Earlier this summer, I read and blogged about a pre-publication Q&A with Judith M. Hockman about The Writing Revolution, a book she coauthored with Natalie Wexler. The article piqued my curiosity enough to order the book sight unseen.
I started reading it the evening it arrived.
Hockman comes with the perspective of a K-12 educator who enjoys the hope, if not the actuality, that all teachers in the school help teach writing to every student every year. Wexler is an educational journalist with a law background and experience tutoring reading and writing in high-poverty Washington, DC schools.
By contrast, I come with the perspective of a college instructor expected to take students with no training in writing, remediate their deficiencies, as have doing writing college-level writing within five, eight or 15 weeks, depending on the college. Despite those different perspectives, we are in substantial agreement on how to teach writing.
Writing Revolution‘s Six Principles
The method taught in the The Writing Revolution rests on six principles.
Principle 1: Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.
It might be well to add, “and continuing throughout high school.”
Principle 2: Sentences are building blocks of all writing.
Very true. When students reach me without having explicit instruction at the sentence level, I have about as much chance of teaching them to do college level writing as James Mattis has of getting Donald Trump to stop tweeting.
Principle 3: When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.
Embedded writing instruction doubles the value of the instruction by helping students master the non-writing content in which it is embedded. When students have to write about their course content, they may not like the tasks, but they don’t regard them as bogus.
Principle 4: The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing.
Writers must have something to write about: Having students write about their course content gives them something that’s worthwhile to write about.
The authors believe, as I do, that having students do expository writing on topics that draw only on their personal opinions and experiences is a wasted opportunity to boost students’ learning of both writing and the subjects they are studying.
Principle 5: Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.
Grammar exercises and worksheets pulled from the Internet don’t cut it. If we want students to write grammatically, they have to be taught grammar as they write their own sentences.
Principle 6: The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.
Planning is the part of the writing process the poorest writers tend to skip, but it’s the part of the writing process that pays the greatest dividends. The better the planning, the less need there is for students to revise at the macro level. Revising at the sentence level is far less strenuous.
The devil’s in the implementation
On the whole, I found The Writing Revolution‘s procedures workable; a couple of the sentence-level activities made such good sense, I wished I’d thought of them. (Since I didn’t, I’ll borrow the ideas.)
Based on my interaction with teachers looking for a way to enable students to write better, I think getting people to read the book and follow the program is going to be a tough slog. The authors’ comments in final chapter “Putting the Revolution into Practice” suggest that they’re aware of this.
The problem with a method of teaching writing that doesn’t follow a script is that it puts the onus on teachers to make the thing work.
There’s the rub.
There is always a risk that the teacher will not be able to pull it off.
Teaching writing without a script isn’t a safe activity—at least it doesn’t feel safe the first time a teacher tries.
Teachers not only have to know how to fit their content to the pattern, but they also need to feel confident they can do so. Without experience of successfully attempting similar challenges, many teachers will be reluctant to commit to a program that requires serious effort without a guarantee of success.
It’s easier to teach students to write than it is to convince teachers that they can teach students to write.
If Hockman and Wexler can convince teachers to put in the effort to use their program, that would be a revolution.