New slant on writing encourages participation

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Bob Dandoy, who has taught high school and college composition in Butler County for more than 30 years, still remembers the community college student who, upon being told she would have to write a 10-page research paper, got up, walked out and threw up.

Not all students so vividly display their anxieties about writing, but teachers can find plenty of examples of students who say they can't write, don't write or hate to write.

Yet outside of school, students and others are writing -- e-mails, Facebook entries, text messages, blogs, job letters, resumes and more.

Writing has become so ubiquitous that we are now living in the Age of Composition, according to Kathleen Blake Yancey, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and Hunt professor of English at Florida State University.

"Through writing, we participate -- as students, employees, citizens, human beings. Through writing, we are," she wrote in report called "Writing in the 21st Century."

The report will be released today by the National Council of Teachers of English.

"I think we're conceiving of writing very differently than we did before. We're understanding writing takes place in lots of different environments and for lots of different purposes," Dr. Yancey said in a phone interview.

"The old notions of pen and paper don't hold anymore," said Dr. Dandoy, who taught for 31 years at Karns City High School in Butler County, teaches composition at Slippery Rock University and is executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts.

Dr. Yancey is fascinated by the varied ways the public is asked to write, whether it's to President Barack Obama or to describe their bosses on Post-It notes on a kiosk on the Tallahassee Regional Airport.

She defines the switch this way: "We're moving from submission to participation."

Now, she said, "Writing curricula that are smart invite participation because that's what people want right now. Where you can invite participation, people stay engaged."

She thinks some schools try to erect a firewall between the writing students do outside of school and in school.

"It's just counterproductive," she said. "If kids have learned something about composing outside of school, a really interesting question is how can we connect to that?"

She thinks schools -- elementary, secondary and higher education -- are only about 20 percent of the way toward embracing this new understanding of writing.

Two reasons some view writing at school negatively are punishment and tests.

Dr. Yancey recalls as a second-grader having to write "I will not stay out too long at recess" 100 times.

As for exams, Dr. Yancey wrote that writing has "historically and inextricably been linked to testing."

Blame that on Horace Mann, considered the father of American public education. In 1845, he urged teachers to test students not orally but on paper, which he viewed as fairer, the report stated.

Fast forward to high school and the anxiety over producing a 25-minute essay for the SAT college entrance exams. Many students, teachers and test prep programs focus on writing a five-paragraph essay: a topic sentence, three supporting points and a conclusion.

While she doesn't address the five-paragraph essay in the report, Dr. Yancey said, "It's a faux task for a faux audience and everyone knows it.

"It's interesting that that world exists alongside the other world that's filled with participation, filled with meaning making, which is what writing has always been about."

Elizabeth Shannon, an English teacher at West Allegheny High School, said she does a "real quick, two-day cram" on the five-paragraph essay before the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment writing tests.

"I tell them, you'll never write this way again," she said. "If they go off to college and write that way, they won't be looked on as good writers."

Instead of five-paragraph essays, she prefers exercises such as "rant" letters in which they write to someone about something they'd like changed and threaded written discussions on the Internet to students in Morocco.

Last year, 93 percent of the high school's 11th-graders scored proficient or advanced in PSSA writing.

Despite some negative experiences students have with writing, Dr. Yancey said the urge to write is hard to kill.

At the end of the day, she said, "Writing becomes the vehicle for making connections with other human beings."

In addition to releasing the report, the council will announce a National Day of Writing, scheduled for Oct. 20; the National Gallery of Writing and the beginning of annual National High School College and University Writing Awards in partnership with the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.

Dr. Yancey's report and information on the writing day, the gallery and the awards can be found on the Web at www.ncte.org/press/21stcentwriting.


Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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