According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP), the average high school student is an incompetent writer. To evaluate their writing ability, testers asked high school juniors to write a paragraph based on notes they were given about a haunted house. The performance of half the students was judged to be either unsatisfactory or minimal. The following is a “minimal” response:
“The house with no windows. This is a house with dead-end hallways, 36 rooms and stairs leading to the cieling [sic]. Doorways go nowhere and all this to confuse ghosts.”
This is the student’s complete, word-for-word response-and represents the performance of nearly half of all eleventh graders. Most of the other half were evaluated as writing “adequate” paragraphs. Just two percent wrote something that was judged to be “elaborate,” a step up from “adequate.”
This explains why when Francisco LePort, one of my first students, started college at the age of 13, he was pulled aside by his humanities professor and asked, “Where did you learn to write so well?” In an age plagued by misguided efforts at preserving students’ “self-esteem” (by leaving their mistakes uncorrected), classrooms bursting at the seams, teaching-to-the-standardized-test methods, and a disdain for the traditional, rigorous, academic approach to education, essay writing is simply not taught.
It is taught at VanDamme Academy. Our K-1 students learn to write complete, articulate, properly punctuated sentences; our lower elementary students learn to write coherent, grammatical, well-structured paragraphs; our upper elementary students learn to write clear, fluent, logical essays; and for our junior high students, who have been through this evolution, the writing process is second nature. That is why when a law professor evaluating the school for her children, after seeing samples of the junior high students’ essays, asked whether she could photocopy them to show her law students what real writing looked like.
Those of us educated in a public school in the last few decades probably remember with a mutual shudder what it was like to face the blank sheet of paper. On those rare occasions that we were asked to do any writing, it was treated as an automatic or inborn skill. We were given a topic, an injunction to write about it, and that dreaded piece of paper, and at best managed to pour out a semi-coherent series of sentences loosely related to the assignment. That is why most of the parents of VanDamme Academy students confess, shame-faced, that they do not know how to write well, and then confess, amused, that they ask their children to proofread any letters they send to me.
At VanDamme Academy, writing is not crammed in with vocabulary, spelling, and literature under the heading of “English.” Writing is its own course, and students have a daily opportunity to learn crucial writing skills.
The writing process is broken down into small, incremental steps learned, practiced, and mastered over the course of their nine years at the school. From learning what makes a sentence complete at the kindergarten level, to learning how to create the topic sentence of a paragraph at the elementary level, to learning when one has adequately supported an essay’s theme at the junior high level-students build their writing skills methodically over many years.
When they begin to write essays, at about third or fourth grade, they are taught and asked to follow a deliberate sequence of steps in the writing process, and these steps are reviewed and supervised by the teacher along the way. First, they are asked to create a “laundry list” of points, in no particular order, that are related to the topic at hand. Then, they are asked to group these points into categories. Next, they are asked to formulate a theme for their essay, and to use that theme to identify which points from their laundry list are relevant and which can be discarded. Using the theme as a guide, they create an outline of sub-points to support the main idea. Then they write a rough draft of the essay using the outline as a blueprint. Finally, they reach the last three stages of the writing process: edit, edit, edit.
All of this is done in class, with the guidance and feedback of the teacher, over a course of weeks. It is this approach that led a former student of mine who, at her past school, had loathed writing, to become and eager and enthusiastic writer. “What changed?” her mother asked. She replied, “The teacher showed me how.”
It is important that a child learn to write not just so that he can draft a compelling essay for his college applications or compose a persuasive cover letter for a resume. The repeated practice of a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to writing is critical for training students in a deliberate, structured, systematic approach to thinking. It is in writing class that they are asked to take the knowledge they have gained in other subject areas, contemplate it, organize their thoughts, and express their understanding with clarity and purposefulness. If we want students to develop clarity of thought on any issue, if we want them to harness the power of the knowledge they gain over the course of their education, they must learn, practice, and master the skill of writing.
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