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A Quiet Revolution Is Transforming Teaching of Writing

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ANNANDALE, VA.--Years ago, the routine for assigning research papers in Bernadette Mulholland-Glaze's high school social-studies classes went something like this: Make the assignment, give students two days in the library, and grade the final papers.

"I remember spending many Mother's Days grading research papers and thinking they just weren't getting any better,'' said Ms. Mulholland-Glaze, who teaches at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology here.

Now, however, in Ms. Mulholland-Glaze's class and classrooms like it across the nation, writing instruction is taking on a new shape.

Ms. Mulholland-Glaze's students discuss their research topics with each other. They produce several drafts of papers and receive feedback on their writings from their teacher and classmates.

They keep journals, in which they are encouraged to write daily. And they write in order to grasp complex ideas--producing, for example, imaginary dialogues between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

It is difficult to pinpoint with any certainty the extent to which these changes are taking place nationwide. Few national surveys have addressed that question. And American students continue to turn in lackluster writing performances on such educational barometers as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Nevertheless, a number of experts contend that a quiet revolution has occurred in writing instruction over the past two decades.

Equally important, they add, is the fact that the changes have largely come about from the bottom up. The strategy has consisted of good teachers working with teachers, helping them become familiar with the research in the field, and guiding them as they practiced writing themselves.

Such an approach, these experts say, could provide a lesson for some of the larger reforms taking place in education nationally.

"Some of the reform movements are still very top-down,'' said James Gray, the director of the National Writing Project at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the leaders in the writing-reform effort.

"We think reform takes place in the classroom, and teachers are at the center of it,'' he said. "Any movement that doesn't have teachers at the center of it is doomed.''

Common Concepts

Although writing educators who are reforming their teaching often point out that there is no one way to teach writing, some of the changes taking place in writing instruction over the past two decades do share some common characteristics.

Among the most prominent of the changes has been a shift away from the traditional focus on the student's finished product.

"Before, teachers would assign papers and grade for errors,'' Mr. Gray said. "Teachers didn't want to revise because then the papers would take too much time to grade.''

The emphasis now, however, is to encourage students to think of writing as a process that might include brainstorming, some pre-writing, revising, and editing. Teachers are less concerned with the grammar their students use and more concerned with what they have to say.

"It's really a very simple idea: Do as writers do,'' Mr. Gray said.

Other common features of the new approaches include:

  • Encouraging students to "write across the curriculum,'' or to write in every subject;
  • Using writing as a cognitive tool for enlarging students' understanding of complex subject matter;
  • Encouraging children to write at earlier ages--a change also attributed in part to the influence of "whole language'' approaches to teaching reading;
  • Having students write, and sometimes publish, for audiences other than teachers;
  • Permitting students to choose their own topics; and
  • Encouraging teachers of writing to write along with their students.

"You don't have to be a writer to teach writing,'' explained Don Gallehr, the director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, through which Ms. Mulholland-Glaze was trained. "But you do have to write.''

Teaching by Example

Many of the changes in teaching writing have been spurred by new research in the field. Virtually nonexistent 20 years ago, research on teaching writing has burgeoned in recent years. And much of it has been compatible with what researchers in other fields, such as cognitive psychology, were also discovering: Students need to "construct'' their own knowledge, and the teacher's job is to coach them in their efforts.

A major impetus in spreading those ideas has been the National Writing Project.

"I think there's no question the National Writing Project has been a major influence on writing instruction,'' said Paul Connolly, the director of the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Modeled on the much-praised Bay Area Writing Project, the National Writing Project is designed to nurture changes in writing instruction through the professional development of teachers.

"If you don't see it as a professionalization project, then you're missing a great part of the point,'' said Miles Myers, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Now in its 20th year, the project has come a long way since its inception.

"Before we started, writing was totally neglected,'' Mr. Gray said. "Teachers were required to take courses in how to teach reading, but there were no such courses anywhere on how to teach writing.''

