Every Friday, Chicago-based writer and editor Evan Peterson offers five stories from across the Web that scribes of all stripes should check out. It’s the Week in Writing:
This week, The Atlantic
published a series of stories this week called "Why American Students Can't Write
." I haven't read the whole series yet, but the following two stories from that series pose some interesting ideas the ways writing is taught in American schools.
The series is rooted in a story about how a New York high school successfully steered students away from creative writing, and has seen remarkable improvement in academic performance since. Writers typically like to pass on the formal or informal writing education that brought them to where they are, so this is a series you'll likely want to follow. It will be updated with new pieces through mid-October.
The writing revolution:
In 2008, New Dorp High School in Staten Island was under threat of closure before implementing a new focus on writing for all students. After years of writing nothing but personal essays, memoirs, and fiction, students were challenged to instead compose analytical essays with correct grammar in nearly every class. The story states that by fall 2009, "Nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject.” Since then, graduation rates at the school have shot up, and scores on the standard state English exam for students at the school have increased 22 percent.
Just as interesting as the story of the school and its program is some of the data presented in the piece: In 2007, only 1 percent of all 12th graders could write a sophisticated, organized essay. Another study showed that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades 4-12 write poorly. And over the next two years, 46 states will begin using Common Core State Standards in which elementary-school students will be required to write persuasive essays, and high schoolers will be expected to produce thoughtful essays on any area of study.
Writing for different subjects:
Arthur Applebee, a professor at SUNY-Albany, writes that too often schools teach English and literature without understanding that writing for science requires a completely different idea and set of skills. This goes to something all writers know, and the idea makes perfect sense. Yes, some people have a knack for prose and language. But to begin writing about any topic, you need to know at least a little bit about it first. Read the post here
Two other posts worth a read this week:
The value of blog criticism:
The chair of the Man Booker prize, the U.K.'s equivalent of the Pulitzer for fiction, said this week that book blogs are "to the detriment of literature" and their inevitable praise for bad books will overwhelm good ones. John Self of The Guardian
offers a strong rebuttal in this piece, arguing that bloggers' perceived weaknesses can be their strengths: They have to earn an audience, and they are not influenced by time or editors. His point rings true for bloggers of all stripes, not just book reviewers. “What blogs can give readers is a sense of trust that, in professional circles, only the biggest lit-crit names,” he writes. Read the post here
Is it all grammar?
Or more specifically, is grammar simply "the rules of syntax and morphology that define the language?" as Jonathon Owen writes on his grammar blog, Arrant Pedantry. In this post, he's tackling the touchy subject (to grammar nerds) of referring to things such as spelling, punctuation, and word choice as “grammar.” Most people unconcerned with the subject will use grammar as a catchall, but should we let this slide? It's the question that pervades a lot of the discussion about definitions. If everyone calls something a certain name, is that now its name? Owen provides an excellent examination, and before arriving at a conclusion, reminds us, “Grammar isn’t just a set of rules telling you what not to do; it’s also a fascinatingly complex and mostly subconscious system that governs the singular human gift of language.” What do you think the word “grammar” covers?
Evan Peterson is a writer based in Chicago, and the editor of OpenMarkets magazine at CME Group. He's on Twitter at @evanmpeterson.