On a bright July morning in a windowless conference room in a Manhattan bookstore, several dozen elementary school teachers were learning how to create worksheets that would help children learn to write. Hochman, founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, displayed examples of student work.
A first grader had produced the following phrase: “Plants need water it need sun to” — that is, plants need water and sun, too.
She was planning to apply to New York University, Columbia and Stony Brook University and already had an idea of the story she would tell in her Common Application essay. Wanzer encounters juniors and seniors whose essays are filled with incomplete sentences — not an uncommon occurrence — she limits the time she spends covering dull topics like subject-verb agreement.
It would have something to do, she thought, with her family’s emigration from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. “You hope that by exposing them to great writing, they’ll start to hear what’s going on.”•Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.
But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”There is virulent debate about what approach is best.
So-called process writing, like the lesson Lyse experienced in Long Island, emphasizes activities like brainstorming, freewriting, journaling about one’s personal experiences and peer-to-peer revision.“We need massive teacher education.”One of the largest efforts is the National Writing Project, whose nearly 200 branches train more than 100,000 teachers each summer.The organization was founded in 1974, at the height of the process-oriented era.“You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind,” the memoirist writes.“Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”Ms.Wanzer then asked the students to spend a few minutes writing anything they liked in response to the Lamott excerpt.Lyse Armand, a rising senior at Westbury High School, leaned over her notebook.The poem, which is funny and sad, addresses the futility of trying to repay one’s mother for her love: Most of the teachers’ responses pivoted quickly from praising the poem to memories of their own mothers, working several jobs to make ends meet, or selflessly caring for grandchildren.It wasn’t sophisticated literary criticism, but that wasn’t the point.A major goal of this workshop — the teacher-training component of the Long Island Writing Project — was to get teachers writing and revising their own work over the summer so that in the fall they would be more enthusiastic and comfortable teaching the subject to children.“I went to Catholic school and we did grammar workbooks and circled the subject and predicate,” said Kathleen Sokolowski, the Long Island program’s co-director and a third-grade teacher.She found it stultifying and believes she developed her writing skill in spite of such lessons, not because of them.