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Writing across the Curriculum

Freshman year of high school was terrifying.  People seem incredulous when I tell them that, of all the years of schooling I have had, that year was the hardest.  After all, it was high school.  What could be so tough about that?

As my Grandmom used to say with a huge sigh, “Well…!”

The first problem was that I was not prepared for the workload.  Coming from a public middle school into this rigorous public high school that wanted to weed out those who weren’t able to handle the curriculum, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of work they made us do.  By the time I turned fourteen in October, I thought I was going to lose my mind.  It didn’t help that our school President, Dr. Pavel, said to us during orientation, “Look to your left and to your right.  One of these people, or more, will probably return to their home school at the end of this school year.”  Yikes.

The second problem was that I was expected to do things I had never done before, like write papers and essays.  In elementary and middle school, we did not do much writing.  I think we did book reports in fifth grade, but I could be mistaken.  It wasn’t that I was a bad writer.  I actually enjoyed writing for my own purposes, but did not have the tools I needed to create the papers and essays the teachers wanted.  In other words, I didn’t know how to meet their expectations.  That was scary.

Enter Dr. Kreider, my World History teacher.  She is still my academic hero; I haven’t met a teacher like her since.  The best gift she could have given us hurt like hell: The chance to practice writing.  Many of us almost wrote our hand off.

OK, not really.  But it really did hurt.

Dr. Kreider did three things for us, actually.  First, she managed every student a copy of the New York Times every school day.  Second, she made us keep journals in which we reacted to topics covered in class and NYT articles.  Third, she responded to everyone’s journals over the weekend, and not just with a “Nice job!” either.  Oh, no.  We would get paragraphs back.   If we almost wrote our hand off, she must have thought she should, too.  I do not know how she did it, but I do know that she loved her kids.  She loved them enough to embrace writing across the curriculum with gusto.   Dr. Kreider actually did research in the area, I would learn later, and delivered papers about the positive effects of students learning to read and write in all content-area classes.

Fast-forward 30 years to my son’s freshman English class.  His teacher listened to the students, slack-jawed, as they told her that none of them knew how to write an essay.  Admittedly, this is her first year teaching freshmen in a long time, so perhaps she simply lost perspective.  In my opinion, however, it just shows that some things never change, but they need to quickly.

Rewind 26 years to English Composition class.  Typically, we would write an essay, peer review our classmates’ essays, and then create a final version for the teacher.  I remember being appalled by the writing I reviewed.  My red pen dashed across the page until I think there was as much red on the page as blue or black.  Some classmates appreciated the help.

Others, I was informed one day while riding the 66 bus home with my friend Susanne, were terrified to give me their papers to review.  I asked why.

“Because you are so mean, Heather,” she replied, quietly.

“I’m just trying to help!” I responded, indignant.

“Perhaps you could try helping with a different color ink and less sarcasm,” she said, emboldened by being right.

I sulked, as I usually did when I was wrong about something.  The next day I went to the college store, purchased a green pen, and resolved to restrain myself.

Situations like these are why the creators of the Common Core State Standards focus on literacy and writing – in other words, on communication in all its forms.  The fact is that many students need more opportunities to write their hands off (and yes, I’m an advocate of writing on paper before writing electronically).  They need to write in each content area class, not just English.  Social Studies teachers – like Dr. Kreider – have excellent opportunities to have their students write informatively, persuasively, and creatively.  Science teachers can enforce good communication skills, as well as proper grammar and style, in lab reports, responses to essay questions, etc.  Even math teachers can post intriguing problems and require a constructed response (Aside: Where did that term come from?  I’m not crazy about it.).  My son’s math teacher has done that, using a discussion board online to help the students think through Algebra II problems using critical thinking and standard English.  Technology teachers can incorporate writing skills into their projects.  PE and Health teachers can ask students to produce works that show critical thinking.  Vo-tech teachers can ask students to write about their projects and what they have learned from doing them. Any teacher can incorporate critical thinking and effective communication skills into their curriculum.

Again, why are the creators of the Common Core State Standards so keen on ensuring that communication skills are practiced across the content areas?  I am sighing now as I write, “Well…!”  Here is a another reason.

The students’ inability to communicate effectively, both when writing and when speaking, continue when they enter adulthood and the workforce, unless they are given the chance to overcome these challenges in school.  The potential for knowledge sharing is greatly diminished when a person cannot get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper, the screen, or during a meeting.  Opportunities for innovation are lost, as well as opportunities for employees to advance in their careers.

As teachers in a corporate setting, we find this inability to be most problematic when working with the SME, the subject matter expert. Often, SMEs have difficulty explaining what they do.  They express frustration, often punctuating it with, “That’s just the way it’s done!  Watch me.”  Being unfamiliar with a technique, we can watch all we want, but we will not be able to reproduce their efforts without spending more time than we have to spare trying and failing, or researching.  We cannot ask the SME to teach others, since they cannot teach us.  If we do, we just waste everyone’s time.  That invaluable knowledge remains stuck  inside the SME’s head.  No one else can benefit from it.  We educators feel that is a terrible loss.

Great communicators are not born, contrary to popular opinion.  They learn their art the same way that we all learn something that intrigues us, by watching, listening, and trying.  As Vygotsky said, all learning is social, and it is within the community that we progress from a state of not knowing to mastering something under the tutelage of one or more more knowledgeable others.  It is important that we learn from those who can explain.

I have heard time and again: “I’m just not a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  What they mean is, “I don’t have the talent to be a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  Talent is irrelevant.  Communicators such as  Hemingway, Jobs, Socrates, Shakespeare, and Twain made it look easy, natural.  In fact, they practiced.  Their first efforts were, most likely, awful, not awesome, and what I mean by “first effort” is each and every time they chose to create something new by rearranging the letters of their alphabet.  I’m sure that even Socrates had to practice on someone, perhaps Plato.  Ask any of my writer friends and they will tell you that they have “killed trees” trying to get their message “right.”  What makes the great communicators different from the rest of us is commitment, perseverance, and grit.  Somewhere along the line there was their Dr. Kreider there to push them, even if only in their minds.

I applaud any teacher who embraces “Writing across the Curriculum.”  For those who aren’t English teachers, it seems like a daunting addition to their curriculum, although it does not have to be.  There are plenty of resources on the web that will help these teachers figure out where it makes sense to include a writing or speaking component into their current plans.  Explore the NCTE and ASCD websites for more information.

Happy New Year!

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