Category Archives: I don’t know

Writing is Hard

*Note. I write this today in what could be described as a “crotchety old man” mood. I keep thinking things like “in my day we…” and “get off my lawn.”  So, you know, that’s something you should know. Not that I think this post would change dramatically!

I read a blog post in the Washington Post today regarding writing remediation for students going into college. The post was written by William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California and Stefani R. Relles, a former community college instructor and doctoral candidate at USC.

A few key points from their post:

  • Remedial courses are a bottleneck in higher education (and according to another article I read recently, a significant cost for many students)
  • Writing skills, especially, are lacking with many students never having written a formal paper longer than 2 or 3 pages.
  • More and more standardized testing is being done, with more and more classroom time devoted to prep. Yet research shows that timed essays on tests are “unreliable indicators of writing strength.”

I’m not that surprised. I’m a marketer. I’ve read lots of “content” from blog posts to emails to newsletters at places I’ve worked. And boy, the quality is often astoundingly poor. I don’t mean boring or with grammar issues – I mean unclear or confusing writing with little structure, muddled narrative. Not always. Not everyone. But often enough.

Of course, my perspective was shaped before I entered college in 1991. First, I hand-wrote most of my papers until my sophomore year in college (personal computers not being very prevalent at all).  Even when I typed papers, it was based on a hand-written copy.

Handwriting papers necessitated multiple writings of a paper – not only to correct spelling errors and grammatical issues but to incorporate revisions and corrections. My papers were littered with cross-outs and writing in the margins. My drafts became, quite literally, pictures of my writing process.

In both high school and college, I had multiple writing projects that took several revisions and weeks to complete. I had to write different kinds of projects – from creative pieces to speeches to research papers to summaries. It was a huge part of my learning experience and, for me anyway, more difficult and time-intensive than most tests.

Of course I had my challenges. When I am summarizing, I often write important text verbatim from the source without realizing it. So I had to be careful of unintended plagiarism. I also tend to write too much. Over the years strike-outs turned into regular use of the highlight/delete function.

I believe that this kind of writing not only developed my writing skills but also my ability to condense and analyze information, to think critically about what I was reading, and more. It also helped me develop a “voice” of my own* and learn how to write in different voices and styles depending on the situation.

The writing processes I learned are similar to what Tierney and Relles propose to reduce the need for writing remediation:  “Set specific and understandable goals. Teach students how to revise. Teach summarizing, not analyzing.** Require more and longer writing.”

But even these solutions are “controversial” in the words of the authors.

“Adopting [these kinds of solutions] would mean focusing on writing as process rather than as product, an unsettling break for those accustomed to exams and assignments without revision opportunities.”

In the authors’ Los Angeles high schools students take up to six state and district tests yearly — on top of midterms and finals. 94% pass the state exit exam. And yet 42% need remedial English. Should the test be harder? Test different things?

I’m not sure. I don’t think writing can always be tested in a few hours. My best writing is often done over days or weeks. And some teachers liked my writing better than others! There is an element of “art” to writing that I believe requires students to be exposed to a variety of resources and teachers over time. Can we standardize that? Do we want to?

Maybe all of this is much ado about nothing – maybe things haven’t changed that dramatically. Perhaps there are always going to be some folks who are more comfortable writing than others. And it’s not only people younger than me who struggle with writing (though my – admittedly anecdotal – experience is that folks older than me know their writing isn’t great, whereas younger folks tend to think theirs is just fine, even when it’s not).

What do you think? How do your kids’ classes manage it? Teachers, are you able to assign long writing projects and research papers? What is your experience?


*If you are reading this, you hopefully like my “talky, kinda casual, pretty human” voice of choice. And while I have issues with some of the poor writing examples I see (and the systematic neglect of writing skills implied by the discussed blog post), I don’t claim to be a grammarian! I don’t care if you put one or two spaces after your period. I don’t get up in arms if you use “it’s and its” incorrectly once in a while. I don’t believe perfect grammar is perfect writing. There’s more to it than that, if you ask me. And maybe you’re thinking “this Kerry Jo girl’s not even that good of a writer!” Maybe not! There’s the art sneaking in again.

**I bulked a little at the “not analyzing” bit. But I love their explanation:

“Critical thinking in and of itself is not a precursor of good writing. Putting thinking into words, sentences and paragraphs is the endgame, and that crucially involves the ability to summarize material, a more concrete and therefore teachable skill. If students are able to summarize what they have read, they can better grasp how to put together their own arguments.”

Discipline: It’s not personal (until it is).

Talking about discipline stirs up some serious emotion for me. And I’m clearly not alone, especially when the subject is disciplining kids and teens in school.

