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.