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The Writing Revolution

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The Atlantic, October 2012

By Peg Tyre

in 2009, when Monica DiBella entered New Dorp, a notorious public high school on Staten Island, her academic future was cloudy. Monica had struggled to read in early childhood, and had repeated first grade. During her elementary-school years, she got more than 100 hours of tutoring, but by fourth grade, she’d fallen behind her classmates again. In the years that followed, Monica became comfortable with math and learned to read passably well, but never seemed able to express her thoughts in writing. During her freshman year at New Dorp, a ’70s-style brick behemoth near a grimy beach, her history teacher asked her to write an essay on Alexander the Great. At a loss, she jotted down her opinion of the Macedonian ruler: “I think Alexander the Great was one of the best military leaders.” An essay? “Basically, that wasn’t going to happen,” she says, sweeping her blunt-cut brown hair from her brown eyes. “It was like, well, I got a sentence down. What now?” Monica’s mother, Santa, looked over her daughter’s answer—six simple sentences, one of which didn’t make sense—with a mixture of fear and frustration. Even a coherent, well-turned paragraph seemed beyond her daughter’s ability. An essay? “It just didn’t seem like something Monica could ever do.”

For decades, no one at New Dorp seemed to know how to help low-performing students like Monica, and unfortunately, this troubled population made up most of the school, which caters primarily to students from poor and working-class families. In 2006, 82 percent of freshmen entered the school reading below grade level. Students routinely scored poorly on the English and history Regents exams, a New York State graduation requirement: the essay questions were just too difficult. Many would simply write a sentence or two and shut the test booklet. In the spring of 2007, when administrators calculated graduation rates, they found that four out of 10 students who had started New Dorp as freshmen had dropped out, making it one of the 2,000 or so lowest-performing high schools in the nation. City officials, who had been closing comprehensive high schools all over New York and opening smaller, specialized ones in their stead, signaled that New Dorp was in the crosshairs.

And so the school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page.

If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

…[Why were the students previously failing?]

…. New Dorp students were simply not smart enough to write at the high-school level. You just had to listen to the way the students talked, one teacher pointed out—they rarely communicated in full sentences, much less expressed complex thoughts… Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, a part of the City University of New York, kept pushing, asking: “What skills that lead to good writing did struggling students lack?” …

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher.

A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”

…The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

…Within months, Hochman became a frequent visitor to Staten Island. Under her supervision, the teachers at New Dorp began revamping their curriculum. By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although … “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”

If … This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”

As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”

Classroom discussion became an opportunity to push Monica and her classmates to listen to each other, think more carefully, and speak more precisely, in ways they could then echo in persuasive writing.

PEG TYRE is the director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation and the author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

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