Getting students to write well without writing at length

Photo of students writing In mid-January, Marc Tucker wrote a piece  for Education Week‘s Top Performers blog, “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well—It’s No Mystery Why.”

Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is noted for his research and writing on the policies and practices of the countries with the world’s best education systems.

His EdWeek article is blunt. After noting that American high school students rarely are required to read entire novels, let alone read entire nonfiction books, Tucker says:

High school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. [boldface added]

I empathize with Tucker. I’ve not had notable success finding qualified applicants either.)

As my regular readers know, for decades I’ve toggled together a living as a writer-editor (books, magazines, newspapers, an academic journal, marketing materials) and a college writing teacher, thanks in no small part to temporary and part-time jobs in places such as a hospital, the IRS National Computer Lab, and a resort hotel.

I’ve learned far more about writing from the places at which I’ve worked than I ever learned from my academic studies.

I believe deliberate practice is the key to learning to write.

I’m not, however, convinced that reading widely produces good writers: I see a reciprocal rather than a causal relationship.

I agree with Tucker that too many students are getting through school without learning to write.  As Steve Graham‘s research has shown, most teachers either don’t teach writing or don’t know how to teach writing, or both.

Besides that, teachers often have very little idea of what people in jobs outside education must write, the conditions under which they write, or the standards to which writers are held in jobs outside education. The typically English teacher is a person (usually a woman) whose out-of-education employment consisted of summer jobs waiting tables or working as a retail clerk — jobs that don’t entail writing complex documents or writing semi-technical documents such as are needed for the job Tucker was trying to fill.

If we want students to write on the job, they need to be taught to write, not just given writing assignments. In my experience, short papers on topics related to their courses are the best vehicles for teaching writing.

Students in an English class may not be interested in writing about why word choices matter or why English spelling is so difficult, but they can at least see it has some connection to English class. Similarly, students in science classes may not care about chemistry, but they can at least see that an assignment to compare the tone of an article in USA Today about a newly discovered use for tomato peels with the tone of an article in Scientific American on the same topic has some relationship to chemistry.

When I’m lucky enough to have students for an academic year,  I teach students a set of strategies I use in my own writing and stick to just what Common Core calls informative/explanatory writing. My students write in class every period for at least half the year so I can give them feedback orally as they write.

Whenever I can get away with it, I guarantee students that as soon as they demonstrate on two papers in a row that they have met my standard for competent writing, I will drop every writing grade up to that point. If they are happy with a C, they don’t have to do anything else the rest of the term.

I’ve done this when I’ve had three preps: five, 20-student, composition classes, one ed psych class, and one magazine journalism class. I thought I’d die before that year was over, but no student earned less than a B.

When students are competent at I/E writing — I estimate that they’ll need to write at least 20 complete, short papers to become competent — they will be able to start paying real attention to what they have to say.

That’s when they can profit from an across-the-curriculum expository writing program in which they get experience writing the kinds of longer papers Tucker expects from applicants for jobs at his organization.

18 years of compliance training

I inadvertently stumbled into a Twitter discussion about school activities, such as most homework assignments, that seem to exist for no other reason than, “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here’s an extract:

The conversation suggested that requiring compliance by students is bad.

I don’t think complying with such things as instructions to print one’s name on a document infringe on civil liberties or turn students into automatons: It might be regarded as a simple courtesy.

By the same token, I don’t think complying with school rules has much of an effect on students’ “real lives” outside school.

In fact, as I said, my observations of students in work settings has led me to think the fact that something is required in kindergarten or high school or college is likely to lead students to assume they can safely ignore it elsewhere.

I’ve written several posts over the years about my observations of ex-students’ behaviors outside classrooms when they attempt to enter the workforce. Taken together,  they may suggest it’s not compliance or the lack thereof  that’s a problem.

I’ve pasted the leads of three of them below with links to the entire posts.

Top writing requirement: Read the directions

Teaching students to adapt their writing to the situation never was easy, but is is becoming increasingly difficult. Within a few minutes’ time, we expect students to turn from texting friends to writing research reports to blogging—and to meet the different requirements of each of those situations.

One of the ways we can help students learn to navigate between writing situations is teach them that when directions are provided, they should read and follow those directions, regardless of what they’ve been taught was the appropriate thing to do. Read more of this post.

Work experience as education

Do you want to know how to prepare your students for an entry-level job? The best way to learn what students need to know is to do different entry-level jobs yourself.

Unless you already know somebody at the business, you’ll have to fill out a job application, just as your students will unless they, too, get their jobs through networking or nepotism. Completing a job application requires what the Common Core State Standards refer to as reading informational text. Read more of this post.

Dear applicant: The reason you weren’t hired

Since April,  I’ve been advertising unsuccessfully for two part-time, virtual workers in my educational publishing business. The responses have been mainly from highly schooled individuals who:

  • Don’t know how to write an email,
  • Either don’t read or don’t follow directions, and
  • Don’t have a clue what skills are needed for the 21st century office.

I sent respondents boilerplate “thank you for your interest” replies, but mentally wrote letters I wished I dared send. Read more of this post.

Live-streaming video for career exploration

In our rush to get students “college and career ready,” I wonder if we’re not overlooking the importance of first-hand experience doing the kinds of work done in the career fields that students think may interest them.

career options list

One of my cousins was very interested in art and design. He enrolled in the architecture program at Syracuse University. One of the first things he learned was that he absolutely hated doing the mathematical calculations that architecture requires.

He changed career paths, became a science illustrator.

