The Power of Writing Begins with a Single Sentence

February 21, 2018

Late one Saturday night in March, a former student found me watching basketball at a bar.

Despite passing my class by the skin of his teeth nine years ago he was thrilled to buy me a drink. We talked about his old teachers and the new principal. He told me about his family, the cars he fixes and his amateur boxing record, then he rejoined his friends and took off for another adventure. It was just one beer, but it made my weekend.

Our conversation made me think about the current state of writing instruction. Nine years ago I was a wide-eyed high school English teacher hellbent on making students punctuate quotes, spell out ordinal numbers and write something that matters to an audience larger than their own teacher. He was the class clown, more interested in football and impressing girls than a passing grade.

But then he read an article in the newspaper about a new health clinic opening near his house and how it symbolized the neighborhood’s turnaround, and everything changed.

“They don’t get it,” he said. “No health clinic’s gonna help me sleep by myself.”

I didn’t understand what he meant, but he didn’t elaborate. It made him “too mad to talk,” he said, so I encouraged him to write about it.

Three weeks and nine revisions later, his letter to the editor ran in the paper. He wrote about the gunshots in his neighborhood. His sister would hear them every night, get scared and climb into his bed. He explained that, while the health clinic is nice, the newspaper shouldn’t say it’s “turned around” his neighborhood until he can sleep all night by himself.

He earned an A for his work, gave copies of the paper to his coaches and read it out loud to his classmates, who “didn’t know he could sound so smart.”

It was 2009, and schools were administering numerous high stakes tests in accordance with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). I was preparing ninth and tenth-graders for the state writing test – a timed expository essay that two contracted, independent readers scored for both content and conventions. For three weeks we ignored his other assignments and focused solely on that letter. When the semester ended he hadn’t become proficient (a key component in NCLB’s accountability model) in all six of North Carolina’s competency goals, and it put him at risk of failing the test.

Still, that letter to the editor felt like a big win. We’d found a topic he felt strongly about, worked through multiple drafts and published when it was ready. He demonstrated mastery in two competency goals: expressing reflections to text and personal experiences and developing informed opinions. Most importantly, one of my weakest writers accomplished something he didn’t think was possible, and it made me believe others could, too.

Then, in 2010, my state adopted President Obama’s Common Core State Standards, a new set of shared goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need. With an eye on increasing rigor and building more nonfiction into the curriculum, policymakers replaced the six Bush-era competency goals with 20 standards for reading and ten for writing. They also began measuring student growth in addition to proficiency but eliminated the writing test, opting instead for short written responses that measure reading comprehension but none of the writing standards.

School districts implemented a variety of strategies to adapt, such as targeted vocabulary instruction across all content areas, remedial classes for struggling readers and reduced class sizes in traditional English courses. These changes helped build students’ literacy, but reduced our capacity for writing instruction.

The new testing model brought great relief to many teachers and students, but also difficult decisions. I still made my students write every day but, since the test didn’t cover the standards and there would be no consequence if they didn’t become proficient, I made sure their reading skills grew first and took whatever writing growth I could get with the time we had left. When tests measure some skills but not others and teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance, lesson plans follow suit. Prioritizing parts of the curriculum that aren’t tested, like writing, became a luxury that I couldn’t afford.

Next year states will begin implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. English teachers in NC will adopt 20 revised reading and 6 streamlined writing standards. Schools will continue to administer numerous state tests, and while assessment models have yet to be determined, my state’s plan outlines goals for student growth and proficiency in reading and math but little in the way of high school writing.

Studies show reading and writing instruction can work in unison, even complement one another. Thanks to technology and social media, students are writing more and differently today than ever before. And while more rigor, non-fiction and literacy-building are worthy goals, they don’t help me build relationships with my students and their families the way publishing their letters did, and I worry about the long-term consequences of inadvertently putting writing instruction on the back burner.

I’m making writing instruction my priority in 2018. Educators in all content areas, but especially language arts, need a better opportunity to prepare their students to write effectively in college and the workplace. It requires time, frequent feedback and a different pace for each learner. For some, it’s a couple revisions and a matter of days. For others, it begins with a single sentence and grows for several weeks. Regardless, if it enhances their ability to communicate and facilitates a relationship that lasts many years beyond their time in school it’s worth it. Even if it means teaching less of everything else.

Bryan Christopher, NBCT

Bryan Christopher teaches English and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham, NC. He is also a Hope Street Teacher Voice fellow and policy analyst for the National Council of Teachers of English.