given.

A Teacher, 2

September 22nd, 2012
4:24 pm

Citizens of Georgia, the results you see are there because of the curriculum that has been forced upon the teachers and students of Georgia. This curriculum is now CCGPS, beginning this year. Teachers have VERY little choice about what and when to teach, yet the nay-sayers blame only the teacher when the results are not what is desired. Will the CCGPS fix everything?

As Dr. Phil says, “How is that workin’ for ya?”

Ole Guy

September 22nd, 2012
4:53 pm

In her opening remarks, Maureen hilites the very issue which stands between that which, today, passes for basic education and one which just might accomplish the lofty goal of actually preparing youth for any but the most-menial life styles. Too often, the education community tends to find the easy way of doing the job which it must do…rather than reward achievement, mediocrity recieves all the celebratory accolades. Kids are rewarded, not for doing the best job they can and, as a result, enjoying the “gold” of achievement, but, rather, for just getting by. And, “by the way…if the kid has endured some “tragedy”, completely unrelated to the issue at hand, let’s reward that as well”.

I know I keep druming the samn stuff on this blog, and maybe, just maybe, some day somebody might understand. STANDARDS STANDARDS STANDARDS…unbending, unyielding standards. While the concept is certainly not too hard to understand, it becomes somewhat challenging to apply and enforce, as there is where the education community is dropping the ball; failing in the responsibilities for which they, and they alone, are tasked. Let’s leave the parents, and other outside influences, out of the picture for just a minute. The education community, contrary to common misconception, DOES NOT require 100% positive parental influence in order that the job of educating these kids might proceed; it certainly helps, but it’s not a do-or-die requirement. If the kid demonstrates an academic skill TO STANDARD, be it writing, understanding of historical events as they relate to contemporary times, or simply doing one’s “rithmitic”, reward the kid appropriately…otherwise, flunk im’ and give im’ another opportunity to repair. No one can argue that that would be the best one can expect in life; anything less is simply playing the cruelest hoax on these kids…rewarding them for psuedo achievement, allowing them to think they are preparing for the mean ole world when, in reality, they won’t be prepared to dig ditches…and they’ll all disdain you, the education community, for it all.

Sleep well…if you can,


September 22nd, 2012
5:28 pm

@ redweather, September 22nd, 4:20 pm.

Yes, I know very well what you mean about GPC being an open-enrollment, two-year college. I guess that was exactly what I was responding to. As such, GPC is supposed to prepare students to transfer to the 4-year colleges and Universities, where your classes in Composition will be the only ones these students have had. They will carry those writing skills into my and my colleagues’ classrooms. I was thinking of that when I read your post.

To be quite frank, it has increasingly seemed over the last 5-10 years that the students in my upper-division undergraduate classes who had their first two years at one of the two-year colleges (and NOT just GPC by any means) nearly always seem more poorly prepared than the ones that had their first two years at my university. I have come to inquire about that on the student information sheets in the beginning of class so I know what to expect. Their writing skills, their reading skills, even their class note-taking skills very often seem to be lacking.

I applaud your backbone in having a 30% student failure rate in Composition, incidentally.


September 22nd, 2012
5:30 pm

Ole Guy
September 22nd, 2012
4:53 pm

You point out one of the ‘failed” concepts I alluded to earlier.

Object-based Education or OBE for short was a standards based premise Gwinnett wanted to implement a few decades ago.
The uproar generated by seemingly ignorant forces outside of this state was so intense, it eventually resulted in Superintendent Thompson resigning & looking for greener pastures which, if I’m not mistaken, he found further north.

bootney farnsworth

September 22nd, 2012
5:59 pm

@ red,

you forgot to mention that when Tricoli was empire building, we went out looking for and took anyone who would enroll.

mental acuity was never an issue. numbers were

Hillbilly D

September 22nd, 2012
6:23 pm

Being a history buff, I’ve read many, many personal letters, etc, from the 19th century. True a lot of those people couldn’t spell but it’s amazing the command the average person had of the language, back then. A lot of these people probably didn’t have more than 3-4 years of schooling but they did have a basic command of language. Where has all that gone?


