November 1, 2013

When I started tutoring students in writing at a high-poverty D.C. public high school this year, I was prepared to run into some problems. I knew it was hard for an overworked teacher with a class of 25 or 30 students to engage in the kind of one-on-one work that teaching writing often requires. That’s why I volunteered to help.

Still, I was shocked by what I found. Even though I’ve generally worked with the school’s higher-performing students, I’ve encountered some who aren’t familiar with terms such as “subject” and “verb.” A number don’t know why “Although I read the book” isn’t a complete sentence.

But the problems go deeper than ignorance of the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Many students have no idea how to write a paragraph that hangs together, let alone a coherent five-paragraph essay. They don’t understand how to draw a connection between a claim and a piece of evidence, a basic necessity in constructing a logical argument.

These aren’t just writing skills. These are thinking skills of the type the students will need to succeed in college, on the job or even just to dispute a charge on a credit card bill — and to knowledgeably exercise their right to vote.

I have no reason to believe that the level of writing at the school where I’ve been tutoring is worse than at any other high-poverty D.C. high school — or any other high-poverty school in the country, for that matter. Expository writing skills simply haven’t been taught in many elementary schools for the past 30 years or so. Instead, what has been taught, at some schools, is self-expression: stories, poems, personal essays. That approach may get kids to embrace the idea of writing, but it doesn’t teach them how to write. One of my students showed me a poem she composed that was so powerful it took my breath away, but she couldn’t write a logical paragraph to save her life.

These widespread problems are about to become painfully apparent. The District and 45 states have adopted the Common Core standards, which put much more emphasis on explanatory and analytical writing skills. Beginning next year, D.C. students will be taking new standardized tests that require them to demonstrate those skills. Scores will probably plummet.

Shortly before I started tutoring in January, I came across an article in the Atlantic magazine about a writing program that had produced dramatic effects at a low-performing high school on Staten Island. The program, devised by an educator named Judith Hochman, had students writing in history and science as well as English, using a format that was both structured and adaptable. The number of students taking college-level courses more than doubled, classroom discussions grew more sophisticated and the graduation rate rose from 63 percent before the writing program began to an expected 80 percent this year.

I tried some of the program’s techniques with the students I was tutoring and immediately saw their potential. One exercise requires students to complete a sentence “stem” using the conjunctions “but,” “because” and “so.” Because one of my students was writing about Jackie Robinson, I gave him the stem, “Jackie Robinson was an admirable person.” I had to explain what the word “admirable” meant, but then I could almost see the wheels in his brain turning as he came up with various endings. Even an exercise as simple as using “but” requires you to analyze, compare and contrast.

I’ve also seen the power of the technique to boost reading comprehension, something that’s generally tested using multiple-choice questions. But there’s nothing like summarizing a text in writing to force you to really understand it.

Last spring I found out that D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) was considering experimenting with Hochman’s program, and I jumped at the chance to help fund the effort through a small family foundation for which I’m a trustee. This year the program is being piloted in two middle schools and two high schools. The Atlantic article sparked a lot of interest in the Hochman Project, but DCPS is, to its credit, the only school district in the country that is trying to implement it on a large scale.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that the program will work here the way it did in New York. It requires commitment and enthusiasm from teachers and administrators. And in some cases, students who have not yet mastered the skill of writing a coherent sentence are being asked to write analytical essays. That’s like asking them to run a marathon while they’re learning how to walk.

But it’s worth a try. I know there are students in these schools who are hungry to learn. Teaching them to write has the power to unlock their intelligence in a way that teaching them to answer multiple-choice questions can never accomplish. And if we keep telling them they can go to college, we owe it to them to provide them with the skills they’ll need to survive once they get there.

Natalie Wexler is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Education.