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Writing Instruction is a Revolution?

Josh Wexler

I recently revisited this article from the October 2012 Atlantic Monthly:

It left me as confounded as I had felt after my first read.  Since when does teaching students how to write constitute a revolution??  A revolution!

At the heart of the article is the transformation of New Dorp High School in Staten Island, NY.  Once a chronically underachieving school, New Dorp tried all of the typical interventions to help the students make progress: afterschool programming, laying off of bad teachers, and reducing class size.  None of these interventions were able to increase the students’ test scores, until the implementation of structured writing instruction across all subject areas.  The results were astounding: double digit increases in student scores on the New York State Regents Exams in English and Global History.

As I read, and re-read the article, I couldn’t help thinking, what kind of writing instruction were the students getting prior to the “revolution?”  It can’t be safe to assume none?!

Writing instruction became an unintentional victim of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.  Districts, threatened with dire consequences and dwindling budgets, poured all resources into reading instruction –which was measured on the NCLB assessments.   Apparently, in many areas around the nation, formal writing instruction went by the wayside.  Students aren’t being directly taught routine grammatical concepts like coordinating conjunctions, prepositional phrases, and dependent clauses.  It is assumed that if they read often and read well, they will improve writing through imitation of good literature.  Except for the fact that students aren’t expected to write good literature – they are expected to write analyses of poems, research factors leading to world wars, compare and contrast characters, identify themes, and report on science lab experiments.

I encourage you to check out the Atlantic Monthly article (link above).  It is a fascinating study in the incredible, and unexpected power of writing instruction.  The specific methodology used, Teaching Basic Writing Skills, was developed by Judith Hochman, the former Head of School at Windward School in White Plains, NY.  

-- Stacy Rosenblum, Learning Specialist