Encouraging Schools to Embrace Writing to Learn

Sponsored by the National Writing Project and written by journalist and teacher Carl Nagin, Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools examines the teaching of writing in the U.S. and give examples of effective programs and practices.

This book was written primarily for administrators and policymakers; most of the suggestions here are beyond my pay grade to implement.

For example – on page 104, in the next to the last paragraph of the book – Nagin writes “Meeting the writing challenge requires a paradigm shift from the limited view of writing as a discrete subject area or the exclusive domain of English language arts instruction.”  He argues for writing to be a method of learning in every subject – what used to be called “writing across the curriculum” or “writing in the disciplines.”

According to my google it research,  writing across the curriculum (WAC) has primarily been applied at the university level in the U.S.    I’ve heard of it – but never worked in a high school where it was systematically implemented.  Individual teachers certainly use the “writing in the disciplines” idea effectively.  As a whole school approach, my observation is that it comes and goes, seen more as a pedagogical fad than an long-term effective strategy.

To make his case Nagin quotes a 2003 publication of the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges called The Neglected “R” :The Need for a Writing Revolution at length : “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with details, wrestle with facts, and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else. In short, if students are to learn, they must write” (104).

I agree – writing in every class.  Writing to think, writing to learn.  More than an interesting idea, it is one I use extensively in my classes.  Implementing it across an entire school or school system, however, would be hard to do well.  Writing instruction is messy, student efforts are messy and reading those efforts takes time and discernment – not what a lot of teachers signed up for.  Which is why it’s rarely done, I suspect.  And, as I said before, making this change is above my pay grade.  Honestly, I’m less interested in system-wide fixes and more interested in ideas for providing more effective writing instruction in my classroom.

Buried within this wonkish book are gems for my understanding of how to teach students to write better.   One idea I’m mulling over is how reading and writing are connected literacy processes.   But that’s for a future blog post.

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