Category Archives: Teaching Writing

College Writing and Literacy

One of my side interests is genealogy, and several months ago I visited my grandfather’s cousin to see some old pictures and discuss family history. Her husband is a professor at Mercer University, and it is my understanding that he works with teachers in training quite often, though he is a professor Religion and Philosophy. He asked me if I had noticed a decline in the writing ability of my students during my tenure as a teacher. I nodded, understanding his meaning, but I need to explain… I have been teaching nearly eight years, and I feel that my students do not write as well as my own peers did when I was in school; however, I don’t feel I have been teaching long enough to see a long-term trend of decline. Indeed, my first year teaching was at a poor rural school in Middle Georgia, and my students’ writing skills were nearly nonexistent. My current private school students are much more advanced than my previous public school students, but I still see some rather startling issues in their writing. Duane, my “cousin,” explained that his college students did not write as well now as his students have in the past. We had a very interesting discussion.

Today, I came across Friday’s New York Times article about declining literacy levels in today’s college graduates. I believe firmly that reading and writing go hand in hand, and the more a person reads, the better he or she will write. It is a matter of being exposed to writing models much more often. For example, last year, two of my students moved up from the lower track to the middle track. They also just happened to be the two students who read the most on their own. Less able writers who do not read do little to expose themselves to effective models for writing.

What I find alarming about the article is that “[t]hree percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated ‘below basic’ literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.”

OK, I’ll ask the question. How is it that these people became college graduates if they cannot perform basic reading skills? I find that frightening. It tells me that a college degree today must be worth less than a college degree awarded, say, in my own parents’ generation — the late 1960’s.

The usual culprits — television and the Internet — were blamed for the decline in literacy. In fact, many of you are probably aware that the works of Shakespeare will be available in text message form, ostensibly to be a good study resource. I fail to see how that can possibly be true, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, we’re living with a generation who routinely inject chat speak in their essays and spell “ludicrous” like the rapper “Ludacris.” As teachers, we have to do something to get students to read. Tim Fredrick suggests offering more choice, which is fine if the curriculum allows, but I think part of what we need to do as English teachers is help students establish a cultural literacy that comes with reading. For example, students of The Scarlet Letter will understand what it means if someone says, “Fine, why not just slap a scarlet letter on my chest and be done with it.” Or even this — watching a Star Trek movie and understanding what Alfre Woodard means when she says Captain Picard is like Captain Ahab, still chasing that white whale when he expresses determination to pursue the Borg. There is a world of meaning in our collective cultural consciousness. I don’t think it will die out. There are those that will carry it on; however, I do worry that the gulf between different socioeconomic classes will remain as long as there is this disparity between literacy levels.

Two students in my class recently had an “argument” over whether a quote by Walt Whitman could be used to bolster one student’s contention that John Steinbeck was Marxist. I’m not worried about them. But they are part of the smallest minority, and that worries me.

You can read more about the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

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Collins Writing

I asked yesterday if any of you used Collins Writing and Mike Hetherington said, “I still use ‘type two’s’, primarily as a quick assessment tool.”

Basically, the Collins approach groups writing assignments according to five types:

  • Type 1 — Write to Capture Ideas
    Brainstorming; one draft. Evaulated with a check or minus.
  • Type 2 — Respond Correctly
    A correct response to a question; shows what the student has learned. Used as a quiz grade.
  • Type 3 — Edit for Focus Correction Areas
    Meets up to three standards called Focus Correction Areas. One draft; revision and editing are done on first draft.
  • Type 4 — Peer Edited for Focus Correction Areas
    Read aloud by peer. Two drafts; second draft revised by author.
  • Type 5 — Publish
    Multiple drafts; writing is of publishable quality

