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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 08/02/2012

Junking old way of teaching writing

I almost never give advice to teachers. They live their work, while I just observe it and cannot hope to know as much as they do.

But on one subject, writing, I could teach most of them. My learning to put words together was long, painful and instructive. I know what works and what doesn’t.

That’s my excuse for suggesting in my last Local Living column a new kind of high school course. We should suspend the regular English curriculum for a semester and teach “Reading and Writing.” Every student would produce an essay each week and spend time at the teacher’s desk being edited. We would hire or train teachers to do what my first editors did: Cross out cute phrases, ask what I was trying to say, break overlong sentences into pieces, ask for specific examples, replace inactive verbs with active ones, and so on.

A class of 25 meeting five times a week for 50 minutes would allow only 10 minutes of editing a week for each student. But that adds up to 200 minutes of one-on-one editing per student by the end of the semester, a big improvement over what students get now, which often is zero. The usual written comments on graded papers lack the force of these personal exchanges.

What would each student do with the other 240 minutes of class each week? Work on the next essay or just read good writers. The teacher might be exhausted from all that editing but would have no paper to grade at home.

Some educators liked the idea.

“Some kind of mix of close, one-on-one editing, discussion and independent work would be effective,” said Christine Arnold-Lourie, a history professor at the College of Southern Maryland.

The emphasis on reading is good, she said, because “the key to good writing is knowing what good writing looks like.”

I learned much from Catherine Ferguson, who has taught writing at some of Maryland’s highest-performing high schools.

She agreed that writing is “the most important skill any student can learn.” She also criticized my idea in ways that suggest, at least to professional writers, what is wrong with the teaching of writing in even our best schools.

“People learn by doing,” she said. “Watching someone else edit your work has a limited ability to develop your capacity as a writer. . . . The heart of good writing is not editing.”

I disagree. When learning to write, editing is crucial. She overlooked the fact that a good editor can communicate more information and demonstrate more techniques in 10 minutes of conversation than a teacher can by writing in the margins of a paper at home. The personal contact, being rare, is also more memorable for students.

Ferguson asked why I want to suspend a semester of regular English.

“What is the focus of a regular English class, if not a course in how to read and write?” she said. “For instance, yesterday I was reading the opening of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ while recording the reading skills I would explicitly teach/reinforce in each scene.”

As much as I love Shakespeare, in my experience, the average student will not learn much about writing and reading from analyzing 400-year-old plays.

Two readers — Kathleen Sahm, a Bethesda tutor and former teacher, and Tiffany Swanson, admissions director for a graduate program at Georgetown University — said they would like to try teaching such a reading and writing class.

Reader John Edmondson in Hampstead, N.H., said he is already doing so with sixth-graders. His middle school students sometimes write for the whole period. Sometimes, he edits them on the spot. He displays on an overhead projector drafts of his own columns for a local newspaper, with all his false starts. All work is done in class so parents can’t help.

Many of our teachers are good editors. Why not let them try this?

By  |  05:00 AM ET, 08/02/2012

 
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