September 22nd, 2012
6:42 pm

This is such a challenging issue in our home. I see four particularly exasperating trends in my children’s writing instruction: 1 – Too many of their teachers have NOT taught writing. They “know it when they see it,” but not how to teach their students the basic mechanics, multi-step process, and THINKING essential to good writing. 2 – Several teachers in middle school and high school have employed the “gotcha” method – write it, I will then tell you what you did wrong (with an accompanying D or F), then you figure it out as you go along (this is also the misconstrued gifted instruction model). 3 – The portfolio system means nothing comes home, leaving the student (and parent) without a comparison tool. 4 – Writing assessment is highly subjective – a fact of life that is nonetheless frustrating for a student who “gets it right” with one teacher and just can’t hit the mark with another.

My students’ best writing instruction has come from an AP World History course, with very high standards, a steep learning curve, and clear and specific feedback from the teacher. Neither did well at the beginning of the year, but by the end had developed the critical writing skills they needed.


September 22nd, 2012
6:45 pm

@Prof, there is no mystery why students who begin at your institution are better writers. I look at my students’ test scores and high school GPAs at the beginning of each semester. Many of GPC’s students have SAT scores in the low to mid 400’s and high school GPAs in the 2.3 to 2.6 range.


September 22nd, 2012
8:54 pm

As a now retired engineer, I found one of the most useful courses I ever had was technical writing. How I felt about what I was writing REALLY did not matter. How it worked did. One of the most treasured complements I ever received from any boss was when I was told by one that I wrote well and that they could understand complex topics from reading what I had written.

Truth in Moderation

September 22nd, 2012
10:44 pm

Ron Paul makes an important observation of the relationship between Truth and clear thinking, speaking, and writing:

“…..our chattering classes seem incapable of speaking in anything but the emptiest platitudes, when they can be bothered to address serious issues at all. Fundamental questions like this, and countless others besides, are off the table in our mainstream media, which focuses our attention on trivialities and phony debates as we march toward oblivion.

This is the deadening consensus that crosses party lines, that dominates our major media, and that is strangling the liberty and prosperity that were once the birthright of Americans. Dissenters who tell their fellow citizens what is really going on are subject to smear campaigns that, like clockwork, are aimed at the political heretic. Truth is treason in the empire of lies.”
Dr. Ron Paul

At fourteen, one of my home schoolers took a year long Speech and Debate class. They had to write and publicly present a speech every one to two weeks. The second semester, the class was divided into debate teams and each had to research and prepare to debate on a chosen topic each week. The results were amazing! All of the parents (who could sit in on the weekly presentations) marveled at the progress each student had made over the year and thought that such a course, which also included formal logic, should be required for all upper level students.

For parents that don’t want to wait for school reform, THE ELEGANT ESSAY: WRITING LESSONS, published by the Institute for Excellence in Writing, is a fantastic self-contained basic writing course that any parent can use to teach their child. This detailed, yet easy to follow curriculum, teaches the nuts and bolts of well crafted descriptive and persuasive essays, including how to write an effective thesis statement. The students study and practice the individual components first, and then put it all together by writing their own essay. The author, Lesha Meyers also includes detailed instructions and rubrics for evaluating/grading student work.

Voice of Reason

September 23rd, 2012
2:21 am

Writing is a craft that must begin in the early grades. Sadly, many parents do not see the importance of excellent writing for their young children. More emphasis is placed on after-school activities, sports and play. Many teachers are not only poor writers themselves, but they are inadequately prepared to implement a true reading and writing workshop in their classrooms.
Parents and school officials must agree to place a high priority on systematic daily writing or students will enter the middle and high schools with a woefully deficient writing skill-set. And correcting a writing deficit is difficult, if not near impossible in that age group.