Friday, August 12, 2016

AV#105 - Teaching our students to write: Why I believe we’re headed in the wrong direction

Dec. 3, 2013

Colorado’s writing standards and high school expectations frown on students finding their voice

You might say I write like a teenager because I use the first person and can’t get away from writing about myself even when the topic doesn’t call for such egocentric intrusions. You may be right.

Does voice matter in good writing?
Literacy.W.9-10.1d - “Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.”
--From the Common Core State Standards, which—in the pages on Writing for grades 7-12 on Writing—do not mention VOICE. Not once.
But my experience as a writer, and as a writing teacher, says voice matters, and that we do a disservice to our middle and high school students if we discourage them from using their voice, to speak of their lives, and to address these issues—when appropriate—in the first person.  And yet the writing assignments we give our students often fail to do this.  The trend—from what I have seen as a tutor the past three years, and now gathering steam with Colorado’s new writing standards (see box on the right; more detail in the Addendum)—is to ignore the personal essay.  A trend almost as alarming as the steady decline in the percentage of students Colorado proficient in writing as they move through our schools. 

In 7th grade, roughly 60% of Colorado’s students are proficient in writing, but by the time they reach
10th grade – two years before they would like to be college-ready – that percentage falls below 50%

4-5 year trend - % proficient and advanced (P/A)
Decline for this class in % P/A over last few years

Overall score –
proficient and advanced
6th grade
7th grade
8th grade
9th grade
10th grade
7th grade
8th grade
9th grade
10th grade


Writing teachers must ask why this is so.  I suspect it is partly because we do little to help students find their voice as writers.  Moreover, we confuse them.  Juniors and seniors work on their personal statement for their college application, even as their AP Language and Composition course insists they write in the third person and bring “a detached point of view.”  Another irony: We know it is critical to build strong relationships to keep our students in school and engaged, but the English teacher—rather than inviting teenagers to share their lives through journal writing, personal essays, and reflections on the readings—steers clear of such assignments.

I realize we should teach students how to express opinions without using the first person. I applaud the strong features in the new standards: of course, let’s be sure student writing is “grounded in evidence from the text.”  And I am not suggesting we return to the day when we thought the best way to reach self-absorbed high school students was to meet them on those terms—as William Zinsser[1] puts it, “the let-it-all-hang-out version of the 60’s,” let them spill their guts about every complaint known to The American Teenager.  It’s almost comical how confident we were that THIS was how we’d help students enjoy the writing process, evnifthayculdntspellforbeens, and even, if, their, punctuation, was, appalling.

But there is something sterile in all the recent assignments I see for 10th and 11th graders. 
·         The generic: Analyze character, conflict, and theme in Catcher in the Rye.
·         The esoteric: In Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Death of a Moth,” identify five rhetorical devices she used and explain how they helped her achieve her purpose.   
·         And, now a common task I see from more than one high school of late (derived from Aristotle’s Rhetoric): Examine the appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos in this persuasive essay.

What about asking for a response that demands some self-reflection and a personal connection to the reading?  What about questions that address our 15- and 16-year-olds on a more basic level?
Three cheers to Bradford Intermediate in Jeffco
Don’t miss last week’s great story by Jenny Brundin on the writing by sixth grades, students encouraged to write honestly about success—and failure.
·         Do you or do you not identify with Holden’s struggles? Explain why or why not.
·         “Life is fragile.” Woolf is saying something on this idea.  Does her perspective ring true for you? Why or why not?   
·         Provide three reasons why you do or do not disagree with this persuasive essay calling for (as one example) greater gun control measures.  

The course syllabus – again, virtually silent on voice

Read the course syllabus for English classes for 10th and 11th graders.  I am NOT making this up; it is available on the web site from the English Department at a local high school.  Hardly a word asking students to find their voice, to write about themselves.  It all sounds so academic—in the driest sense of the word—just when, as a college advisor notes, “these teenagers are a bundle of emotions.” 

·         10th grade English - The focus sophomore year is “POWER, SOCIETY, & THE INDIVIDUAL.”

“Students will compare and contrast perspectives developed in multiple informational and persuasive texts/forms of media by citing strong textual evidence to draw conclusions about the role of power in society.”
       (COMMENT: It is discouraging to see language like this, from English teachers. But there’s more like it….)

