In schools across the country, practice is dying. Or it’s already dead. That seems like hyperbole, but hear me out. I work with a middle-schooler who had an English Language Arts project. “Finally,” I thought. He told me the name of the book he would use in the project. Not exactly a rich text, but he was going to do something in the class besides filling out worksheets, and I was intrigued to see what the teacher had come up with. “How far along are you in the book?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Oh, we’re not reading the book. We’re reading the title of the book and looking at the cover.” “You’re not reading the book?” “No.” “You’re predicting what’s going to happen, or…?” “Yeah, that’s the word she used.” “Prediction?” “Yeah.” “Well, you’ll read the book after you predict what it will be about, though.” “No.” “So you’re just writing your predictions down?” “No. We’re making a video about them.” “You’re not writing at all?” “No.” “I see. So in English Language Arts class, you’re not reading or writing?” “No.”
I would love to say that this conversation was a one-off. I’d love to say I didn’t have a similar conversation with the same student mere weeks later. I wish I could say it’s just his school, his district, a frazzled teacher who didn’t feel like grading a load of papers at the end of a day of dealing with highly hormonal students. But each of those statements would be false. I’ve seen the death of practice, not only where writing is concerned, but perhaps most importantly to me where writing is concerned, across grade levels and across the country. Our children are not engaging in the contemplative practice of writing.
My son brought home a grammar worksheet, one of many given to him in fourth grade ELA, and all with the instructions to find a grammatical element hiding in a list of ten banal, contrived sentences. “Mom,” he said squinting as though it would help him in his task, “I can’t find the prepositional phrase in this sentence. I’m supposed to circle the preposition and underline the noun. There’s supposed to be one in each sentence.”
He couldn’t find one because there wasn’t one. There was an infinitive (to swim, to go, to love), but there was no prepositional phrase. I was happy that he hadn’t underlined “to” and moved on. He knew the ways prepositional phrases function in sentences as well as he knew their form. But how many of the other children in the class did? Not once was he asked to identify prepositional phrases in his own writing, only on worksheets and in online grammar games.
I’m not knocking grammar lessons. I teach grammar. I am saying that the most meaningful and important way to teach and to investigate grammar is through the lens of written models and student practice. I’m also saying that worksheets taken off of the internet and printed en masse are many times woefully inaccurate and, more often than not, a waste of students’ time. Can you think of an assignment or a meaningful question that would evoke written sentences containing prepositional phrases from students after you’ve discussed their form and functions? I think you probably can.
When Common Core stripped our schools of 50% of English literature and replaced it with “informational texts,” it took with it the majority of the models students had of any writing other than how-to articles, argumentative essays, and narratives. All three of these are essential genres, yet they don’t provide the totality of what we need to communicate in written form. A student in a prestigious upper mid-west school system let me know that his teacher had been covering Romeo and Juliet in class. A few moments into my questioning, my hope of any poetic study or reflection of literary devices was dashed by his admission that his ELA teacher opted not to have his students read the book. Rather, they watched the movie as a class. The world of the Bard was reduced to a poorly produced two-hour showing and a single discussion with little opportunity for learning or exploration and no opportunity to be inspired by the written word or write anything in response. A client in a neighboring town was given a social studies writing assignment in which the beginnings of all of the sentences in his essay were provided for him. He needed only to cut and paste and fill in small bits of information.
One reluctant writer (the adjective he uses to describe his feelings on the subject being more vivid than mine here) is more capable of putting his thoughts into meaningful sentences than many learned adults I’ve met. So why does he hate writing? His feelings are extreme in part because nearly every week in class he was given a timed writing that he was instructed to make as lengthy as he could in the time he was given and that he was made to turn in at the end of the period with the caveat that he would never be allowed to go back and edit it. What was written at first pass was the finished product. Do I need to explain how this affected a perfectionist who struggles with executive functions and, therefore, planning? He needed more time. He needed to sit and ponder the prompt. He needed to plot and outline. But he was never invited to have more time. And not one week did he finish what he’d started. He was writing, yes, but he was engaged not in the practice of writing, merely the task of writing.
I’ve found myself telling my students that when we write, we’re painting a portrait not taking a picture. When we snap a picture, what we capture in that moment is what we get. Short of using a photo-editing app, if the lighting was off or the subject in movement, the picture is more often than not a failure. The beauty of writing is in the endless brush we wield; we can return to our writing and add or subtract, use a heavier verb in one sentence, a more specific noun in another, make a character a little darker, a setting a little bit more vibrant. We can get feedback on what we wrote and use that feedback to make our meaning known to a wider audience, or to a more specific one. The beauty is in the time. The beauty is in the editing. The beauty is in the practice.
Many in my profession are shaking their heads and asking, “Why is this happening?” or, “How did we get here?” I’m sure we all have our individual theories on that. I have several I bounce to and from. And while the why is important, how may be the more essential question to answer. How will we move forward? While I work for change in my children’s schools, write the district, and vote in school board leads that show the most promise, I’ve gotten enough scrapes in this fight to know that real change comes one teacher, one student, one family at a time.
It used to pain me when in a 25-minute session, a student would write for twenty of those minutes. Little instruction beyond the brainstorming and outlining we’d done previously. Just writing. The truth is, though, that those twenty uninterrupted moments of carrying the cognitive load of spelling, handwriting, grammar, prose, and structuring and restructuring are the only she would experience until I saw her again the following week. And every week the load she carries changes. Some weeks it’s lighter. Weeks we learn new concepts, it’s a little heavier; she drops more, and we pick them up and sort through them together. I’ve learned that this is not only okay, it’s essential. It’s what’s needed, teachers and fellow therapists. But it does take practice.