I’ve been procrastinating on this blog post because it’s such a sprawling topic. I’ve seen a bunch of articles about it recently (which I link to at the end of this post). From classroom techniques to racial bias to zero-tolerance…there are so many angles to consider. And discipline goes to the very heart of raising children – it fundamentally helps them define their morality and hopefully becomes their guide when making choices throughout their lives. Johnny shouldn’t hit Jane. Jane shouldn’t cheat Judy.

No wonder it’s so emotional. I think it might be important to remember that. Now that I think about it, maybe this topic needs a series of blog posts. And if it’s going to be a series and it’s going to be emotional – I might as well start with a story about my family.

<cue 60s background music>

I grew up listening to my dad’s stories of growing up in DC and the near suburbs with his 7 siblings – six brothers and a sister. My grandfather died when my dad was 12 and my grandmother (Mema) was pregnant with her eight child. The math:  4 kids under age six; the oldest brother was only 14.

If I were my Mema, I might have thrown myself off a bridge. Luckily for us, she didn’t.

Those four older brothers? They were pretty much on their own. “Single mother” Mema had to focus her energies on the babies. So growing up, my dad came home when he wanted, played pool, drank too much and got 3 tattoos before he turned 14. His brothers were the subject of regular visits from the police. My Mema protected her boys – always assuming their innocence –and was a place of refuge for other neighborhood kids who needed a place. But in the stories I hear, discipline wasn’t nearly a priority when compared getting food on the table. She stepped in when she felt she had to, but for the most part she let them figure it out on their own.

My dad dropped out of school after 10th grade. I haven’t asked him about discipline at school – I need to – because I assume that school wasn’t nearly as meaningful to him as working to help put food on the table for all his siblings (and maybe goofing off at the pool hall too). My dad’s brothers had similar experiences. Most got into a fair amount of trouble, even with the police. Most wouldn’t have been considered “college material” today.

Imagine this for a second! If you had asked my grandmother where my dad was on any particular afternoon, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Think for a minute about your kids, if you have them – do you EVER not know where they are?

So where are my dad and his brothers now? Well, they all are upstanding members of society. They are successful businessmen (some blue collar like my dad; some white collar like my Uncle Tom; some military like my Uncle John). All save one had children of their own who have grown up to be fine adults.

Nice story, right?  But what does this have to do with #EDU and school policies and the national conversation about how to manage discipline?

Well, I’m going to speculate for a second.

<cue current urban soundtrack and fuzzy dream sequence montage>

Today we have zero-tolerance discipline. Kids like my father would probably be seen as a huge problem. I imagine he would most likely been expelled from school early on. He might even be serving jail time, instead of occasional visits from a local police officer. My grandmother might have had to pay fines as a result of his misbehavior – taking more food off of an already spare table. She may have been arrested for her boys’ truancy. I don’t think it’s a very far reach to imagine that she may have had serious intervention from social services. How might this have affected my dad and his brothers?

Speculation! It tends to be scarier than real life. I’ll stop now.

My point is that my dad’s infractions might bring very different, more serious and longer-term consequences today. If this happened today, would harsher discipline “turn him around” earlier? Would it be better for him and his family today? Or worse? Would his wayward youth affect him as an adult? Would he be able to be the successful person he is today? Or would his past haunt him? Make him un-hireable?

I don’t know. But lots of the issues inherent in this story inspire blog posts from strong advocates (on one side or another). These are just a few of the articles that started me thinking:

Is this just a media thing? Is there really an issue here? Articles tend to be of two varieties: “OMG we aren’t allowed to discipline students” or “OMG we are disciplining students too harshly, look at this insane example.”

But wait. In Texas (which has taken a huge step toward helping us make sense of this by making so much data available),  31 percent of students were suspended or expelled at least once in their middle and high school years. 31 percent! Would you have guessed that many? I didn’t. That’s a lot of bad kids.

Or are they? Bad I mean. I think we assume they are bad – or troublesome, a nicer word. But they probably deserve it, right?

I don’t know. There are too many questions to have one answer. But it’s on my mind and I feel like it needs to be talked about in multiple forums and from multiple perspectives. So check out those articles I linked to above. Share any resources you have. And share your thoughts!

What comes to your mind first when you think of discipline in school? Do you worry about teachers who have to deal with the possibility of violence? Do you worry about your kids’ safety? Are you concerned that a good kid’s academic life will be ruined by a single mistake? Do you think parents hinder or help discipline at school? Do you worry that parents and teachers are at odds over discipline? Do you think zero tolerance is the right way to go? Is there a “right way” to do zero tolerance?

How will our choices for children today shape their futures?