Will Fitzhugh has been struggling for more than 30 years to persuade high schools to let students do something they rarely do — write.
His weapon in this battle is his quarterly publication, the Concord Review. It is the only journal in the world devoted to scholarly papers written by high school students.
The more than 1,300 history research papers he has printed have shown how much schools are missing by not encouraging lots of composition. In a new essay on the problem, Fitzhugh points out this is a blow not only to writing instruction but also to what should be the center of any education — reading.
It never occurs to the people who run our schools, Fitzhugh said recently in his Concord Review blog, “that if students read more, they would know more, and in that way actually have some knowledge they wanted to write about.”
“But reading and knowledge never seem to find their way into discussions of Literacy in Our Time,” he said. “When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of the processes.”
This is an old-fashioned argument, which is one reason I am so taken with it. The most recent approaches to composition in the Common Core State Standards have shown little progress.
Many adolescents like to write. Self-expression helps them deal with the changes in their lives. But the jargon of secondary-school English departments kills the appeal. Here is the Common Core guidance for ninth- and 10th-graders writing an argument: “Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons and evidence.”
The following statement is not a joke: Many writing classes discourage much writing. The nonprofit Education Trust found that only 9 percent of 1,876 literacy assignments in six urban middle schools asked students to write more than a single paragraph. Fitzhugh’s 2002 research found that 81 percent of high schools never assigned a paper of more than 5,000 words.
Sadly, English teachers don’t have time to handle lengthy researched essays. They cringe at what Fitzhugh calls his Page Per Year Plan: a five-page paper in fifth grade, adding a page each year until everyone does a 12-page paper in 12th grade. He wants students to address issues they have read about, maybe even tackling a nonfiction book or two, very rare in schools.
“Reading and writing are inseparable partners, in my view,” Fitzhugh said in his latest piece. “In letters from authors of essays published in The Concord Review since 1987, they often say that they read so much about something in history that they reached a point where they felt a strong need to tell people what they had found out.” That produced Review papers such as “North Korean Theocracy” by Ana Mariella Mundaca of the Sidwell Friends School in the District and “Socialist Realism” by Maya Krishnan of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.
How can schools carve out more time for reading and writing, and for editing by teachers? Retired teachers and journalists I know have offered free help, but outsiders make high school administrators uncomfortable. I have suggested a one-semester required class. No lectures. No homework. Students would only read and then write about what they read. Teachers would sit with each student 10 minutes at a time to guide and edit their work. No papers for them to take home.
Over the course of a semester, that means students would wind up with about two hours of personal editing — two hours more than they usually get. (In case you’re wondering how I arrived at that estimate: The teacher would conduct four editing sessions a day — 20 a week — over a 15-week semester for 25 students. Do the math, and it comes out to two hours per student.) Teachers could use the class time now spent teaching general sentence structure, paragraphing, voice, tone and other mechanics that Fitzhugh and teenagers hate.
How much more could students learn about writing by actually writing? That’s how I learned. Having seen what Fitzhugh has produced, I say it’s worth a try.