One of the things I wanted to know from those of you who have used Collins is what you thought about the Focus Correction Areas. The idea is to choose three areas upon which you base assessment of the writing. This is something that can be used in writing across the curriculum. A science teacher might focus on correct use and spelling of vocabulary terms describing a chemical process, for instance. A social studies teacher might ask a student to describe a country and require the student include information about major cities, culture and population, and major exports. I recently assigned a one-paragraph essay to my students and asked that they include 1) an appropriate topic sentence and three supporting details, 2) three dependent clauses (one adjective clause, one adverb clause, and one noun clause), and 3) one verbal or verbal phrase (participle, gerund, or infinitive). For the last six weeks (give or take, because Jewish holidays have disrupted our schedule), my students have been learning about phrases and clauses. I especially emphasized verbals when we discussed phrases. I thought this assessment might be a good way for students to show me what they learned about phrases and clauses and incorporate them into their writing as well as use what they learned about writing paragraphs. I don’t know how it turned out yet, because we’re out for the holidays this week, and not all the students had finished the writing. Some of the students did seem to like the idea that I was looking for three things. Other students seemed anxious, but frankly, those were students who haven’t done well with the grammar we’ve learned this year. A small tangent — I personally feel that unless students translate what they learn about grammar into better writing, it’s pointless to teach it. My principal, who taught English for 30 years, seems to feel this assignment was a good one.

Another critical element of Collins Writing is portfolio assessment. I am doing portfolios in all my classes this year. I think with the 9th graders, we will actually go in and revise writing from the portfolio. With my 10th graders, I’m actually using them as a tool so students can see how far they’ve come with writing. I ask students to complete a chart stapled inside the file folders that serve as their portfolios. The chart has four components: Assignment, Grade, Positive Remarks, and What Do I Need to Fix? If it does nothing else, it encourages students to reflect on their writing and look for patterns across their writing in terms of common mistakes. I think portfolio assessment can be tough to do in large classes. My largest class has 19, which is pretty big for my school. My classes average from 12-15. That makes portfolios more manageable.

In theory, the Collins Approach looks like it could really improve student writing. Instead of overwhelming students in their writing, it sets clear expectations for the assignment and holds students accountable for meeting those standards. It should also make evaluating writing easier. I would be anxious to hear about any experiences you have had with Collins.

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Comparison/Contrast Graphic Organizer

I am wondering if any of my colleagues out there have used the Collins Writing Program. I went to a workshop on the Collins Writing Program led by Henry Dembowski last November, and I was really excited by it. I didn’t want to implement something completely new after I’d already established a writing program last year (though in retrospect, I probably should have), so I didn’t try everything I learned. I will write more on that later, as I’m implementing the program this year.

One of the most useful things I learned was a great way to create a graphic organizer for compare and contrast writing. We have all given our students copies of Venn diagrams. I always disliked the fact that the middle portion where the circles overlap doesn’t have much room, which forces students either to cram information in the space or to leave off points of comparison. Henry taught us how to make a more effective comparison/contrast graphic organizer.

  1. Take a piece of paper.

  2. Fold it in half lengthwise, but do not crease.

  3. Pinch the paper in the middle and crease only up to the top.

  4. Now fold the paper in half the other way (top to bottom) and crease.

  5. Your paper should look like this.

  6. Now fold the bottom of the paper up so that it meets the middle and crease.

  7. You’re done folding. Your paper should look like this:

Please excuse my rough drawings! Anyway, you have two columns and two rows underneath. Label the first column with the first item you want to compare and contrast. Label the second column with the second item. Label the first row underneath the columns “Similarities” and label the second row “Differences.”

Students should write down everything they noticed about Item 1 in the first column; what students write depends on what your subject matter is. If you’re comparing and contrasting two poems, students might list literary devices, theme, etc. If they are comparing and contrasting two versions of a Shakespeare film, they might write what they noticed about costumes, lighting, set design, camera angles, etc. In the second column, they do the same for Item 2.

In the similarities row, they should write down everything they noticed about the two that was similar. In the differences row, they should write down the differences between the two items. When they are finished, they basically have all the prewriting they need to write a comparison/contrast essay.

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Teaching Text-Messaging?

Is it just me, or is this article very carefully dancing around their point — that English classes need to change substantially to reflect the way people read today. Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I believe students need web communication skills in today’s society, but I’m not willing to sacrifice any of the grammar, literature, or composition I already teach in order to do it. My curriculum is full. The article is very unclear about what exactly will change about England’s national curriculum.

When I was in high school, I took typing, which has gone the way of the dinosaur in favor of “keyboarding.” I’m not exactly sure what is taught in a keyboarding class — obviously typing skills. What about using the Internet and e-mail? My daughter, for instance, brought home a page of notes she took on “netiquette.” Is it out of the realm of possibility to include “reading the web” in a computers class? It just seems to me that whatever extra new thing needs to be taught winds up in the English or language arts curriculum. I will say that if we’re talking about teaching text-messaging, not only will I not do it, but I’ll argue that students already have too much proficiency in text-messaging already. I would hate to see this joke become reality: Romeo and Juliet: The Text-Messaging Version (originally published in The New Yorker).

