Saturday, December 1, 2007

High School Writing: Has the Pendulum Swung too Far?

I have never been a high school English teacher, but as a college teacher, I shared the responsibility of teaching students to write. Once an English teacher, always an English teacher, I guess. I was fascinated to read the November 30 Chicago Tribune article, "Young writers knock out a book in a month," by Carlos Sadovi.

At least on the surface, this is good news. I'm a great believer in writing for all, and while my emphasis is on senior citizens' writing now, I'm all for getting an early start at being comfortable with the writing process. It seems that at Corliss High School, "140 students are scrambling to finish full-length novels in one month for teacher Kelli Rushek." In this offshoot of the National Novel Writing Month competition for adults that I've mantioned earlier, Rushek's aim is to "get students past the fear of loooking at a blank page. . . . I think the beauty of this is that I'm not grading what they are writing. It allows them to unhinge the trap door of ideas . . . . [I believe] that one must write before they write well."

I agree. When I began teaching many, many years ago, we English teachers tended to frighten students with our red pens. A person who agonizes over the correctness of every word and sentence as he or she writes it will not get very far. We probably turned off many potentially good writers in those days, and I'm probably as guilty as anyone. As Rushek points out, in the past, her students grumbled about having to write short essays, and now the writing portion of the ACT requires writing a five-paragraph essay in a half-hour. At Corliss, one student wrote about 900 words during her Thanksgiving break, and some dream of publishing their books for fame and fotune.

I have no interest in shattering such youthful dreams, but here is what bothers me about this project: "Students aren't graded on spelling, grammar or whether their stories make sense." To me, grading or the lack thereof is not the point. Will these students ever go on to the editing process? Will they ever learn correct spelling and grammar and how to express their ideas clearly? I can hope so, but my past experience makes me wonder. Toward the end of my teaching career, I encountered college freshmen who were incensed to be told that their writing did not deserve an A because there were so many errors. Instead of trying to learn about and correct those errors for an eventual A, they blamed me for being a tough, mean teacher. Too much experience with instant gratification?

To quote from my own book, Seniorwriting: A Brief Guide for Seniors who Want to Write: "Correctness can come as a final step. . . . Worrying about each word, punctuation mark, and sentence as you write it can produce serious writers' blocks or bad writing. . . . Unfortunately, some teachers, students, and writers have stopped believing that correctness matters at all, and that attitude has brought its own problems, especially for those writers whose work gets rejected by publishers on the basis of writing errors rather than content." I've recently refused to review a self-published book seriously in need of editing for the most basic writing errors.

To sum up, I applaud the Corliss program and Ms. Rushek's and her students' enthusiasm, but I would like some assurance that discussions of correctness and the need for editing will come eventually, sometime after this herculean effort. If this project is an example of a resurgence of interest in learning to write well, I'm all for it, and I hope that's the case. On the other hand, if it's another example of the "dumbing down" of education, I despair. The pendulum has swung far since the days of the overused red pen and grade penalties for errors, but has it swung too far in the other direction?

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne


Paul @ Elders Tribune said...

This reminds me of a news article I read a while back. The story is about a school/college accepting essays written in text message style English by their students. I don't know how the debate developed eventually, but it's frightening enough to know that people are actually considering it. My question though, are we seeing an evolution of the English language or is this really "dumbing down"?

seniorwriter said...

Paul: The English language is changing, and I am willing to interpret the old "rules" loosely. However, at the risk of being called an old fogey, I have to draw the line at writing that the average person cannot understand. For me, that would certainly include text message style. To me, that's laziness and dumbing down.