January 10, 2011

I rarely rant, but tonight I am going to allow myself because the subject is one close to my heart: writing and its intimate partner, reading. Maybe it will motivate me to find some small way I can help improve the situation.

My son had English homework tonight. He had to write two paragraphs on the topic “Proud to be an American.” Previous topics have been “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Halloween.” In the classic movie A Christmas Story, Ralphie, a fourth grader, is assigned an essay on the topic “What I want for Christmas,” which may be appropriate for an elementary school student. But my son is a tenth grade student in a large public high school, fully accredited by the state of Virginia, which means that the required percentage of its students are able to pass the state Standards of Learning (SOLs).

I asked my son what books he is reading in Tenth Grade English, and the answer is none. None. They read parts of books. They did read a little Shakespeare — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that makes me happy. They have also read some fables by Aesop. I remember reading the fables by Aesop in my first grade reader.  I know the teacher has five classes with close to 30 students per class, and that well over 100 student essays would be too much to read and grade fairly, so perhaps it is mostly a problem with the system that puts impossible demands on teachers. She has even mentioned to my son’s class that they will not have to write too much because she doesn’t have time to grade essays. Tonight I Googled some sample SAT essay topics and read several of them to my son. Here’s one from www.majortests.com:

“That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value.” Thomas Paine

Do we value only what we struggle for? Plan your response, and then write an essay to explain your views on this issue. Be sure to support your position with specific points and examples. (You may use personal examples or examples from your reading, observations, or, knowledge of subjects such as history, literature, science.)

Now that’s what I call a decent 10th grade essay topic!

I told AJ his essay will need to be well developed and at least five paragraphs in length, and that I did not think his English assignments are adequately preparing him to write an SAT essay so we will need to practice writing at home. Going into the SAT essay test after inadequate practice is like going to run a marathon when you have never yet run a mile. I have been told by an adjunct History teacher at a local community college that the quality of student writing has been going steadily, noticeably, and dramatically down. Tidewater Community College has a writing center where the students can get remedial instruction. But it’s scary. Both writing and reading require the ability to sustain thought and attention, an ability that must be developed over time, and which I suspect certain technological lifestyle changes may be affecting negatively.

I know there are many people out there making a good living writing essays and research papers for college students who are either too lazy, too busy, or do not have the ability to write their own papers. A quick turn-around custom essay can cost several hundred dollars, and apparently there are many students willing and able to pay it. If my conscience would allow me to live with myself after facilitating cheating in college, I might be tempted to pick up a little extra cash. As it is, this means that a certain number of college graduates are on the street marketing their impressive resumes and  proudly displaying college degrees which they bought rather than earned. When a company hires a college grad, I think they expect a certain level of both writing ability and integrity. Next thing you know companies will have to start testing before they hire.

These issues are complex and scary I have hardly begun to dig into them. I love reading and know the value of books as opposed to movies and YouTube, and even in a house with shelves jammed with well loved books, even though we read our kids books or chapters from books nightly before bedtime for years, I can’t even convince my own kids of how important and rewarding reading is. I have tried to teach grammar and writing to adults who have never grasped the essentials, like the parts of speech and parallel structure.

These were people who really wanted to learn to write better, and I have been surprised at how difficult it is for them to learn. I admit that I may not be the best teacher in the world (that’s why I did not go into the teaching profession) but I know I don’t totally suck either. I can speak slowly and be entertaining, patient, and give clear explanations and plenty of examples. I have taught Report Writing 101 classes to rooms of professional engineers and gotten rave reviews on the clarity and quality of the class. People left the class really feeling their eyes were open and telling me they understood things that had always confused them. The classes always ended with a group warm and fuzzy feeling.

A few weeks later, though, when I had to edit their writing I’d find out they they had not mastered, say, active versus passive voice, or in some cases, nouns and verbs. I would see though were they had tried to improve and always encouraged their progress. But of course, these were people who had already bought into the value of writing. Either that or their bosses had told them they had better improve the quality of their reports. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to teach a teenager to write who had developed the old algebra attitude: “What am I ever going to need this for?” And it doesn’t help when strong writing skills are not even expected in your Sophomore English class.

Of course TV has never helped with reading skills, with the possible exception of Sesame Street. Can you believe I had lived my whole life without ever watching a single episode of South Park? Until last week when my son JT (the other son, age 19) told me I just had to see the episode where they all get diagnosed with ADHD and we just gotten a Roku for Christmas (a little blue thingy that let’s you stream stuff from Netflix and other websites onto you TV) so I said “Okay okay already” and watched it. The way the doctor in the show diagnoses all the kids with ADHD is to read them A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby, both of which fail to hold their attention. I think the kids are supposed to be third graders. So not only is TV destroying the kids’ attention spans, it is openly making fun of reading good lit. Okay so I laughed. But I was less than impressed with the show. Their legs don’t even move.

3 Responses to A brief rant: Are writing and reading skills going the way of the dinosaur?

  1. There are so many ways to discourage kids from loving to read and write, and so few teachers and parents who actively ENcourage it. When he was in school, my son began as a just pre-reader who loved books and stories and being read to… By third grade, reading had become WORK, and not fun work. I did what I could to rebuild the fire by buying books in subjects in which he was interested (sports) and setting a good example, limiting TV, etc., but even as an adult he doesn’t much care for reading. :-( And then there was a former boss of mine, who used to spend much of her days at work writing her eldest daughter’s essays and book reports FOR her. Because said child was required to get the highest marks and she couldn’t get them without “help.”

  2. CJ Carol Apple says:

    Yes Jodi, I agree. Practice is the only way to improve any skill. (BTW – Your comment gave me an idea and I added a line about practice to my post.)

  3. This is terrible. I was a horrible writer when I was in high school. I still struggle with copy editing. Did you ever hear:
    A man walking in New York City stopped a man to ask for directions:
    “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
    The man answered: “Practice, practice, practice.”
    Practicing, doing is the only way to improve skills. Kids must be made to practice!

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