A parable
The need to find the words about a meaningful event or someone important,
even if “they” (teachers, parents, adults) aren’t listening.
from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Chapter 2 - When “‘old Spencer” lectures Holden on his failures (“I flunked you in history because you knew absolutely nothing.”), our hero tries to respond, but comments on his teacher:
“He wasn’t even listening. He hardly ever listened to you when you said something.”
Chapters 4 & 5 – Holden—even as he prepares to flunk out of his fourth school—can write.  His roommate asks Holden to draft a composition for him. 
“What on?” Holden asks.
Anything.  Anything descriptive. A room. Or a house. Or something you once lived in or something – you know. Just as long as it’s descriptive as hell.”
Holden sits down to work on the essay.
“I’m not too crazy about describing rooms and houses anyway. So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie’s baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was…. He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him…. God, he was a nice kid, though. He used to laugh so hard at something he thought of at the dinner table that he just about fell off his chair. I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t…. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie….”

“Students will use comparative language to synthesize how different texts examine power to reflect on the authors’ differing perspectives.”

Welcome the young person—not just the student
  “The children who came into my classrooms were also perceptive—they caught on quickly whether school was going to be a place where they should bring their whole selves, or leave most of themselves at the schoolhouse door.”  Deborah Meier, Nov. 21, 2013,
“Students will recognize literary components and analyze the author’s use of these components in creating a message about the human condition.” 

·                11th grade English -

“Students will develop and/or refine their academic writing styles (i.e. formal writing) to analyze and respond to text.”

“Students will learn, develop, and utilize critical literacy skills to answer the following questions:
How do readers use critical reading strategies to analyze and evaluate text, and how does a writer use formal register to create an academic persona?”

The AP Language course, as several juniors we tutor have discovered, is especially strict about eliminating the “I” in their essays. A student hears this message: In order to teach you how to write a college essay, we have to unteach all you’ve learned about expressing your feelings in the first person…. 
          AP Language and Composition – On completing the class successfully, the AP student will:
“Make stylistic choices about diction, syntax, figurative language etc with an awareness of purpose and audience for writing. Use local and global revision to make changes in text for reasons of clarity or style.”
“… take inventory of what he or she knows about a topic to guide research and achieve intended effect for purpose and audience.”

Common Core State Standards AND (not versus) Six Traits + 1

A recent look at the implementation of CCSS in seven states, including Colorado, paints a hopeful view of the transformation under way (  Oct. 15, 2013).  One section of the report lists several “Ways Common Core changes English and math classrooms,” including:

Common Core
Students asked about personal reactions and experiences in response to literature
Students must base arguments and essays on evidence  from the reading, not their own opinions or experiences

This change is presented as good news, a step forward.  My question: must it be either/or?

Like many teachers in Colorado and across the country, I found the Six Traits +1 Writing Model of Instruction & Assessment (designed by Education Northwest) an excellent guide to teach student writing.  It helps a school, grade by grade, focus on six key traits: ideas and content, organization, voice, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions. New teachers will be especially grateful for the Six Traits’ material, such as succinct descriptions of what to look for in evaluating student work.  For voice:
·         Sounds like a person wrote it; sounds like this writer – (no one else sounds like this!)
·         Makes you feel something
·         Punch, flair, style, courage (I’m not afraid to say what I really think)

Education Northwest has written a “Crosswalk Between 6+1 Traits and CCSS Writing and Language Standards” (, no doubt to reassure districts and schools that Six Traits still “fits in” with Common Core guidelines.  It looks like a stretch to me.  This teacher would fight to see that my English Department did not put compliance with the new standards ahead of what we know to be true—and what our students should know: strong voice is essential to good writing.  

Teaching the essay – examples show it can, at times must, be first person to achieve its purpose

 Give our students great examples of first-person work –
then let do try their hand at it too
MLK Jr. - “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” and “I Have a Dream”
E.B. White - “Death of a Pig”
Rachel Carson - “The Marginal World”
John McPhee - “Under the Snow”
Malcolm X – “On African Self-Hatred”
Maya Angelou – selection from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Zora Neale Hurston – selections from Dust Tracks on the Road
Richard Rodriguez – selection from Hunger of Memory
A young writer learns from the best writers.  I loved teaching exceptional works like those listed here (see box) in a Parker charter school, and I often created writing tasks using such works as models for my 8th grade students. These essays (non-fiction), speeches, and selections from autobiographies come from the Core Knowledge guidelines.  All employ the first-person “I”—suggesting we might do well to let students do the same. (NOTE: The Common Core reading standards ask teachers to assign exactly this kind of literary nonfiction, “texts that provide appropriately complex language.”  See

The most helpful writing teacher I had was Mr. Lambert, junior year.  We read many novels in his class, but we also read most of Essays Old and New, a collection including works from Bacon, Swift, Emerson, and nearly 40 others.[2]  Many classic essays that endure in part because we hear an individual speaking to us.  I open that book now and discover one writer after another addressing us in the first-person singular—and on occasion in the first-person plural. (When a third-person voice is used, as in William Allen White’s tribute to his dead daughter, it is all the more poignant for this choice.)  

