A cure for bad teaching of writing

Jay Mathews
Columnist October 24, 2012

The teaching of writing is one of the great weaknesses of American schools. It is also the only one about which I, as a paid manufacturer of sentences, am competent to give personal advice.

I think students would benefit from one-on-one editing by their teachers. This is rare, but teachers and students who have done it tell me that it works for them as well as it did for me when I was a beginning journalist.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

They like my idea of a required one-semester high school English course called Reading and Writing. Each student would produce a written piece each week and have it edited by the teacher for 10 minutes. The rest of the week, students would work in class on their next essay or read whatever they like while their classmates are edited. This spares teachers from marking up essays at home. Just 10 minutes of editing a week per student does not seem like much, but such personal contact is powerful. By the end of a semester, that would total nearly three hours of personal editing, unheard of in schools today.

A few places are already doing it.

“I have been working with students one on one for more than a decade,” said fifth-grade teacher Sean Duffy at Waples Mill Elementary School in Fairfax County. “I agree with you that 10 minutes with a kid is far more important than margin notes at home.”

Former English teacher Eric Christenson of Arlington County learned the power of showing rather than telling in his writing classes after learning to ski and make pottery that way. Many of his students became published writers. He has written journal articles, book chapters and speeches.

Sylvia E. Robinson, president of SER Associates in Oak Hill, said my suggested method resembles the way she was taught by English teacher Kathleen F. Sharkey at Medford High School in Massachusetts 46 years ago. Sharkey “required those of us fortunate enough to be selected for . . . her honors English classes to write a theme a week,” Robinson said. “She would meticulously edit — in red ink no less — each week’s theme, sitting down with us to go over the comments. We were then required to rewrite that essay and have an additional essay ready next week. . . . While she met with one student, the rest of us read the ‘great books.’ ”

“We learned to read, and we learned to write,” Robinson said. “In my senior year, I won a National Council of Teachers of English writing award and went on to get a full scholarship to Stanford University. Me, a young African American female and a first-generation college student, off to the wonders of California and an education at one of the nation’s elite schools.”

Gwendolyn Cannon, a 2010 Montgomery County high school graduate, learned to teach through editing as a peer writing tutor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. When she found a confusing passage, Cannon asked: “What do you mean by that?” She said, “This type of criticism was rarely, if ever, addressed in my high school English classes.”

Not all teachers have the confidence to carry it off, but that could be fixed. Why not have inexperienced teachers write essays for experienced teachers and get a 10-minute editing session once a week? A year of that, even in small doses, would be the equivalent of what happened to me as a college sophomore, having my student newspaper stories torn apart and reworked before my eyes by students who had survived the process.

Those heavily edited teachers could then do the same for their students. The change could become exponential. We would soon have a generation of good writers, to the great benefit of their country and themselves.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.

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