Too many stu­dents can’t write well. Per­haps some vol­un­teer tu­tors could help?

The Washington Post - - EDUCATION - jay.mathews@wash­post.com Jay Mathews

Okay. I con­fess. My wife and I send a chatty let­ter to friends and rel­a­tives at the end of each year. Many peo­ple loathe such mis­sives. Ours may be par­tic­u­larly lame. But the let­ters we get in re­turn are of­ten well-crafted and sug­gest a way to im­prove the aw­ful state of writ­ing in­struc­tion in Amer­ica.

Many of the peo­ple who send these let­ters have done much writ­ing in their lives. They know how to com­mu­ni­cate clearly and ef­fec­tively, with verve and hu­mor. And the ex­is­tence of these ex­tracur­ric­u­lar let­ters sug­gests they have some free time on their hands.

I think they could help re­lieve the two great­est ob­sta­cles to teach­ing stu­dents how to write: not enough writ­ing teach­ers and not enough time to give stu­dents the at­ten­tion they need.

With­out the needed time and teach­ers, schools keep in­struc­tion in writ­ing to a min­i­mum. A study of 1,876 lit­er­acy as­sign­ments in six ur­ban mid­dle schools by the non­profit Ed­u­ca­tion Trust showed 18 per­cent re­quired no writ­ing at all. About 60 per­cent de­manded just some note­tak­ing, short re­sponses, or a sen­tence or two. Four­teen per­cent re­quired stu­dents to write a sin­gle para­graph, and only 9 per­cent went be­yond that.

Almost no U.S. high school stu­dents are re­quired to do long research pa­pers, ex­cept stu­dents in pri­vate schools or pub­lic schools with In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate pro­grams. The best in­struc­tion in writ­ing hap­pens on school news­pa­pers, which usu­ally have tal­ented fac­ulty ad­vis­ers and smart se­niors will­ing to help un­trained fresh­men, but that ac­tiv­ity is of­ten un­der­funded or missing al­to­gether.

The painful jar­gon of sec­ondary school English depart­ment classes still rules, de­spite at­tempts by tal­ented teach­ers to change it. Here is guid­ance from the Com­mon Core State Stan­dards for ninth and 10th-graders try­ing to write an ar­gu­ment: “In­tro­duce pre­cise claim(s), dis­tin­guish the claims(s) from al­ter­nate or op­pos­ing claims, and cre­ate an or­ga­ni­za­tion that es­tab­lishes clear re­la­tion­ships among claim(s), coun­ter­claims, rea­sons and ev­i­dence.”

I didn’t learn to write well enough to get paid for it un­til col­lege. The more ex­pe­ri­enced staffers on the daily stu­dent pa­per ripped apart my over­long sen­tences and vague sum­maries. To learn writ­ing, you need a tough ed­i­tor with the time to show you what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Six years ago, I made this sug­ges­tion for a dif­fer­ent way to teach writ­ing in high school: “Re­quire stu­dents to take at least one se­mes­ter of read­ing and writ­ing in­stead of their reg­u­lar English class. A pa­per is due each Mon­day. In class, stu­dents read what­ever they like or work on next week’s es­say while the teacher calls them up in turn and edits their pa­pers as they watch.”

Each stu­dent would get about 10 min­utes of live edit­ing a week, much more than the zero min­utes usu­ally al­lot­ted. A few teach­ers told me they were do­ing some­thing like that, but I re­al­ize it is too rad­i­cal a re­form for most places.

So what can we do? How can we add time and teach­ers to the mea­ger writ­ing in­struc­tion we have now?

How about a once-a-month edit­ing bee with vol­un­teers who know what good writ­ing is, in­clud­ing the many re­tired or semire­tired word­smiths in our com­mu­ni­ties?

Af­ter judg­ing our qual­i­fi­ca­tions by look­ing at a writ­ing sam­ple, the school could sit us in the cafe­te­ria with a few snacks and drinks. (I like ap­ple juice.) Stu­dents would spend their English class pe­riod with us, get­ting at least 10 min­utes of edit­ing on what­ever writ­ing they were do­ing. (This would force schools to have reg­u­lar writ­ing as­sign­ments, which they of­ten don’t.)

It would be fun for the vol­un­teer ed­i­tors and in­vig­o­rat­ing for the kids. Ed­u­ca­tion re­form ex­pert Marc Tucker has sug­gested teacher can­di­dates also be re­quired to write long pa­pers. The vol­un­teers could edit those, too.

This would take time away from do­ing the an­nual fam­ily let­ter, but that’s okay. To those of you who have got­ten the Mathews let­ter in the past and think we are very late this year, we can only say, vaguely, that it’s in the mail.

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