Thursday, September 20, 2012

Want to sharpen students analytical abilities? Have them do lots of writing.

This article in the Atlantic Magazine, The Writing Revolution, details how struggling high school students at a poorly performing Staten Island, N.Y. school achieved remarkable success through a curriculum that emphasized lots of analytical writing.  It certainly supports the argument for writing across the law school curriculum and is a rebuff to those who claim multiple choice exams are pedagogically comparable to traditional essay exams for imparting the analytical skills needed to be a lawyer.  I've heard that many law students are now able to take several courses without ever being asked to write a single sentence (a phenomenon that's more pervasive at the undergrad level).  In a profession that values good analytical and communication skills above all else, we have to ask whether we are creating nearly enough opportunities in the curriculum for law students to hone their writing skills.  Given how time consuming it is to grade students papers and the emphasis on scholarly production over teaching, this isn't going to change anytime soon notwithstanding complaints from the bench and bar that too many law grads can't think, write or organize their thoughts effectively.

For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs. So, faced with closure, the school’s principal went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class. What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform.

. . . .

T]he school’s principal, Deirdre DeAngelis, began a detailed investigation into why, ultimately, New Dorp’s students were failing. By 2008, she and her faculty had come to a singular answer: bad writing. Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects. Consistently, one of the largest differences between failing and successful students was that only the latter could express their thoughts on the page. If nothing else, DeAngelis and her teachers decided, beginning in the fall of 2009, New Dorp students would learn to write well. “When they told me about the writing program,” Monica says, “well, I was skeptical.” With disarming candor, sharp-edged humor, and a shy smile, Monica occupies the middle ground between child and adult—she can be both naive and knowing. “On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had a choice. I go to high school. I figured I’d give it a try.”

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.

Continue reading here.


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