Oh, but you say, these writers—like Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Helen Keller—were important people.  They had something worth saying to the world, which is not true of your average 16-year-old.   To which I reply:
1) Nothing worth saying? See my recent piece about 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose voice is now heard around the world ( See Anne Frank’s diary, written from age 13 to 15, which still speaks so powerfully to us, 70 years later.  See your daughter’s essay (Eliza’s mom, I remember!) about what her grandmother meant to her….
2) Did our great essayists learn to write with such sincerity, wit, and insight by always writing in the third person?  It takes practice.  Can’t we practice in middle and high school?  Must we ask 15-year-olds to assume a scholarly stance when we know they will “speak”—in their own voice, with far greater energy and care—if the topic touches their lives?

Common Core’s mission statement assures us that “the standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world.”  Sounds good.   But a tenth grader looks at the assignment and asks: what about me? Isn’t my world “the real world”?  Aren’t my experiences and feelings relevant?

I wonder how many students, like a Holden Caulfield, have something well worth saying—the chance to say it might even make English class matter!—but our assignments tell them: sorry, we aren’t listening. What if we were the teacher given a composition such as the one Holden wrote about his dead brother?

“My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that it had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat.”

I hope we would say: “Holden, this is great! Thank you!”

Addendum – If VOICE matters, you wouldn’t know it by the standards

I understand that the Colorado Academic Standards are not to be equated with but are informed by the Common Core State Standards.  Still, you can see how much the latter has influenced the former when you search the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for Writing, Grades 6-12, to see if VOICE is mentioned.  No, not once. (

Now search the Colorado Academic Standards for Reading Writing, and Communicating (, grades 9-12.  VOICE is barely mentioned:

Standard 3 – Writing and Composition – Includes grade level expectations for each grade

12th grade – Voice appears twice (bold mine)
Concepts and skills students master:
1. Style, detail, expressive language, and genre create a well-crafted statement directed at an intended audience and purpose
Students Can:  Critique own writing and the writing of others from the perspective of the intended audience to guide revisions, improve voice and style (word choice, sentence variety, figurative language) and achieve intended purpose and effect
In the column on the right, on “21st Century Skills and Readiness Competencies,” we read:
Writers can persuade readers and voice opinions through various forms of writing (such as an editorial for the school or local news source).

11th grade – Voice does not appear
10th grade – Voice appears three times
Concepts and skills students master:
3. Grammar, language usage, mechanics, and clarity are the basis of ongoing refinements and revisions within the writing process
Students can: Distinguish between the active and passive voice, and write in the active voice

Over to the right, in the column called “21st Century Skills and Readiness Competencies,” we see four Inquiry Questions for students.  One is: 
How does voice make writing more interesting?
(COMMENT: I find the other three equally bland—or inane.)
1.       What would writing look like if there were no punctuation?
2.       Why would it be difficult to read texts that do not have correct punctuation?
3.       Why is correct grammar important to the reader? )

9th grade - Voice appears once
Concepts and skills students master:
1. Literary and narrative texts develop a controlling idea or theme with descriptive and expressive language
Students can:  Refine the expression of voice and tone in a text by selecting and using appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure, and sentence organization

[1]Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a modern classic, would tell our English Departments: welcome each student’s voice. Two examples: 1) “No teacher wants twenty-five copies of the same person, writing about the same topic. What we’re all looking for—what we want to see pop out of your papers—is individuality. We’re looking for whatever it is that makes you unique. Write about what you know and what you think.”  2) “If you’re a writing teacher, make your students believe in the validity of their lives.”
[2] E.B. White’s Elements of Style was another text we studied with Mr. Lambert.  As a master of the personal essay, E.B. White gets the final word here on the importance of voice. See chapter 5: “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias.  This is inevitable as well as enjoyable.  All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.” 

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