By Bryan Ripley Crandall, Ph.D.
Saturday, Oct. 20, was the fourth annual Day on Writing in Connecticut, an occasion for educators from preschool to college to host conversations about writing and its instruction. Dr. Crandall, the director of the Connecticut Writing Project at Fairfield University, shares his thoughts about writing and Connecticut’s achievement gap.
The Atlantic recently printed an article by Peg Tyre, “The Writing Revolution,” about a principal in Staten Island who refocused teachers to look closely at instruction for New York State’s Regents exams. With detailed determination, the teachers at the school helped students to turn scores around. Response to Peg Tyre’s article effloresced with applause, but also caution. The turnaround is extremely admirable, yet the debate on what types of writing get emphasized in school deserves attention, too. Test-only instruction does little to offer writing skills for college and career readiness and ignores the multiple processes writers use to develop substantial communication to audiences beyond the exams. I argue that young people need opportunities to write in a variety of genres. There isn’t a single career or occupation I can think of where one labors in timed response to on-demand prompts. Instead, writers brainstorm, list, sketch, write, revise, share, rewrite, edit and revise again. That is the nature of writing.
According to Arthur Applebee of SUNY-Albany, “the most effective writing programs are able to embed what is required by high stakes tests and then move beyond to a much richer vision of curriculum and instruction.” Cindy O’Donnell Allen, of Colorado State University, acknowledges it is doubtful that test-only instruction will bring about a writing revolution. Regardless, there is tremendous reason for concern.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that most American youth lack writing proficiency. More than half perform at a basic level. Females do better than males. Students with parents who have a college education score higher than those with parents who do not. Cultural minorities lag behind a cultural majority.
Why should such data matter in Connecticut? Perhaps it is because the largest achievement gaps exist in this state.
Since 1974 the National Writing Project has placed emphasis on the importance of writing in American schools with a belief that “Writing is essential to communication, learning and citizenship. It is the currency of the new workplace and global economy. Writing helps us convey ideas, solve problems, and understand our changing world. Writing is a bridge to the future.”
Teachers who become part of the National Writing Project are transformed and are more likely to be published writers. They are educators prepared to instruct writing for multiple purposes in a changing, global society.
Connecticut is home to three National Writing Project sites that recently were awarded for outstanding contributions to literacy by The New England Reading Association. Drs. Lynda Valerie at Central Connecticut State University; Jason Courtmanche at University of Connecticut at Storrs; and I, at Fairfield University, provide summer institutes for teachers, support professional development in schools, and host programs for young writers. We are a network of stellar teachers informed with the latest research and best practices in the profession.
In my teaching and research, I learned from listening to youth that writing is extremely important, but that they are rarely expected to write in school. Similar to Tyre’s “Writing Revolution,” the primary instruction they receive for writing is for the state examinations. Many students feel the tests are irrelevant to the skills they need to be successful in the United States. Young people desire to write, but become frustrated by the type of writing that is “measured” in school.
Today, the National Day on Writing, is a day to initiate a conversation in Connecticut. The needs of young people should be better bridged with curriculum. By not promoting a variety of writing opportunities, we fail to give young people the tools they will need for the 21st century. “Writing is everything,” a high school student recently said to me in Bridgeport, “but I hate writing for school.”
Achievement gaps report a part of the writing story, as does the “revolutionary” teach-to-the-test practice ubiquitous in Connecticut schools. An alternative story may be that students are not given enough opportunities to write with purposes that matter to them. Another story may be that teachers are pressured to teach to state tests that hinder the skills students actually need. Whatever the story, the bottom line is clear: We have a long way to go. There’s much more to be written.
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