THOUGH I CRITICIZE THE AMERICAN BUSINESS MODEL REMORSELESSLY—AND NOT ENOUGH IN MY OPINION—I HAVE GREAT AFFECTION FOR AMERICA AND AMERICANS.
ACCORDINGLY, WHEN I READ HEADLINES LIKE THIS:
“Why Americans can’t write”
I flinch! I’m distressed. This isn’t right.
I also have a vested interest. I am a writer. Writing is my passion, my pleasure, and my purpose. I believe it is an extraordinarily powerful discipline—for a whole host of reasons—starting with the fact that writing may well be the greatest cognitive aid going.
It is rocket fuel for the brain—though lasts longer, and is (mostly) pollution free. It is Viagra for the drooping intellect—but its effects endure.
It promotes insight and clear thinking. You can’t write if you don’t observe. You can’t understand human nature if you don’t empathize. You can’t write clearly if you can’t think clearly.
Write for years, and you cannot but improve your cognitive skills (unless you are trading solely on technique—which is a whole other subject).
And yes, of course writing can be used to advance bad causes—but just about every resource can—and will be—misused. We humans are a decidedly flawed species. But, we are also capable of true works of genius.
Learning to write is as difficult and time-consuming as it is, because thinking clearly—as most of us know—does not come naturally. The development of ‘clarity of mind’—such a simple phrase—is not an easy process.
Even if we are genetically gifted, the ability to think clearly requires fostering though education, reading, travel, confusion, failure, inter-personal relationships (I’m repeating myself), endless adventures and experiences and—above all—time.
Time is the only currency of value.
In all too many cases, it doesn’t come at all. It could—but our culture has scant idea of how to develop it. Our educational systems stress conformity, not creativity. In fact, despite much protest to the contrary, society in general is deeply suspicious of the original thinker.
Most of us wing it on bluff, prejudice, precedent, and by dodging the difficult (or being distracted from it). We adopt a persona—banker, accountant, nurse,grave-digger, prison-warden—and, protected by our chosen carapace, construct a comfort zone to match.
But, dealing with the difficult is what we are here to do.
I say that, not because I have had a direct message from firstname.lastname@example.org (he also has Gmail, of course) on this particular subject—but as a theory based upon observation.
Humans are endlessly capable of constructing the difficult from the simple so there has to be a reason for all this (or does there?). Or are we here solely for the entertainment of some higher species?
I’m damned if I know the what or the why. I guess the process is character-forming. And then, just when we are finally beginning to know how to deal with life—or so we delude ourselves—we die.
Perhaps ‘Life’ is a kind of boot camp for something else.
All I can say is that, in my case, I hope it involves writing. Heaven, as far as I am concerned, has come early—and it does.
Why Americans can’t write
By Natalie Wexler September 24
Natalie Wexler chairs the board of trustees for the Writing Revolution.
It’s no secret that many Americans are lousy writers. Just ask any college professor or employer, including those at prestigious institutions. With the advent of e-mail, writing ability has become more important than ever, and writing deficiencies have become increasingly apparent.
Surely one reason so many Americans lack writing skills is that, for decades, most U.S. schools haven’t taught them. In 2011, a nationwide test found that only 24 percent of students in eighth and 12th grades were proficient in writing, and just 3 percent were advanced.
If students get writing assignments at all, they’re usually of the “write about how you feel” variety. There’s value to that kind of exercise, but it doesn’t provide kids with the tools they need to write analytically.
The Common Core education standards, adopted by more than 40 states and the District, attempt to address this deficit. They require that students learn to write fluently about the meaning of what they’re learning — not just in English class, but also in history, science and maybe even math class.
That makes sense: When students put what they’ve read into their own words, they’re more likely to absorb and retain it. And learning to write clearly requires learning to think clearly.
But the authors of the Common Core focused just on the skills that students should have at each grade level, not on how to impart them. And few teachers have been trained to teach these writing skills, apparently because educators believe that students will just pick them up through reading. Obviously, most don’t.
The standards also assume students in middle and high school already know the rules of capitalization, punctuation and sentence construction. But that’s often not the case, especially in high-poverty environments.
Faced with high school seniors who can’t compose a simple sentence, teachers may throw up their hands when confronted with an English language arts standard saying their students should “use appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts.”
You have to learn to add before you can do calculus. Similarly, before students can write a coherent five-paragraph essay, they need to learn to write a decent sentence — no matter what grade they’re in.
That doesn’t mean teachers should drill students on grammar rules, an approach that research has shown doesn’t actually work. Instead, they can ask students to decide whether a group of words is a sentence or a fragment — not an easy distinction for many to grasp.
Once students understand the concept of a sentence, they can learn to use conjunctions such as “but” and “because.” Then they can create complex sentences — including those beginning with subordinating conjunctions such as “although” or “despite” — to introduce variety into their writing. Generally, students need to learn how people write as opposed to how they speak.
When students have a basic grasp of sentences, then — and only then — should they move on to planning and drafting paragraphs. Once they can write paragraphs, they can tackle essays.
The Common Core’s failure to acknowledge that many older students lack basic writing skills can have counterproductive results. For example, the Education Trust recently studied more than 1,200 middle school writing assignments to see whether they aligned with the Common Core and faulted them in part because they didn’t require students to write at length.
“In grades six to eight, we must see extended writing — multiple cohesive paragraphs that clearly reflect strong organization and style,” the report’s authors lamented.
But if middle and high school students are writing poorly constructed sentences, they’ll almost certainly end up writing poorly constructed essays. And while the Common Core demands that students engage in critical thinking, sentence-length assignments can fulfill that mandate as well as longer ones.
For example, a teacher can give students the beginning of a sentence based on a text and ask them to finish it using the conjunction “but,” requiring them to examine the text closely enough to find two contrasting ideas. That gives the teacher a manageable opportunity not only to correct writing mistakes, but also to uncover what students haven’t understood. A teacher confronted with an essay full of mechanical and conceptual errors may not know where to begin in correcting the essay.
It’s understandable that educators and policymakers feel a sense of urgency about getting students to write at length in the upper grades. But if we keep expecting students who can’t construct decent sentences to magically produce coherent essays, we’ll remain a nation of lousy writers forever.
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