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Revolving around the Writing Revolution

I’ve been following a raging debate in The Atlantic over the pedagogy of writing, a subject dear to my heart but clear as mud when it comes to formulating a position. The leadoff to the online debate, which continues through mid-October, was an article by the education reporter Peg Tyre about a new approach taken at Staten Island’s New Dorp High School.

The follow-ups—more than a dozen as I write this—have been from people who have a stake in this matter of writing instruction. They range from the “Freedom Writer” diva Erin Gruwell to the president of Hampden-Sydney College. To me they all seem, variously, to be selling their products, and they read the original article like a Rorschach to discover the argument they can counter or agree with. It’s a volleyball match: two sides, many players, some who set the ball up for their teammates and others who spike it over the net, with a couple who keep insisting they can take the net down and create a happier game.

I recommend the series to Lingua Franca readers and hope that many will use this forum to articulate their takeaway from the debate; comments on The Atlantic site itself seem to be article-specific. Thus far I have mostly noted a wide divide between those who argue for self-expression as the best “key” to unlocking the writing potential of underachievers and those who argue for giving priority to some form of skill set. Both sides will insist that they include the other—the founder of Writopia protests that “skilled teachers of creative genres have always known that all good writing requires lucid communication,” and the founder of the program used at New Dorp insists that her focus on the “fundamentals of writing” doesn’t unfurl “in a dull, creativity-killing way.”

But those olive branches don’t ease the genuine anger felt by those who judge either that overemphasis on memoir-writing and workshopping has “damaged children” or that a strict focus on argument and rhetorical skills is “dangerous” and “teaches to the test.”

Most people who write about writing are both passionate and competent writers themselves. No wonder that one of The Atlantic’s contributors advocates the teaching of writing by writers, whose students come to “see themselves as writers, too.” We learn music best from musicians, art from artists, dance from dancers. But most competent writers are not particularly passionate about the act, or art, of writing. Writing is useful for getting a job or promotion; for completing a report; for making an effective presentation; for understanding reports and presentations and communicating salient points. It is not an activity unto itself, like music, art, and dance.

I’m not sure we can take for granted that what inspires writers to write—it could be having a personal story praised, or diagramming the Gettysburg Address—are the same elements that will nonwriters to a plane on which they can pass the New York State Regents exam or find a job in a knowledge-based economy. And since, after all, jobs for self-described writers remain scarce, it’s hardly surprising that those who’ve found a gig that works for them, whether developing “core standards” for writing or running after-school programs in creative writing, will promote their approach as the best.

That observation took me back to the original article, the only one that seems not to have been written by an advocate. Peg Tyre is doing journalism, and I fear that many of the advocates who have responded are missing some of her article’s more thought-provoking elements. The one that jumped out at me concerned an experiment run by Fran Simmons, a teacher at New Dorp, who asked her students to write a sentence about Of Mice and Men beginning with the words “Although George …”:

She was looking for a sentence like: “Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.”

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

What followed, after outside intervention and a lot of discussion, was a series of exchanges in which students used complex sentences with conjunctions like “if,” “because,” “although,” “unless,” “since,” and so on. The results, according to Tyre, have been glowing. But almost none of the respondents to The Atlantic article dig deep into this question of sentence complexity and writing—or, to my mind, sentence complexity and thinking.

Why not? Well, it’s not a sexy topic. It doesn’t have legs if you’re looking for nonprofit funding. And it doesn’t speak directly to “the test.” All of which suggest to me that we need not more talking heads, but more research into syntax and synapses. And we can’t expect the beleaguered, underpaid, avenue-of-last-resort teachers at failing high schools or elementary schools to take that one on. They need help from those who are able to research this stuff and don’t have a dog in the fight.

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