Great USA Today Op-Ed from 2002

Again, worth reprinting most of it:

‘Crayola curriculum’ takes over
By Donna Harrington-Lueker

In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, the message traffic on an e-mail discussion group I subscribe to heated up about as much as the mercury outdoors. Did anyone have suggestions for a unit on Arthurian literature? Any ideas for teaching sophomores about short stories? How about new approaches to The Crucible?

But the message with the subject line “Children’s Literature in High School?” was the one that really caught my attention. The sender explained that she had just come back from a big-name summer workshop on how to teach writing and was jazzed up about using picture books with her high school students. Not jazzed up about novels or short stories or poems or Shakespeare, but children’s picture books such as Click, Clack, Moo and Uncle Jed’s Barbershop.

So I sat back and waited. Surely, I thought, someone would question the approach. As a college English teacher who works daily with students who struggle mightily with college writing, I was certain someone, somewhere on the list, would suggest — maybe politely, maybe not — that with all of the other skills students needed to master, maybe picture books weren’t the most effective use of time. Instead the praise began, and just a few days later, the list moved seamlessly on to discussing the benefits of reading out loud to high school seniors.

Talk to teachers, review messages posted on e-mail groups and browse professional journals, and you’ll find high school assignments that are long on fun and remarkably short on actual writing.

For example, someone who teaches an honors class for high school freshmen posts a short-story project that allows students 13 options, only a handful of which involve actual writing. Among the choices students are offered: create a map to illustrate the story’s setting, make a game to show the story’s theme, put together a collage from magazine photographs, or assemble a scrapbook or photograph album for the character.

Teaching Arthurian literature? Have your students design a coat of arms. Need an alternative to a book report? Have students draw the design for a book jacket.

While such activities may be more entertaining for students, and less work for the teachers in terms of grading the projects, kids are often showing up at college unable to write.

This month, according to projections from the U.S. Department of Education, some 2.4 million freshmen will enroll in the nation’s colleges and universities. If the department’s numbers hold constant — which many believe they will — nearly 30% of freshmen will take remedial courses in mathematics, reading or writing to provide them with the skills they lack for college-level work.

And courses in writing and reading will account for a significant chunk of that instruction, says Marga Torrence, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. According to 1995 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, 17% of college freshmen required remedial classes in writing, and 13% needed classes in reading. In 2001, 46% of students in the California State University system’s 23 schools were enrolled in remedial English classes.

The irony: At four-year colleges, Torrence says, the students enrolled in remedial classes are likely to have good high school grades.

Starting college without college-level reading and writing skills puts students at a significant disadvantage in nearly all of their other courses as well.

“It’s just a big disconnect between K-12 and higher education,” Torrence says.
. . .

“I see it all the time,” says Carol Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School in California and author of the book Cohesive Writing. “I say take the crayons away, pick up the pen and write about something.”

Nor are English teachers the only ones at fault. Students don’t appear to be writing substantively in other classes either, says Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, a journal of academic writing for high school history students.

Fitzhugh’s evidence is anecdotal: Too often, he says, high school writing is creative and “entirely self-referential” (involves students’ writing about themselves). And with all of the anxiety about plagiarism on the Internet, teachers appear to be assigning few if any research papers — at least not the rigorous 20-page analyses that Fitzhugh’s journal publishes. Recent papers selected for publication include such serious titles as “The Outcome of that Discontent: Oscar Micheaux, Motion Pictures and the Race for Dignity” and “The Treason Debate: Ezra Pound and His Rome Radio Broadcasts.”

Still another culprit is the fascination with PowerPoint presentations, Fitzhugh says, which typically involve spiffy graphics and soundtracks paired with a single sentence, perhaps a paragraph or a bulleted list of items rather than sustained analysis.

If high schools are really serious about turning out students who can write well, they have to do more than supply their teachers with red pens. They have to think seriously about class sizes and workloads. If an average English teacher sees 150 students a week, assigning even a 10-page research paper means having to read and critique 1,500 pages. A 20-page paper — the kind Fitzhugh is accustomed to printing — is nearly impossible.

Under such circumstances, maps, collages and posters make sense: They’re easier to grade, and they don’t raise nearly the fuss a research paper would.

And the picture books? I can’t explain them. But maybe a collage could help me understand.

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a freelance education writer in Bristol, R.I., and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.

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