(2012-10-10) Writing Revolution Reading And Outlining

Peg Tyre on the "WritingRevolution" (Educating Kids). (There's a whole collection of response pieces.)

*What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively... These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did... Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences... 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.

The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Judith Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

Some writing experts caution that championing expository and analytic writing at the expense of creative expression is shortsighted. “The secret weapon of our economy is that we foster creativity,” says Kelly Gallagher, a high-school writing teacher who has written several books on adolescent literacy. And formulaic instruction will cause some students to tune out, cautions Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. While she welcomes a bigger dose of expository writing in schools, she says lockstep instruction won’t accelerate learning. “Kids need to see their work reach other readers … They need to have choices in the questions they write about, and a way to find their voice.”

She hurried through the essay on her global-history exam, and the results fell far short of a masterpiece. The first paragraph reads: "Throughout history, societies have developed significant technological innovations. The technological innovations have had both positive and negative effect on the society of humankind. Two major technological advances were factory systems and chemical pesticides."*

I think that last example says it all: 80% of the kids taught something through these "recipe" approaches end up knowing how to mimic the structure (e.g. Subtopic Method) but without any actual content. (cf Business Model software, or this fake TED talk summary)

I'm a big believer in driving from quantity of Reading, Writing, and FeedBack (from peers if necessary). And I think that works even better when lots of that Reading And Writing happens in the context of D And D.

Related, Dave Winer shows how they taught OutLining wrong in school. Outlining works on a computer, as long as you revise. It doesn't work on paper because revision, especially of structure, is too hard.

Imagine a classroom of students, each with his own Lap Top, running OPML Editor, with a classroom-wide River Of News feed pulling together their work, with students commenting on each other's work as a Learning Community...


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