Tell your neighbors to do the “write” thing

It has been suggested that, shortly after its inception, the Académie Française engaged in social engineering as it codified the rules of French grammar.

Some contend that the institution of complicated agreement patterns constituted a concerted effort by elitists to insure that members of the lower classes would never master the subtleties of the written language thereby denying the poor an opportunity to improve their station and securing privileges for the rich and powerful who, coincidentally, had a nearly monopolistic hold on access to schooling.

Centuries ago arcane grammatical inventions served to stratify society and maintain the economic status quo. Today, similar ends are achieved by inequitable school funding that assures the perpetuation of a privileged class maintained by educational advantages over the competition.

The strategy has evolved in the 21st Century. Remember “The Golden Rule”?  Those with the gold always make rules that favor those with the gold.

No school system willingly increases class size or pretends that it is beneficial to children. Overcrowding is reserved for jurisdictions that are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to foot the bill for educating all children. Children suffer the consequences of such parsimony as they depart school ill prepared to compete at the next level.

In very general terms my students, even those who could read fairly well, exhibited deplorable writing skills. Penmanship seemed a forgotten art and legibility remained an elusive goal for too many. Mastery of capitalization, punctuation and accurate spelling eluded an absolutely horrifying percentage of my students. The “fine” points of thesis statement, topic sentences and writing objectively in the third-person baffled all save a few of the strongest.

What was a high school foreign language teacher to do when, in a class of thirty students, not one child could name the parts-of-speech or the parts-of-a-sentence? How are students to comprehend the complexities of grammar in a second language if they do not grasp even the rudiments of the ambient tongue? The committed educator is, therefore, obliged to remediate students and often at the expense of what might be deemed the “essential” curriculum of the target language. Consequently, these students still end up in arrears academically despite having advanced somewhat on the road to competence.

When will our community demonstrate the will to confront this crisis and deal with it in a meaningful way? What can be done to prevent our children from joining the half of the freshman class that drops out in the first year of college? Why do our students, many of whom exhibit high intelligence and academic potential, lack foundational skills to such a degree that future collegiate success is already in jeopardy?

How has it come to this? Blame it on what you will…

Blame it on insufficient intellectual stimulation during early childhood. Blame it on the conditions that prevail in classrooms dominated by the economically disadvantaged. Blame it on bland basal readers and a dearth of materials to enrich the curriculum during the elementary school years. Blame it on spending an entire academic career in overcrowded classrooms staffed by a largely itinerant workforce.

Blame this culturally induced dysgrafia on what you will. Casting blame is easy; funding the solutions is the hard part.

Why do our students write so poorly? That is addressed by a simple axiom: As the number of students in a class approaches infinity, so the number of writing assignments approaches zero.

The addition of merely a few students to each class adds exponentially to the time spent correcting papers. The grading of sixty – or more – daily quizzes represents easily a total of three hours of grading, logging and data entry each and every day. That, however, is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Because writing is a “process” and not an “event“, teaching students to write well is time consuming.

First, students produce a draft. Then, teachers read the assignment and offer suggestions for improvement. Next, students revise and resubmit the document for re-evaluation.

Ideally, the teacher and the student should repeat this procedure really until both agree on the “final” product (although few writings can ever be considered edit neutral). Consequently, appropriate, meaningful and timely feedback on longer essays often demands hours for each assignment.

Excellent writers are notorious for obsessive revisions to text. In the notebooks of Gustave Flaubert, there are over 300 versions of one sentence from the scene at the ball in Madame Bovary. As soon as Montaigne received new editions of his Essais, he would begin adding revisions in the margins for the next edition leading one of his biographers to the title “Words in the Corner” for the book describing his process. 

What do you think really happens when teachers have a caseload of 180-220 students?

Regrettably, the amount of individualized attention that a child receives from a caring teacher remains directly proportional to the mean wealth of all the families that attend a particular school. Schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students typically have the most overcrowded classes and the most overworked teachers. Therefore, the teaching of writing likely suffers more than any other discipline in such schools.

Teachers do not love multiple-choice assessments; most would prefer to assess student learning through writing. The logistics, however, render that impossible. Bubble sheets simply allow a teacher to grade 180 papers, compute grades and turn in results within a stipulated 48 hours.

Unfortunately, college professors and future employers will no longer evaluate students by their ability to identify the correct answer from a list of four possibilities. They will pose pointed questions and anticipate cogent and expansive answers that demonstrate precision of expression and clarity of thought. No pity for the unprepared will be forthcoming.

So, when neighbors ask why they should invest more money in our schools to lower class size, tell them the truth. It is simply the “write” thing to do.

 

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on January 17, 2003. ]

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