Such vocational changes are not uncommon.

Medicine and law have high first-job dropout rates, far higher than the commonly bemoaned beginning teacher attrition rates.

Here’s part of an abstract of a study about law firm attrition:

law-exitBecause students have grown up watching doctors and lawyers on television, they think they know what doctors and lawyers do. After graduation, when they discover the not-suitable-for-prime-time elements of their chosen careers, they may decide they should have become shoe designers or forklift operators instead.

In a Forbes article about why so many physicians regret their career choice, Howard Forman, a professor at the Yale School of Management who studies healthcare leadership, says:

If young people pursue the profession with full knowledge of what’s in store,  they’ll be more satisfied than if they believe they’re going to be thanked every 15 minutes.

Perhaps instead of live-streaming video of raptors’ nests in the wild 24 hours a day, we could steam images of CPAs and home health aides and computer technicians’ work sites (as this webcam of an Arlington, Texas, airfield does once a minute every day [[broken link removed 2016-01-22]) to give students a glimpse into the real workplace.

OK, it’s a crazy idea.

What do you suggest instead?


Entrepreneurship rural economic key

I guest-blogged  this week for Education and Tech about six businesses serving the business market that a youngster with some computer and art skills could start while in high school.

I see entrepreneurship as the most likely way for a rural area to retain of its young people after high school. Students who go off to college with an eye to getting a good job are unlike to return to rural communities where there are few good jobs to be had. That loss of young people is a significant concern in the rural areas, as this 2011 survey in the Guilford, NY, community shows.

If students need more training than their high school provided—as they almost certainly will—the Internet makes it possible for them to get advanced training, often for little or no cost.  And those who want more than just vocational training can get that in a rural area, too, if they have access to the Internet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone has 2000 free college-level courses available.

{Broken link removed 04-02-2014]

Add skill applications to high school courses

David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times about the two different economies in the United States. The manufacturing economy is prospering because it has learned to use technology to reduce people costs, boost productivity, and increase profits in the face of global competition. By contrast the economic sectors that don’t face global competition—notably government, healthcare, and education—are not prospering.

One of the down-stream effects of this economic rift is the rise of the entrepreneurial information worker who sells his/her skills on a job-by-job basis.  The education community at large has not come to grips with the significance of this economic trend.When educators talk about entrepreneurs, most of the time what they have in mind is a Steve Jobs-type figure creating a vast corporate empire. The reality is likely to be a single-owner business with at most a couple of employees.

If most students from the middle and lower class are going to have any chance of surviving without a college degree—which many of them won’t be able to afford—schools need to make “what you can do with this skill” a part of coursework across the curriculum so students graduate high school with entrepreneurial skills. That doesn’t require a special program.  It does require doing some digging to see what skills are needed in the local community that students could master within existing courses.

Picture TIFF file iconFor example, right now I could use someone with skills to prepare e-book covers. Designing book covers doesn’t require a college degree, or even a high school diploma. It requires computer skills, math skills, art skills, plus the ability to read and follow directions and to copy text accurately. There’s no reason the required skills couldn’t be taught in a high school art program. Eric Azcuy does it in his art classes at Urban Assembly school for Applied Math and Science even with sixth graders.

There are hundreds of e-book producers like me across the country, and they all need book covers.  Put “e-book cover design” into your search box and look at what designers charge. Even design services that use templates pull in several hundred dollars a cover.

JPG picture file iconExisting small businesses like mine are willing to pay someone to do something they could do but don’t have time to do without taking time from their main focus. Those small businesses are places where Josh and Caitlin, even at age 15, can get paid for doing something they enjoy. In the process, Josh and Caitlin might even decide they need to learn something else from their school classes.

We can always hope.

Photo credit: pic file icons, uploaded by ilco. Property releases  photo #980850, photo #999032 photo ##1063691

Dear Applicant: The reason you weren’t hired

Since April,  I’ve been advertising unsuccessfully for two part-time, virtual workers in my educational publishing business. The responses have been mainly from highly schooled individuals who:

  • Don’t know how to write an email,
  • Either don’t read or don’t follow directions, and
  • Don’t have a clue what skills are needed for the 21st century office.

I sent respondents boilerplate “thank you for your interest” replies, but mentally wrote letters I wished I dared send.

In honor of Labor Day, here’s a sample of what I would like to have said.

Dear Applicant,

Your success at raising fourth grade writing scores in your 14th year of teaching is truly impressive. Regretably, I have no need to raise fourth grade writing scores, and if I did, I couldn’t wait 14 years for you to do it.

Yours truly,

Dear Applicant,

Your one-sentence application was a model of conciseness. I’m sure you are the shining star of the English faculty at your college. Unfortunately, I have a policy that prohibits me from hiring people solely because they say they need extra income.

Yours truly,

Dear Applicant,

Your application was truly memorable. I cannot recall ever before having anyone include in a cover letter a 3,000-word article on how to choose a lobster.

Although the job will be filled by someone who can follow directions, you can be sure that the next time I have a job opening, I will remember your application.

Yours truly,

Dear Applicant,

Thank you for offering to come to my office to discuss the virtual assistant position.

Anyone who needs to discuss a virtual position face-to-face is not suited for the position.

Yours truly,

Dear Applicant,

With your two masters’ degrees and a doctorate, you are vastly overqualified for the virtual assistant job. The last person who had the job was a 14-year-old; she was overqualified, too.

There is only one position in my business that is a good fit for someone with your creativity and business acumen.

I’m not about to give it up.

Yours truly,