Local: Education

Why can't college students write well? Part II

|
Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
The publication of the "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing" is the occasion of this three-part series on student writing, and why it's taking so long for teachers and students to get it right.

The Framework, developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project, distills decades of evolving research into what works in teaching students how to write well. But the real innovation in this document is that they are aware that writing is not a series of "how to" tips similar to William Strunk and E.B. White's iconic "The Elements of Style." Good writing is not merely about correct prose, it's about habits of mind.

What kids are reading
This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. The books below are from the National Writing Project bookstore and can be ordered from the NWP's Web site.
National Writing Project books on writing
1. The Curious Adventures of Sydney and Symon in: Water Wonders by Peter H Reynolds and Paul A. Reynolds
2. Because Digital Writing Matters by Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Troy Hicks
3. Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools by Carl Nagin
4. Literacy Tools in the Classroom: Teaching Through Critical Inquiry, Grades 5-12 by Richard Beach, Gerald Campano, Brian Edmiston and Melissa Borgmann
5. Literacy in the Welcoming Classroom: Creating Family-School Partnerships that Support Student Learning by JoBeth Allen
6. (Re) Imagining Content-Area Literacy Instruction edited by Roni Jo Draper
7. Inviting Families into the Classroom: Learning from a Life in Teaching by Lynne Yermanock Strieb

Recognizing that most students don't write well is like recognizing that most of our nation is overweight: You can tackle the problem with corrective guidelines or a strict diet, respectively, but in both cases the "cure" will be temporary. Just as permanent weight loss is a matter of incorporating better eating habits into everyday life, making permanent changes in someone's ability to write and think requires changing habits of mind.

And that's what the Framework recognizes, identifies and treats as a practical problem. Its list of desirable traits is like my former high school's mission statement: pretty meaningless taken by itself. But in the Framework -- unlike most mission statements -- the habits of mind come with practical advice.

The first habit of mind, for instance, is curiosity. The Framework recommends that teachers on all levels use inquiry "as a process to develop questions," something it took me years to figure out. In my last decade of high school teaching, my Advanced Placement classes focused on the asking of questions. With a question, learning is a quest rather than an exercise in memorizing a body of knowledge. When learning involves a search, students are engaged in that quest instead of marking time, waiting for the teacher to reveal the answer.

All eight habits of mind have similar classroom reforms, including "metacognition," which recommends reflection. For my high school students, the unit at the end of the year where they looked back on their "educational journey" -- what they were proud of and what they'd do differently -- was the first time many of them had been asked to reflect on their learning. They loved it, and produced some of the best writing of the year on that assignment. They also wrote that they valued the opportunity to take stock of their educations.

The Framework distills into a few pages what it took me 30 years in the classroom to figure out. It gives teachers practical suggestions for fostering the habits of mind that will make our children better writers. The question remains -- how do we convince teachers and college professors, in all disciplines, to incorporate the suggestions into their curricula?

Next week I'll address that question -- the same question that limits the reforms of the College Learning Assessment movement. It's not enough to have fine guidelines and effective measures of learning; teachers need to be convinced to change classroom culture. How that might come about is next week's focus.

Erica Jacobs, whose column appears Wednesday, teaches at George Mason University. E-mail her at ejacob1@gmu.edu

View article comments Leave a comment