The project now has sites in 47 states and receives $3.25 million a year in federal funds and five times as much from state and local sources. Last year, more than 100,000 teachers participated in its programs, according to Mr. Gray.

The purpose of the project was never to teach teachers the "right way'' to teach writing, he and others maintain. Teachers attend five- to-six-week summer sessions where they work with university educators in honing their own skills at teaching and practicing writing.

"You become conscious of the way you teach writing yourself, and you become aware of the research that supports your way of teaching writing,'' said Marian Mohr, who teaches writing at Hayfield High School in Alexandria, Va., and has participated in the project.

Back at their home schools, the participants use some of the same approaches with colleagues who volunteer for the training sessions. The "teacher consultants,'' as they have come to be known, also get continued support from their local projects and from other teachers who went through the summer sessions with them.

Teachers are never required to attend the training sessions, participants emphasize.

"The last thing I would want to see would be to have something like the National Writing Project mandated,'' said Ms. Mulholland-Glaze, who in 1979 began participating in one of the national project's state affiliates, the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

Ms. Mulholland-Glaze, a social-studies teacher, said she soon discovered that even writing teachers "didn't know any more about writing than I did.''

"I also learned,'' she said, "that my ideas about teaching writing were almost 180 degrees off.''

Peer Responses

Now Ms. Mulholland-Glaze's class reflects many of the concepts she has gleaned from her experiences.

Some of those changes were evident during a visit to Ms. Mulholland-Glaze's class earlier this spring. That day, students were working on what Ms. Mulholland-Glaze and Pamela Curtis, the English teacher who team-teaches the class, call "I search'' papers. The papers are meant to be first-person chronicles of students' efforts to research a topic of interest to them.

Their task was to read and critique papers they had written outlining their plans for the research assignment and their choice of topics.

"Most of the time, students pick a topic and assume this pedantic research voice as though they're an authority when they're not,'' Ms. Curtis explained. "There's a kind of liveliness lost that way.''

Students sprawled on the floor and huddled at desks in groups of four. One group, composed of four 10th-grade boys, had just finished reading a group member's paper outlining his plans for a paper on astronomy.

"Your writing is really good, like, it introduces the paper,'' said Aaron McConnell, one of the group members.

"You don't think there's anything I need to work on?'' asked the author, Yoni Arbel.

The group considered this question a moment.

"You don't think astronomy in the last century is really too big a topic?'' Aaron asked, tactfully.

"Yeah, but I didn't want to narrow it down too much,'' Yoni answered.

Similar conversations went on in groups throughout the room.

For the most part, students said, the exchanges enhance their final writing products.

"Most of the group comments I agree with, and I revise my paper,'' said Steven Riddick, who is in Aaron's and Yoni's group.

"I find that, when I write things, when I actually say them to the group, it doesn't sound like I want it to,'' he added.

These students, who attend a regional magnet school for academically gifted students, are already academic high achievers.

But Ms. Mulholland-Glaze and Ms. Curtis said their strategies also work with students in less academically oriented schools.

Part of the reason these students appear so comfortable critiquing one another's papers, they said, is because they, like many students in this part of the state, have grown up with these approaches to teaching writing.

"We get kids who've been talking about writing in groups almost through elementary school,'' Ms. Curtis said.

At Jefferson, for example, every English teacher has become a "teacher consultant'' through the Northern Virginia Writing Project.

The "process approach'' to writing is also formally encouraged by the Fairfax County school system.

In her classroom in nearby Falls Church, Va., Betsy Sanford emphasizes writing as early as 1st grade. Her students are asked to write an explanation of a mathematical game in which children practice early multiplication concepts by regrouping, for instance, three groups of four objects into four groups of three.

"You tend to get short pieces of writing,'' said Ms. Sanford, a teacher at Lemon Road School in Falls Church.

The purpose of the exercise, however, is not to get a piece "that's going to end up on the pages of The New Yorker,'' she said.

Rather, she said, she wants to begin to expose her students to many forms of writing and to help them learn to clarify their thinking through writing.

