At the Family Association meeting presentation Tuesday about our English curriculum, we enjoyed a spirited discussion about the vital importance of writing instruction. We all agreed on the importance of developing strong skills in formal written expression: a mastery of technical competency in grammar, spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, and the common forms of expository and persuasive writing.
At St. Gregory we regularly check in with our graduates, and we are always gratified that they report with frequency that they are finding themselves very successful as writers in college and beyond, and that they find themselves far better prepared than most of their peers from other schools. One current example: Adam Gonzales, who is currently a freshman in university, is already writing for the University’s athletics website. We feel very confident that our students who are the product of our seven year (6-12), or four year (9-12) program, emerge with terrific confidence in their written expression, comfortable in their expressive fluency, and highly proficient in their technical command of the written form.
At the end of the Family Association discussion, I offered a peroration to the discussion, summing up what I as Head of School believe to be our school’s educational values, goals and philosophy about the development of fine writers. Afterwards, I was asked by many if I would write up my comments and share them more widely. What follows is a slightly expanded, modified version of my spoken remarks.
It is important to remember that there are two, twin goals for any educational program of writing preparation, and they live in a dynamic tension which can, sometimes, in the short run, function as a zero-sum tension, such that overly emphasizing one, particularly in ways developmentally inappropriate, can result in the diminution of the other.
Our twin goals are both mastery of technical formalism in the written form and fluency, a confident written expressiveness that conveys one’s unique, individual voice. I could add to the latter not just confidence but a genuine enjoyment, even passion, for written expression.
Just as we rightly worry, even fear, that far too many secondary school graduates lack formal written proficiency, let’s not forget what should be a second source of great anxiety: many students emerge from middle and secondary school greatly lacking confidence and originality of voice, and indeed, many emerge simply hating to write.
If we overly emphasize to students during their middle school years the absolute importance of technical accuracy; if we hammer away at grammar and rigid essay form; if we cover up student writing in red ink; if we feel the need as pedagogues to mark every technical mistake students make; if we tell students (or allow them to infer!) that the most important goal for their writing is that they make no formal mistakes; if we insist they follow a formula, then we may very well be discouraging their efforts to find their voice, deterring their desire to experiment in written form, dampening their pleasure in the writing experience and diminishing their lasting affection for the craft.
Now, we most certainly do need to help students develop good form, and to do as an appropriate accompaniment as their expressiveness and fluency develop, and especially after their confidence in well founded in the upper grades. We do this, inside and outside of the English department curriculum, in many ways.
One element is our emphasis on learning other languages; St. Gregory requires every student to take a second language, usually Spanish beginning in 6th grade, and then in 7th grade we require students take a third language: at least one year, and many go on for more, of Latin. Learning other languages, and especially Latin, is a magnificent way to learn more about the formal structure of the English language. In the middle school we administer MAP testing three times a year, which assesses students’ developing grammatical and writing understanding, and gives teachers reports to better enable them to intervene and differentiate. In History and Science, students are regularly assigned very discrete, very structured writing assignments, and those teachers guide students carefully through organizing their writing for the very particular requirements of those projects, such that students come to better understand the importance of formatting a particular piece of writing to its particular function.
In English, of course, as and when appropriate, and without dampening enthusiasm, fluency, or voice, students are taught, guided, and held accountable for developing fine form and structure. In English 8, as Mr. Mann explained in the presentation, the Benchmarks of 8th grade include critical thinking skills, thesis-driven analysis/persuasive argumentation, the use of evidence, accuracy, clarity, and demonstrating insight.
It is easy to envision another school’s approach, which focuses very narrowly on formal, technical writing skills, and whose students might, at certain early and midway stations along the sixth through twelfth grade journey, develop and display stronger technical skills. But what we believe at St. Gregory is that the learning momentum of those students will slow, sadly and surely, if their voice, expressiveness, fluency, and joy is dampened and depressed, and that as our students emerge upwards into 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, full of steam, and as we guide their writing in our small classes and with our high standards towards ever and ever greater form, fluency, and voice, they achieve and accomplish at graduation a very high summit of written expression and a lasting love of the craft.
We proudly graduate confident, competent writers: our current graduating class has a median SAT writing performance of 617, at the 86th percentile of performance nationally; in a recent administration of the CWRA, our seniors performed at the 97th percentile of a cross section of college freshman in an assessment of their writing effectiveness and critical thinking skills. As we continue to carry forward our tradition, and reflect and review our program in our ongoing efforts to ensure its excellence, innovation, and forward development, we will do in a way which ensures we honor, perpetuate, and strengthen our commitment to these twin goals, formal mastery and expressive fluency.
Note: 0ne resource, replete with academic research supporting this approach, which has been extremely influential to myself and many English teachers over the past decade, is Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents.