Episode 143: High School Students Can’t Write

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Last week when we talked about college application essays for what seems to be the millionth time in our three years together, we suggested that you go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110 if you have a senior at home with college application essays due now and over the next few weeks.  As I said last week, I have been spending some time in one of New York City’s most exclusive high schools to help two classes of seniors with their essays.  As a result, I have been thinking hard about the sorry state of the writing skills displayed by some of our best public school students–and, of course, what to do about it.

1.  One of My Favorite Stories

As we mentioned back in Episode 99, no one–not me, not you, not the best English teacher you ever knew, not the most expensive college consultant you can find–can truly fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, edited, and submitted on time.  The situation is too pressured, everyone is too anxious, and there is too little time.  So, let me tell you my favorite story about how to solve the problem.

As we said back in Episode 99, in the more than 100 Common Application main essays I read and edited last year (and that number does not include all of the supplemental essays that I also read and edited), I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, including from a grammar and mechanics point of view.  (By the way, this year, I have also read one, maybe two, really good essays from students in that highly respected school.)  Last year, I called the best writer aside and said to him, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates appears to be able to do it?”  His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade.  His tutor went over his written work and showed him how to improve it.  He said that she had worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions.  I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding.  He said that he did not enjoy the tutoring and did not enjoy writing now.  But he sure could do it, and he knew that he could do it.

In my experience with high school students and with younger professionals who have worked for me and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing.  It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom–although some grammar and mechanics lessons undoubtedly should be taught from the front of the classroom for openers.  Rather, it is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, while the student watches and learns and absorbs and understands the reason for every change that is being made.  This shoulder-to-shoulder editing process has to be repeated and repeated and repeated–until the student becomes almost as good at it as the teacher is.  It sounds slow and laborious, and it is.  But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.  This is writing tutoring, not writing group instruction.

Here is the rest of the problem, which is already clear to every teacher in the U.S. and, I hope, will now be equally clear to all of you parents who are listening (if it is not already).  Today’s middle school and high school English teachers cannot serve as writing tutors for each of your kids–and that is precisely why so many of our high school students will not learn to write well enough for college.  Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line-by-line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week, while talking through those corrections with each student one by one.  And, of course, that’s not all English teachers have to do.  I am not defending overworked English teachers here; I am merely stating the obvious–something so obvious that I can’t believe more schools haven’t tried to solve it rather than just looking away and pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

I recently said something pretty objectionable to two classes of quite smart high school seniors–at least, they thought it was objectionable.  I was talking about their draft essays that I had just read and tried to edit.  Some were so poorly conceived and written that I really couldn’t even edit them.  Here is what I said:

“This writing will not get you through college.  You might think that it will, but it won’t.  You might think that it will because you are going to major in mathematics or chemistry or engineering.  But it still won’t.  That’s because each of you will likely have to take at least a couple of humanities courses that will involve writing essays or papers or research papers in order to graduate.  And when you do, this writing won’t get you through them.”

2.  Talking to a National Audience

Last February, I had the occasion to speak at a national conference of teachers and administrators from Early College high schools.  I called my presentation, “Your Seniors Can’t Write.”  Parents, listen to what I said to see what you might do in your own kid’s high school to help us solve the problem.  It’s going to take all of us, and I believe that nobody’s voices should be heard any louder than yours.

I started by asking the audience, “What’s in your junior year and senior year English curriculum?”  I am guessing, I told them, that it is literature heavy:  American, British, or world literature, especially if you have standard grade-level courses that all students take (even if you have some honors and AP levels of those courses).  If you have a variety of semester electives as your curriculum, I continued, you might offer a writing-focused course or two, most likely journalism.

Then I asked this, “Is a curriculum focused on teaching literary works–novels and short stories and plays and poems and speeches and literary essays–as well as great nonfiction works the best way to improve students’ writing?”  I told them that, usually when I make a presentation at a national conference, I believe that I have “the answer” to a problem that people in the audience are trying to solve.  But this time, I said, “Today, I do not have the answer, and I am hoping that you do.  Today, I have just the problem.”  I warned the audience members that I intended to put them into small groups toward the end of the presentation so that they could work out some ways to solve the problem.

Nonetheless, I said, I was willing to go first and offer an idea to get the conversation started.  I opened with an anecdote.  Last fall, I said, I asked two classes of juniors in an elite New York City high school what they would like to study in the upcoming spring semester.  The students were all in a standard year-long American literature course at the time.  In the interest of full disclosure, I had just had a long discussion with them about the quality of the writing of the seniors I had been working with and I had also analyzed the writing of a few of their own junior classmates impromptu–kids who thought they wrote quite well (but who soon realized and then stated bravely in front of their classmates that they didn’t).

I said, “Would you prefer to keep doing American literature or would you prefer to focus on writing?”  Virtually every one of these college-bound students voted to switch the curriculum to writing.  Unfortunately, no school administrators were listening.