By the time students reach college, advocates of these new approaches contend, they are writing better than their predecessors did.

"Fifteen years ago, college teachers complained that students came to them not having written in high school,'' said Mr. Gallehr of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, who also teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Well, we've upped the ante because now students are coming to us very prepared.''

Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, however, present a different view of the matter. From 1984 to 1990, the writing performances of students in grades 4, 8, and 11 did not improve significantly. In fact, the writing scores of 8th graders declined slightly over that period of time.

"What the NAEP does is measure the average across the nation,'' said Claudia Gentile, the NAEP writing coordinator for the Educational Testing Service. "I kind of go back and say, 'The National Writing Project has 9,000 members.'''

"That's very nice,'' she added. "That's not the nation.''

Results from a teacher survey administered along with the NAEP, moreover, show that the process approach has not yet taken hold in a majority of classrooms.

Ms. Gentile said less than half of the teachers who took part in the 1990 survey reported using aspects of process approaches to writing with their classes.

What is happening, however, is that students taking the test appear to be more comfortable with writing, according to Ms. Gentile.

"We do see students writing longer as the years go by, and they are reporting they are feeling better about themselves as they are writing more in school,'' she added.

"Researchers assume that either concurrently or before a change in abilities there will be a change in attitude,'' she said.

However, writing educators contend that the tests do not reflect what is really happening in their classrooms. Typically on such tests, they note, students are given a set period of time to write on a given subject. There are few opportunities on the exams for revising their work or for discussing their writing with classmates.

"Those findings come about through such miserable testing procedures that they're basically held in contempt by the profession,'' Mr. Gray said.

In response to such criticisms, the testing program is piloting some exams in which students could accumulate a portfolio of written work for judging. The results of the first pilot, which examined a single piece of classroom work, was released last year. (See Education Week, April 22, 1992.)

Some Criticism

The movement to transform writing instruction, however, is not without its critics, either.

"The first problem that comes up is that students have so much trouble thinking of something to write about, and students are not learning to write while they're thinking of something to write about,'' said Arthur Whimbey, a cognitive psychologist who advocates a "sentence combining'' approach to teaching writing.

"Students are told to write a draft,'' he said of the process approach, "but most students don't come with writing skills.''

Mr. Whimbey favors teaching writing by giving students models of good writing to emulate. Students are told, for example, to combine simple sentences into more complex ones or to reconstruct texts.

"They're learning to write more complex sentences, but their spelling, grammar, and writing also improve because they're copying standard English,'' he said.

Such approaches are less popular among teachers, though, while the process approach, in the words of one educator, has become "the dominant philosophy of schools.''

"Sometimes the pendulum swings too far,'' said Mr. Connolly of the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking.

Rigid 'Steps'

The danger of such approaches becoming too popular is that they impose a kind of rigidity of their own, writing educators say. In the case of the process approach to writing, the strategy, as it is being translated in many classrooms, is becoming too formulaic, they point out.

Mr. Gray related overhearing a conversation among two language-arts teachers.

"We use the five-step process,'' said one.

"You do?'' said the colleague. "We use three steps.''

The anecdote, Mr. Gray said, illustrates "how textbook companies can screw up a good idea by turning it into a formula.''

Many teachers who are using the newer approaches to teaching writing, however, said the changes are making a difference for students. A handful of small studies provide some support for those claims.

In one such study, for example, students at 14 inner-city Chicago schools whose teachers participated in the National Writing Project scored greater gains on a statewide writing test, on average, than their peers in nonparticipating schools. A majority of students at the four schools that experienced the most dramatic gains in scores came from low-income households.

Anecdotal evidence from teachers supports this research as well.

In the 1980's, after she began to revise the way writing was used in her social-studies classes, Ms. Mulholland-Glaze said she began to realize that students' discussions in her classroom were becoming more interesting.

"There was a real validity and texture to them,'' she said. "And, yes, I think their writing has improved.''

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