Students in Sally Walsh's 11th grade writing class have trouble spelling and can't tell the difference between their and there, effect and affect . They run sentences together, dismiss punctuation, and turn in assignments that sometimes read like this:
In football there are 4 periods, each period about 10 minutes long and in life there are 4 periods starting with childhood it back adalescence which in order prepares you for middle age which then falls back into a type of childhood called old age .
To help her students at Damascus High School in Montgomery County, Walsh goes through their compositions almost word by word, coaxing and cajoling. She peers over their shoulders as they stare at blank sheets of paper. She brings them, one at a time, to her desk and talks with them about their writing and about ideas and organization.
The frustrations of teaching writing sometimes wake her up at 5 o'clock in the morning.
"It's something like quarrying granite," Walsh says.
As a teacher of a pilot course in writing, Walsh is one the front line of a fight being waged in school systems throughout the area to revive what many educators feel is a lost art: expressing one's thoughts clearly and understandably through the written word.
The decline in writing skills has been well documented by national tests. One recent survey financed by the National Institute of Education, for example, reported that 25 percent of 900,000 students tested nationally had "massive writing problems." But while the problem has been obvious for some time, finding a solution has been more difficult.
As compositions revealed progressively poorer writing skills over the years, school officials in Montgomery County began turning their attention to the teachers. Their conclusion: Students can't write because teachers either don't know how to write, don't know how to teach writing or both.
"The ways of teaching have changed because kids have changed," said Richard Crowley, coordinator of the English curriculum. "Television has come in, and the amount of reading has decreased. Teachers have changed, too -- the writing skills of teachers are not what they were. "The late '60s and early '70s had an impact on writing. Many of the teachers went to high school and college when writing was played down and relevance was played up. They are victims, and students are feeling the effect of this," he said.
Schools throughout the Washington area have grappled with the problem of finding new ways to teach the written word. Prince George's County offers its teachers courses on "getting kids to write" and encourages them to experiment with classroom techniques. Since 1976 Arlington schools have had an expository writing program in which students write at least one paragraph a week and teachers take regular samples to chart their progress.
Fairfax and Alexandria teachers have taken part in the Northern Virginia Writing Project, summer writing institutes at George Mason University. It is one of more than 60 programs throughout the country patterned after the Bay Area Writing Project at the University of California at Berkeley, where teachers are trained in writing instruction.
In anticipation of the required writing courses the school board is considering introducing at the high school level the year after next, Montgomery County has begun the process of training teachers such as Walsh in what is probably one of the most difficult assignments in schools today.
Walsh's goal is to teach a student to take an idea -- and most can come up with an initial idea for a composition -- and create sentences that develop that thought in a logical manner.
"This is a class of instruction because you're doing one of the most difficult things man does -- thinking," Walsh told her class to the inevitable wave of snickers.
But if the class is difficult for the students, it is more so for the teacher. In this course Walsh cannot retreat from the missing punctuation, dangling participles and hopelessly confused prose to the security of teaching William Shakespeare, George Eliot or Joseph Conrad.
Walsh sees the the students' work progress, however painfully, paragraph by paragraph. She does not leave the task to be done at the kitchen table after school. Her job is to help them write it in class.
"When they've put something on paper, I go through and mention the need for punctuation and correct spelling," Walsh said, "I have conference with the kid. I go around desk to desk and have them read their sentences to me. Then they recognize that 'Oh, that's not right.' From getting the mechanics straight, I try to get some gesture toward style and more impact. I'm trying to tell them they don't have to be as dull as a prescription. Talking about writing requires sensitivity and a sense of humor."
"To simply give a writing assignment is an almost impossible task and the students is doomed to frustration," Crowley said. "I'm not convinced that correcting papers and returning them is any effect on the way kids write."
The course Walsh is teaching -- Language Writing Workshop -- is on a trial run at Damascus, Poolesville, Einstein and Walter Johnson high schools and will be a required one-semester writing class for ninth and 11th graders in all high schools a year from September if the Montgomery school board approves the curriculum change next month.
The teachers for that course would be trained in summer workshops in which they would write the assignments themselves and discuss the kinds of questions most fruitful in helping students overcome writing problems.
Walsh, whose specialty is speech, is uncertain of her own strengths as a writing teacher. The summer workshops would not start until next year, but she volunteered to teach the course to find out "if I'm selling a bill of goods I don't believe in."
"The time it takes to become a good writer hasn't been present in the curriculum," Walsh said. "It's work to correct a kid's composition, and sometimes it's damn dull. We knew they couldn't write, We wrung our hands for a while and finally said we had to do something."
Now, she says, she is preparing the assignments much more carefully, "with a lot more groundwork and extensive examples of analogies in their own experiences. Where normally I would only have to do one or two examples and have them come up with an idea, I took three class periods for presentation and examination."
Walsh and composition aide Kitty Bradley think they see progress. The students have "learned something about organization," Walsh said. "There are some hard-nosed cases who are still saying 'Well, I don't know what to do.' But there are some kids who, by virtue of doing the writing, are doing it a little bit better. Once they have grabbed some idea of organization, they can do more with it."
"I think the class is working because we're writing day after day and after a while, it gets into your head," said Frank Bowman, 17, a student and aspiring cartoonist.
The emphasis is on expository writing. "Creative writing is so hard to pin down," Walsh said. "When you talk about stories or poetry -- I'm very wary of that. You can't grade creativity in that sense. But expository writing -- yeah, I can tell you if something's clear and if it has a dash of originality."
"I believe you can teach a student to write a paragraph, or two paragraphs or three paragraphs," said Bruce Lewis, who has taught English for 23 years at Western Junior High School and is working with Crowley on the new curriculum. "You can say, begin with a topic sentence. If a student writes, 'I want to work at Drug Fair and these are the reasons: one, two and three,' there's clarity. No style, but least clarity. We should be able to teach that.
"The classroom writing approach is unsettling to many teachers, however, because they haven't written," he said. "They say, 'Aren't you writing the composition for the children?'
"And we're saying, no, we're only trying to do it the way math teachers teach math, for example, to go through the process step by step. Too much of the emphasis in the past was on evaluation and assigning a grade: 'C plus. Needs more detail.' We think these are vacuous experiences."
Lewis instructs an in service course on how to teach writing.
"I had teachers write the same compositions students wrote. Participants said it was a humbling experience. They wrote with such rigidity at first, and had the same kind of responses as students.
"But gradually they became less sensitive of what they've written and developed more sympathy for the student. If I'm going to assign a composition, the only way I can do that is to sit down and write it myself."