Getting writing right

The value of writing in education has always been a hot topic. Peg Tyre's article "The Writing Revolution" in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic magazine added flames to the fire.

Hampden-Sydney College's Rhetoric Program-in place since 1986-aims at ensuring that our graduates can write and speak competently, so we decided to weigh in on the debate. Rhetoric professors Dr. Elizabeth Deis and Dr. Lowell Frye  (below) wrote an article for The Atlantic with President Chris Howard.

Lowell Frye and Elizabeth DeisTyre, the author of The Good School and The Trouble With Boys, says in The Atlantic, "For most of the 1990s, elementary- and middle-­school children kept journals in which they wrote personal narratives, poetry, and memoirs and engaged in 'peer editing,' without much attention to formal composition. Middle- and high-school teachers were supposed to provide the expository- and persuasive-writing instruction."

These practices, she says, led to a period when the skills that students need to be effective communicators began to erode, and the students ultimately became less effective learners. Tyre then documents the radical attempt by New Dorp High School on Staten Island to improve its students' dismal academic record by shifting the educational focus to improving writing.

New Dorp's faculty first examined students' understanding of language. Tyre writes: "A light bulb, says [English teacher Fran] Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn't know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. 'Yes, they could read simple sentences,' but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them-not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn't know, but because 'they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn't understand that the key information in a sentence doesn't always come at the beginning of that sentence.'"

The Staten Island high school witnessed success with its rediscovery of instructional fundamentals, but the idea that students should focus on concepts such as grammar and composition rather than self-expression proved to be controversial, as indicated in Atlantic articles such as "Creativity Is Not the Enemy of Good Writing" by Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones and "A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools" by Rebecca Wallace-Segall.

With education professionals quickly taking sides on the issue, Drs. Deis, Frye, and Howard responded to the notion that creativity and the core competencies of writing are mutually exclusive, using Hampden-Sydney College's Rhetoric Program as a model in which the two approaches could coexist. They wrote: "First, like the program at New Dorp High School, Hampden-Sydney creates a culture in which writing is important. Our rhetoric program engages the active participation of faculty across the College. Students see that writing well is important in biology and political science, just as it is in English and history. Students at Hampden-Sydney hear again and again about the features of good writing; they are held to a consistently high standard of quality for the writing they do in all of their academic courses. As a result, students develop and sustain good writing habits.

Second, if the bar for achievement is set high, the same standards are enforced across the board, and significant support services are made readily available, students will work hard to achieve success. Finally, the program is grounded in the belief that developing creativity and an individual writing voice is as important as understanding the structures of argument and the basic building-block of any written work, the sentence."

Though educators from across the country debate exactly how students should be taught writing, Hampden-Sydney College continues to help students develop their skills by emphasizing the connection between creativity and a solid knowledge of the structures basic to language and composition in order to give our students the tools they need to understand and contribute meaningfully to the 21st Century world.