3.  An Idea for Solving the Problem

So, here was my idea for improving high school English curricula. (By the way, for more than three decades, I have written high school English curricula that are used in states all over the U.S., and I never did what I am about to suggest.  Why?  Because, sadly, I had not seen the problem up close the way I have in recent years.)

I suggested that all high school students take an intensive writing course in the spring semester of their junior year.  It would be best, of course, if all high schools in the U.S. would do this so that no student’s college admissions chances would be hurt by a course that colleges thought was odd, or not rigorous enough, or out of the mainstream.  If I could, I would wave my magic wand right now and make that happen in all U.S. high schools.

My course would focus on expository writing, on academic writing.  It would not include any creative writing, like poetry or short stories or plays, which many high schools like to do and perhaps do very well.  It would not include any literary analysis, because most of us do not write like that once we get out of college.

One thing it would include is the college application essay.  Students would write more than one main essay for more than one of The Common Application prompts (whatever the prompts are at the time).

I had a high school English teacher many years ago who explained to us that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort.  So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.  I know that’s going to sound like more work to kids–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that, all too often, many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape.

In my course, students would also write several essays targeted to the most commonly used topics for supplemental essays in college applications–in fact, both a long and a short version, so the word count would always be appropriate, depending on the word limit of a particular college.  That is not a hard thing to do, and students will find that three or four essays well done can be used over and over again, with minor editing, in various college applications.

But wait just a minute.  In my course, there won’t be writing of only 650 words or fewer.  (Parents, you should know by now that 650 words is the limit for The Common App main essay.)  No.  There will also be a research paper of many pages–maybe more than one.  Here’s why.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and, more importantly, he’s a really smart guy.  Marc wrote an article last January in the Top Performers Education Week blog entitled “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well–It’s No Mystery Why.” Let me read you the sobering opening paragraphs of Marc’s article:

My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants.  Inasmuch as the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked [each of them] to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.

We were lucky this time.  We are more often than not disappointed at the subpar writing ability of the applicants for openings at our organization.  Many applicants are from very good colleges.  Many have graduate degrees.  Many are very poor writers.

Their lack of writing ability does not auger well.  When we look at what they have written, the logic of the narrative is often very hard to find. It would appear that their lack of writing ability stands as mute testimony to their lack of thinking ability.

How, we ask, could this have happened? . . . [H]igh school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers . . . .

This point is critically important.  There is only one way that we can find out whether [students] can write a substantial research paper–by asking them to write a substantial research paper and looking carefully at the result.  If we do not ask them to produce this product–over and over again, as they get better and better at it–then they will not be able to do it well.  If they have not done the work, then neither their teacher nor the engines of the accountability system can assess it.  If this sort of serious writing is not done and–in our accountability-oriented environment–is not assessed, then it will not be learned.  End of argument.

Well, in my new high school English course, I don’t need to have my course’s research papers submitted to and assessed by outside evaluators–although that is actually both an intriguing and a feasible idea–but I would like them to be assessed by the teacher.  Not really assessed, so much, as edited line by line, with the student sitting there and hanging on every word.

By the way, I care almost nothing about grades in my course.  I don’t want the teacher to spend time “grading” things.  I have friends who are English teachers who constantly worry about having to grade things–a lot of things and quickly–so that they can substantiate a report card grade eventually.  In my course, I want the teacher to spend time working with each student individually on every sentence that student writes.  I could easily support every teacher’s giving every student an A in the course–as long as every student kept writing and working hard at it and improving.

I might just have one of those research papers that Marc is calling for be about individual colleges or, perhaps more generally, about issues in higher education.  I told the audience at the conference that Marie and I had just written a new workbook for high school students entitled How To Explore Your College Options.  I explained that the workbook was literally an explanation of an 11-page questionnaire that, we thought, every high school student should fill out about any college he or she might be interested in attending.  In my course, after each student does the research to get the answers to 52 key questions about a college, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the student write up the findings so that other students might benefit from them.  Students in a class could create their own guidebook of college profiles for a variety of colleges–and learn to research and write at the same time.

But, let me not get ahead of myself.  I told the audience that my course would be called College Research and Expository Writing.  Of course, there would be an honors version, and I plan to put every student in it.

4.  It’s Up to You, Parents

Parents, if you have a younger high school student at home, consider talking to your high school principal about the English curriculum now.  See whether you can get a writing course offered–or even required–so that your kid has a better chance at writing not only great college application essays, but also great term papers and research reports and whatever else they are going to have to write once they go to college.  I had a great high school history teacher who made us write five-page papers every week because he knew we were going to have to do that all the time in college.  I never thanked him enough for that great preparation.  Parents, fixing our national crisis in high school students’ writing is way more important than my telling you how to help your kid write a winning college application essay.  And I can’t fix it without you.

By the way, not one Early College high school educator in the audience challenged the title of my presentation, “Your Seniors Can’t Write.”  So, what does that tell you?

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