Teach them to write

By Peg Tyre, a story about reviving learning through the lost art of essay writing:

Good writing is learned two ways: by reading good writers and by writing under the supervision of someone who cares about good writing.

And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. 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.

The number of kids enrolling in a program that allows them to take college-level classes shot up from 148 students in 2006 to 412 students last year. Most important, although the makeup of the school has remained about the same—­roughly 40 percent of students are poor, a third are Hispanic, and 12 percent are black—a greater proportion of students who enter as freshmen leave wearing a cap and gown. This spring, the graduation rate is expected to hit 80 percent, a staggering improvement over the 63 percent figure that prevailed before the Writing Revolution began. New Dorp, once the black sheep of the borough, is being held up as a model of successful school turnaround. “To be able to think critically and express that thinking, it’s where we are going,” says Dennis Walcott, New York City’s schools chancellor. “We are thrilled with what has happened there.”

In the coming months, the conversation about the importance of formal writing instruction and its place in a public-school curriculum—­the conversation that was central to changing the culture at New Dorp—will spread throughout the nation. Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-­school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • metanoia

    Good writing is a joy to read. If you can’t articulate it on paper, you’ll probably have a difficult time being persuasive orally. I usually teach and preach from an outline. From time to time, I will write out my sermons and lectures word for word. The editing process is arduous but the end result is always worth it. I have found that the principles of editing become ingrained in the mind so that when I go back to outline form, the editing process is always running in the background as I speak. Kudos to New Dorp.

  • Chris

    Hallelujah! By George, I believe they’ve got it!

  • Leland Vickers

    Two comments:
    (1) It may be more a reflection of my preference in preaching style as an audience participant, but I have stated on a number of occasions that the best preachers have also been very good writers. There is something about the craft of putting together a good book chapter or an entire book that is reflected in oral presentation from the pulpit. In fact, I don’t know of any excellent preachers who were not also very good writers.
    (2) My son had an English teacher in the 10th or 11th grade in a small town public high school in Connecticut that had a lasting impact on him; certainly lasting through college and law school. For the entire school year the schedule in that class was that they read a significant novel (I think it was American lit) every 2 weeks and discussed the content in class. During the following 2 weeks, while the next book was underway, they had a major writing assignment based on the novel just read. The teacher obviously made a great time commitment to reading essays and grading, but the impact on the students was worth it (in my opinion as a parent). My son is now 34 and he still writes very well.

  • http://charityjilldenmark.wordpress.com Charity Jill

    This is fantastic. Much work is being done by composition and rhetoric scholars to discover how students best learn effective writing; other disciplines would do well to put similar effort into pedagogy! This story is evidence that attention to pedagogy yields results, and creates empowered students.

  • MatthewS

    This reminds me of the classical education model (trivium) which is text-heavy (http://www.welltrainedmind.com/classical-education/) and tends to involve a lot of practice writing. It moves from “grammar” stage (learning the basics), to logic, to rhetoric.

    Sometimes we have tended to focus so much on building up kids’ confidence that Johnny is allowed to believe that something is amazing just because he said it, though in reality, he has not earned the right to weigh in with an opinion because he has not taken the time or effort understand what is being said, let alone the time or effort to form a logical contribution.

  • AndyM

    The best teacher i had at highschool set many long essays, including essay tests so we could clearly communicate in that form under time pressures. the process of doing that has served me better than most of the other things i learned at high school.
    i wonder what the equivalent “mundane” disciplines in maths and the sciences would be in terms of raising the performance (real knowledge and ability, not just ability to pass a test) in those subjects.

  • http://eatingasapathtoyoga.wordpress.com Guiltless

    “For the first time, elementary-­school students—­who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays.”

    Public school elementary students in Illinois have been writing persuasive and informative essays for the past 15-20 years. Common Core has not changed that. It was already in place.

  • Amanda B.

    I assistant teach in a local Bible university, and this is *exactly* what we’re working on with our students. It is amazing how many students we get–all of whom are high school grads–who really have no idea how to coherently put their thoughts onto paper. This would be a problem in any context, but it is especially troubling to us because many of these young adults are aspiring preachers, teachers, and theologians.

    I am thrilled to see this kicking in at the high school level. I hope it catches on nationwide.


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