Bad Writing, Bad Future?

I was recently reading an article on New Dorp public high school on Staten Island. New Dorp had, until recently, a low graduation rate that was among the bottom 2,000 across the United States. (If you’re wondering, there were 98,817 public schools in the US in 2009-10, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 65,840 being secondary. So New Dorp was in the bottom 2% across all schools and bottom 3% of secondary.) New Dorp’s primary intake is from poor and working-class families and, in 2006, 82% of the freshmen entered the school with a reading level lower than the required grade.

However, it was bad writing that was ultimately identified as the main obstacle to success: students couldn’t turn their thoughts into readable essays. Because this appeared to be the primary difference between successful and unsuccessful students, Deirdre DeAngelis (the principal) and the faculty decided that writing would become a focus. If nothing else, New Dorp’s students would learn to write well.

And, apparently, it has paid off. Pass rates are up, repeating rates have dropped, scores are higher than any previous class. Pre-college enrolments are up but, interestingly, the demographic makeup has remained the same and graduations rates have leapt from 63% to a projected 80% this Spring. (Yes, I know, projected data. I’ll try to check this again after it’s happened.)

The article, which I encourage you to read, goes on to discuss why this change of focus was so important. There was resistance – the usual response of “We’re doing our job, but the students aren’t smart enough (or are too lazy)” from certain groups of educators. Yet, students responded with increased participation and high attendance, rewarding efforts and silencing critics. What was interesting is that analysis of why students couldn’t write indicated that most could decipher the underlying texts and could comprehend sentences but had major deficiencies in the use of key parts of speech. Simple speeches were fine but compound sentences and sentences with dependent clauses were hard to decipher and very difficult to write. How can you use ‘although’ correctly when you don’t know what it means?

As understanding of speech grew, so did reading comprehension. Classroom discussion encouraged students to listen, think and speak more precisely, giving them something to repeat in their writing.

It’s an interesting article and I’m re-reading it at the moment to see exactly what I can extract for my own students and where I have to read to verify and expand upon the ideas. From a personal perspective, however, I think of one of the best reminders of what it is like to be a student who is confused or intimidated by writing.

I go to Hong Kong.

If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you’ll know that there is a vast amount of signage, some in Chinese characters and some in English, but there is really far more Chinese neon and it is all over the landscape. I can read some Chinese (duck, soup, daily yum cha, restaurant, men, exit – you get the gist) and I understand some Chinese so I can get a feeling for some of what is happening. But I have no grasp of any subtlety. I cannot create a sentence or write a character reliably. I am a very good communicator in my own language but in Chinese I sound ridiculous. I scrawl characters that good natured colleagues interpret very generously but it is the scribbling of a child.

In Hong Kong, unless I am speaking English, I appear illiterate. It is easy to say “Well, don’t feel bad, why would you have learned Cantonese in Australia” but let’s remember that when looking at the students of New Dorp. Why would anyone have encouraged them in creative writing, written expression and the development of sophisticated literary argument when a large percentage of their parents have English as a second language, effectively reduced access to schooling and, most likely, a very tight time budget to spend with their children due to overwork and job crowding?

A student who can’t write effectively, if we haven’t actually really tried to teach them how to write, is no more stupid or lazy than I am when I don’t try to learn all of Cantonese before going to Hong Kong. We have both been denied an opportunity. I am lucky in that I can choose when I go to Hong Kong. A student who can’t write has a much harder road because their future will be brighter and better if they can write, as evidenced by the increased success rates at New Dorp.

I look forward to seeing what New Dorp gets up to in the future and I take my hat off to them for this approach.


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