WHAT’S GOING ON WITH WRITING: A critique of current teaching practices

By Susan Danoff
Are our middle and high school English teachers really teaching our children how to write?
As a writing tutor I have read numerous writing assignments, assessments and comments from English teachers in our local schools, and I am deeply troubled by what I see. In the coming weeks I will be writing a column to suggest effective ways to help children find their voices and express their ideas, enabling them to become independent and creative thinkers. In the process I will ruminate on the nature of writing assignments, the influence of standardized testing on writing process, the difference between skill-based and knowledge-based learning, the importance of rough drafts, the necessity for non-punitive response to writing, the fragile ego of writers both young and old, the ways we inspire and deter children from the acts of reading and writing, the reasons why confidence is essential to budding writers, and more.
I do not see young writers flourishing in our public schools today, and I believe that I have a social responsibility to address why inadequate teaching of writing is an injustice to children’s spirits and to their futures.
I have thought about writing for many years, because even as a child growing up in the 1960s I was aware that my own schooling was inadequate. Most of my education throughout childhood happened at home: I was a voracious reader, and I had parents who encouraged thinking and discussion. In contrast, we read very little literature in school, and most of my teachers in Kingston, Pennsylvania, were more concerned with the appearance than the content of writing.
In early elementary school we had fat pencils designed for little fingers, and our teachers praised or criticized our handwriting and ability to remember our 1-inch margins. By the fourth grade we were required to write in cursive and the most attractive papers were tacked up on the bulletin board for admiration, not because of the stories we told, but by virtue of what they called “ovals and push-pulls,” the grace of our pencil strokes. Handwriting was not my strong point, nor was spelling, and my papers were never displayed. But I loved to write, and somehow, in spite of my teachers’ criticism of my abysmal spelling and their failure to acknowledge the content of my essays, I practiced writing at home for fun.
Later, most of my high school teachers (with several notable exceptions that I will discuss in the future) asked for little in the way of writing except for fill-in-the-blank test questions and perfunctory answers to questions about the books we read. By the time I enrolled at Princeton University, I had experimented with poetry and journalism on my own, but I no idea now to write a thoughtful academic essay.
I wrote numerous papers in college and graduate school, but I learned little about writing at Princeton and Rutgers, where I earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree respectively, because my professors usually wrote cursory phrases of either approval (“nice argument”) or criticism (“needs development”). Although I progressed through trial and error as well as practice, it wasn’t until I enrolled in the English teaching credential program at the University of California, Berkeley, that I began to consciously understand writing process. Under the guidance of master teachers, I learned to draft, respond substantively to writing, and experiment with a variety of techniques to address both content and style, giving me a toolbox that has been invaluable to me as a writer and teacher.
My love for and struggle with writing have both helped me as a teacher of writing, something I’ve done in a variety of roles for 40 years. As a writing instructor at Rutgers University for three years and Princeton University for nine years, I taught students who are considered our very finest learners, and as a teaching artist in low-income schools I have also spent many years working with students in our so-called failing schools.
For over 25 years I worked as a storyteller in hundreds of classrooms, exploring with children and teachers how stories can help us to shape experience, engage learners, and inspire a love for reading and writing. I often used stories as a springboard for writing activities, and during professional development workshops I found some teachers who were interested in experimenting with writing process and others who were reluctant to write and share their work.
Most recently I have spent the past four years tutoring students in middle school and high school in writing and reading, often puzzling over assignments and assessments that undermine my students’ confidence and ability to write. Although I currently run a private tutoring business, I am not writing this column to increase my business; I already have more than enough students. Indeed, I am writing precisely because I feel compelled to speak up for those students whom I cannot reach.
Writing, as I realized even in elementary school, is not about handwriting; writing is about discovery and self-expression. Writing is not about filling in the blank, abiding by a series of rules that dictate what to write, sentence by sentence; writing is about coaxing out the fragile “I,” the inner person who has something valuable to say.
This column is meant for parents, teachers, and students in order to open up a discussion about how we learn to write well and how teachers can either help students to become skilled and confident writers or unwittingly silence them. 
Susan Danoff ©2015 