An article on writing instruction in The Atlantic is among the must-reads of the week. In a nutshell, the piece reports that a lousy high school on Staten Island has found success improving students’ writing by actually teaching writing—that is, the fundamentals of sentence construction, the use of coordinating conjunctions to identify logical connections, and the coherent organization of paragraphs.
As Alan Jacobs observes across the page, this should come as little surprise to people who were educated before the 1960s. But it was a shock to the teachers at New Dorp High School, who initially believed that their students were too dumb to write well. Many now speak enthusiastically of the program. There’s actually fodder here for both sides of the recent strike in Chicago. On the one hand, teachers had to be placed under considerable pressure to implement reforms they distrusted. On the other hand, those reforms were not based on high stakes testing.
As an occasional teacher of expository writing at the college level, I am delighted by the favorable attention paid here to an unglamorous job. Although great writing can’t be taught, competent writing can. And in my experience, most students are eager to learn.
But there’s an obstacle to learning to write that the Atlantic piece doesn’t bring up: few students have much experience as readers of expository texts. English classes generally emphasize fiction and drama (the New Dorp students are reading Death of a Salesman). Social studies classes rely on insipid textbooks. Asking students who have only these models to develop analytic arguments is something like asking rugby players to take up American football. They could be taught the rules. But they’d have trouble mastering a game they’d never seen played.
In addition to rigorous instruction then, students need examples of effective prose. To get them, they should be required to read good narrative history, traditional literary criticism, and, at least in my dreams, great political speeches.
What to assign? I’m curious to know what readers think. If you could require high school students to read just one text, what would it be? Think speeches, essays, or chapters of books. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably too much to ask.