Local: Education

Will teachers change the way they teach writing?

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Local,Education,Erica Jacobs
Teachers often teach the way they were taught. That's the obstacle to change in classrooms from kindergarten to the university. With the publication of the "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing," we have a blueprint on ways writing should be taught. But how do we convince teachers to alter classroom culture to include the habits of mind that foster fine writing: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility and reflection?

When I participated in a Summer Institute sponsored by the National Writing Project, I was sure that all English teachers would change the way they ran their classrooms within a few years. I had visions of students who would understand that writing is a process and that grammar taught in isolation has almost no effect on the quality of a student's writing.

What kids are reading
This weekly column looks at lists of books kids are reading in various categories. The books below are from Publishers Weekly's list of 2010 children's books.
Publishers Weekly best children's books 2010
1. Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld (ages 4 to 8)
2. There's Going to Be a Baby by John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury (ages 4 to 8)
3. Farm by Elisha Cooper (ages 4 to 8)
4. The Boss Baby by Marla Frazee (ages 4 to 8)
5. Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Freeberg, Sandra Jordan, and Brian Floca (ages 9 to 12)
6. The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) by Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham (ages 4 to 8)
7. Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu (ages 4 to 8)
8. The Chicken Thief by Beatrice Rodriguez (ages 4 to 8)
9. Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors by Joyce Sidman and Beckie Prange (ages 4 to 8)
10. Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer and Josee Masse (ages 4 to 8)

Decades later, there have been some changes in some schools, but most of the entering students in my Oakton High School and George Mason University classes still had memories of grammar lessons and parts-of-speech worksheets.

Why is it so hard for teachers to change the way they teach? The National Writing Project did everything right: Teachers recruited other teachers for short-term or long-term professional development, and they allowed the power of the writing process to convince recruits that what was fun and engaging in the workshops would work just as well in their own classrooms.

Some English teachers adopted change, yet even in Fairfax -- one of the most active NWP counties -- schools rarely had more than a few writing consultants (graduates of the Northern Virginia Writing Project) in their English departments. The word has been getting out, but change has been slow.

The College Learning Assessment is faced with an even more daunting task. The CLA tests are endorsed by the Department of Education and have been adopted by many colleges and universities as a valid measure of how much college students have learned. Ideally, the tests -- which include measures of many of the habits of mind fostered in the Framework -- will force college professors to focus on real-world tasks and critical thinking.

But getting the word out to college professors has been difficult. Some schools have offered professional development to their entire faculty over a two-day period, but many of the workshops run by CLA are attended by more high school than college teachers. The skills fostered in the workshops work well in high school, but because the tests are given in college, those teachers should be developing performance tasks to prepare students not just for the test, but for subsequent real-world applications.

Wouldn't you want college-age children to know how to evaluate documents and charts for logical flaws and persuasive rhetoric? Shouldn't they be able to generate their own argument for or against an issue, whether it's science, history, biology or English? CLA performance tasks train students to use the Framework's habits of mind (curiosity, engagement and reflection) to solve real-world problems requiring good writing and analytic thinking.

Schools should adopt the Framework and the skills encouraged by CLA, then make workshops available to their entire faculties at no cost to teachers. That would be a win-win for everyone -- especially the students.

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

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