A 2015 study of 1,876 literacy assignments collected from six urban middle schools by the nonprofit Education Trust found that about 78 percent of them required less than a single paragraph of writing.
That will not improve in this fear-ridden year. But I know a way innovative parents and teachers might give writing a boost, with the help of certain older Americans who, like me, often sit at their kitchen tables not doing much.
This is for families schooling on their own this year, or maybe a few daring teachers. Districts generally don’t welcome uncertified volunteer instructors. I am suggesting you tap into the retired or semiretired wordsmiths in your communities. There are journalists, speechwriters, English teachers, lawyers, novelists and others willing to help.
They can do what schools rarely do: Edit pieces students have written.
I am not a teacher. But I have written for pay since 1966. I know how I learned. In college, a ragged collection of older undergraduates began tearing apart the stories I tried to write for the student paper. Good editing showed me what was wrong and how to fix it. I began to wonder why that never happened to me in class, not even at the big university we were attending.
I still wonder. Eight years ago, I suggested a different way to teach writing in high school: Require students take at least one semester of reading and writing instead of their regular English class. A paper would be due each Monday. In class, students would read what they liked or work on next week’s essay. They would take turns being edited by the teacher while they watched. That would total about three hours of personal editing by the end of the semester, much more than the zero hours usually allotted.
Only a few teachers have told me they have done something like that. But the current chaos might create opportunities for a distance-learning version.
The Learning Agency Lab report said persuasive writing is critical for success in college. Such pieces could be sent online to volunteers to be edited with explanations and sent back. The student could rewrite the piece and ask for another edit, as happens in the real world. Once there’s a novel coronavirus vaccine, writer and editor might even meet.
A personal, lively touch is important. Here is a bad example of what students get now. This stiff guidance comes from the Common Core State Standards for ninth- and 10th-graders learning to write 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.”
That’s not very appealing. Like good teaching, good editing is specific. Students should do 300 to 2,000 words on topics they like. Describe something they want done and why. They can be personal. They can even be funny.
Teachers often correct papers. That is not the same as editing. Few have the time. Almost no high school students are required to do long research papers, except those enrolled in private schools, the International Baccalaureate program or the Advanced Placement Research course.
Perhaps you can ask a relative or friend with writing experience to edit something your child or student has written. I do this for strangers who send me op-eds that they are trying to improve. I suspect people you know will be happy to give it a try. If you yourself have editing experience, go for it. This can’t be rewriting a school assignment, which would be cheating, but showing students how to improve pieces they have written on their own.
At my college paper, I had a great editor; she was kind but demanding. I married her on graduation day. She occasionally edits me, if I ask nicely. Give it a try. Taking charge of the educational process is what many of us are doing this year. By introducing editing, we are going somewhere schools have rarely gone before.