Triumph of a tough writing teacher

Jay Mathews
Columnist August 27, 2012

One of Anne Collins’s sons was not a strong writer. He struggled at Gonzaga College High School, an all-boys Catholic school in Northwest Washington, until his junior year in 2005, when he took an English class taught by Rick Cannon. Amazing things began to happen.

Cannon, a Gonzaga teacher since 1976, seemed to Collins from another time, perhaps another planet. He asked parents for help in limiting the use of word processors. He wanted students to write in longhand as much as possible. Slower writing was better writing. His slogan: “Rewrite always.”

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

His first handout alarmed students hoping to slide through 11th grade English: “Writing is a solitary, late night, early morning sort of thing. Unless you’re a literary genius — a Shakespeare or a Crane — it’s never a one-shot deal, always revision, revision, revision, over time. Writing well frustrates and exhausts, and one soon begins to think he’d rather scrape the inside of his skull with a spoon.”

Collins wondered if her son would survive, but Cannon’s energy, enthusiasm and resolve proved irresistible. “At the beginning of the year he had the class write an essay on weather,” Collins recalled. “At the end of the year he did the same thing. He sent both essays home to the parents. The difference was astounding.”

Her son went on to minor in creative writing and work as a writing class teaching assistant at James Madison University. He also became a better speaker because Cannon, unable to resist editing out other adolescent flaws, had students practice impromptu presentations, not strictly part of his course.

I consider writing instruction one of the great weaknesses of American high schools. Cannon, a published poet, is the kind of teacher I wish every student had. But he scares me. Despite my 45 years as a professional writer, his firm warnings against weak words and constructions led me to rewrite this column again and again, and I am still not satisfied.

He encourages such discontent because it is what made him a great teacher. His uncompromising approach stems from an experience so embarrassing he was reluctant to reveal it. Early in his career the school got a scathing letter from the parents of a former student so poorly taught he had to take remedial writing in college.

His first handout to new students is titled “WRITE TO EXPRESS, NOT TO IMPRESS.” It says: “A great many people do write just to impress. And because of that they write badly. They use language as a weapon. Big, multi-syllabic, Latinate words are thrown around like brickbats in the professional world. They are meant to impress, to intimidate, to demonstrate vocabulary, to justify salary by making the simple seem complex and the complex, impossible.”

When he was thinking of marketing his method, he told me, “I realized it would never sell — it’s not slick or flashy, and instead of saving a teacher grading time, it doubles or triples it!” He said he couldn’t do it with five large classes a day, as some public high school teachers have. Gonzaga gives him just four classes with about 20 students each.

Knowing his audience, he reminds students that good writing will make them more money. He has stories of top executives who credit their success to communication skills. He also has glowing letters from his former students and their parents.

Cannon lives with his wife, the poet Lori Shpunt, in Colesville. Their five grown children all have advanced degrees. He turns 65 next week, but would like to keep teaching until he is 80, or at least “until I start to mumble and drool.”

He may not write to impress, but that is the effect. I remembered that some of my best writing, like my remarks at my father’s memorial service, were written by hand. I love my MacBook, but I may go back to pen and legal pad just to see if I can come closer to Mr. Cannon’s standard.

For previous Mathews columns, go to washingtonpost.com/blogs/class-struggle.

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