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Cursive Handwriting

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a decline in the number of my students who use cursive handwriting. In fact, I’ve seen a decline in the number of students who can even comprehend cursive handwriting. It would seem this is a pervasive trend: the Hartford Courant reports that with the advent of instant messaging, keyboarding, text messaging, and the like, students have abandoned cursive in favor of printing when they must handwrite something. I’ve also noticed a dramatic uptick on the number of complaints when students need to take notes. I can recall taking pages of notes as a student without complaint. I wonder if there is a correlation. Writing cursive is so much faster and involves much less movement with the hand. I imagine that students really do begin to feel pain after printing for long periods of time. My own handwriting is legible compared to most, but my students often report they can’t read it. I honestly don’t think it is so much that it’s illegible as they don’t know how.

Is it even important to know how to use cursive, in this age of computers? I would argue that it is still a useful skill, especially in note-taking, but I don’t see the point in making it part of the high school curriculum, as one of my former colleagues did — she required her students to write in cursive. On the other hand, this complete inability to use cursive concerns me. It shuts off a whole realm of communication to students (even if it is, as has been argued, an archaic means of communication). For example, census images I’ve read while researching my family history were all taken down in cursive, and very few are available as transcriptions. I also experienced the recent joy of reading a diary my great-great-grandmother kept in 1893-1894 — in cursive. Had I not been able to read cursive, these documents would have been “lost” to me. In a way, it is a form of illiteracy. Recently, one of my students told me that he is having difficulty in Hebrew because his Hebrew teacher writes in cursive Hebrew — and he doesn’t know the letters in cursive.

I just can’t imagine not being able to read cursive. But then, when I was in high school, I wrote my friends seven-page notes instead of IM’s.

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Writing on the SAT

Will Fitzhugh answers some of the questions raised by College Board vice-president Wayne Camara in his article in Journal of College Admission, Summer 2005.

Specifically, why is it that readers for the SAT are instructed to ignore factual errors in essays? Fitzhugh rightly wonders how to “reconcile this with Wayne Camara’s statement that ‘The essay on the SAT writing test…is consistent with the kind of writing students are expected to do in college classrooms.'”

My tenth grade students write a five-page research paper using MLA style. Based on my memories of college, that is going to be the single most useful skill I can teach them, as I had to write papers in science, history, music, and even P.E. classes as well as English classes. Sadly, the “bang it out in 25 minutes” SAT writing sample — which is not required to be factual — will do little to assess how ready students are for college writing.

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Poor Writing Costs Taxpayers Millions

According to a July 4 AP article, “states spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees, according to a new report that says the indirect costs of sloppy writing probably hurt taxpayers even more.”

Writing is an essential skill for just about any job in today’s market. “‘You have to be able to write, convert an idea and turn it into words,’ said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and governor from Nebraska, who is chairman of the [National Commission on Writing].”

Some figures:

  • Two-thirds of companies surveyed in the commission’s 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
  • 100 percent of the 49 state governments who responded to the survey said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
  • More than 75 percent of those state governments said they take writing skills into account when hiring.
  • 70 percent of state managers said large majorities of their professional employees had adequate skills.
  • Only one-third said clerical and support staff had adequate skills.
  • The report estimates the states spend $221 million annually on remedial writing training.

In public office, “I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible,” Kerrey said. He shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago Monday, would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak. “It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration,” Kerrey said.

Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee added, “there are some really bright people who can’t communicate and as a result their ideas probably aren’t given the attention they deserve.”

The College Board believes the addition of the writing component on the SAT will help. “Critics, however, say the essay is formulaic, coachable, and a poor way to test the kind of writing skills students need in college.”

Frankly, the critics are right. For one thing, students only have 25 minutes to complete all steps of the essay, which discourages students from editing and proofreading. They don’t have time. The topics are, well, lame.

One idea… reduce English class sizes so teachers have time to give writing instruction its due. Writing takes a long time to grade properly, and teachers with three or four preps, five classes of 30 or so students each, and all their other teaching duties and responsibilities don’t have time to give writing evaluation justice.

Read the commission’s report (PDF).

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