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NY High School Success Calls for Look at Old-Fashioned Writing Instruction

Some of you out there probably think I’m starting to get lazy. Just pick out an education-themed article and point you two it, then head along on my way. But this one I couldn’t resist. A new piece in The Atlantic magazine by Peg Tyre gets at the nitty-gritty of learning and knowledge through telling one school’s story at trying something that used to be common in American education and largely proved successful.

What is the secret for New Dorp High School in Staten Island, New York? An intense focus on actually teaching students how to write, rather than just hoping they’ll “catch” it by doing some creative assignments. Maybe it is a “revolution,” seeing as how everything old happens to become new again:

…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.

If this young kid can quote an old expression, that’s kind of like putting the cart before the horse. Especially since I’m touting a more traditional philosophy of instruction, maybe that makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy. But you don’t think I got to being a prolific little edublogger because someone just handed me the keys to WordPress and a tub of finger paint, do you? (I’ll let you figure that one out for yourselves.)

As The Atlantic story further highlights, the problem goes back to the predominate courses and methods in education programs that train teachers:

…more New Dorp teachers were growing uncomfortably aware of their students’ profound deficiencies—and their own. “At teachers college, you read a lot of theory, like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but don’t learn how to teach writing,” said Fran Simmons. How could the staff backfill the absent foundational skills their students needed in order to learn to write?

Pedagogy of the Oppressed? Is it any wonder that Denver Public Schools could find room in teacher evaluations for encouraging pro-social justice activism? How well do DPS students understand — and how well can they use — the different parts of speech?

According to Tyre’s article, New Dorp instructors visited a successful private school to learn what they were doing. To their credit, the public school adopted the “Hochman Method” and its formula for teaching students how to form sentences and paragraphs, to distinguish good sentences from fragments, and so on.

The results suggest that New Dorp (a school where about 40 percent of students live in poverty) may be onto something. Since instituting the new approach in all their different subjects and courses, the graduation rate has gone up from 63 to 80 percent. Meanwhile, student success rates on the post-high school Regents Examinations in English and history have increased markedly, too.

Even though I write a lot about things in education policy that are new and innovative, I don’t mind if you call little Eddie “old-fashioned” or “square” or whatever the kids are saying these days. If it works as well as New Dorp has shown it to work, maybe it’s time to find out how your child’s school teaches writing. And maybe they should make use of something like the “Hochman Method.”

But why do I have a feeling it would take some kind of major reform to give such an idea widespread traction?