Here’s a fascinating article on how an NY high school turned itself around by teaching writing– intensively, and in every course except math.  The graduation rate went up from 63% to 80%; the pass rates for the English Regents test went from 67% to 80% in just two years.

The heart of the article is the discovery process, where the teachers kept analyzing why their students were unable to write simple paragraphs in English.  They discovered, among other things, that the kids didn’t understand words like although and despite.  Asked to write a sentence begining Although… many wrote something like Although George and Lenny were friends.

And that in turn meant they couldn’t write (or follow) complex sentences, and didn’t know the protocols for writing persuasively.

The article complains that many teachers had been following a method where writing was supposed to be “caught, not taught”.  The interesting discussion at MeFi suggests that this is a bit of a mischaracterization.  The creative writing approach, as one commenter put it, wasn’t invented by “hippie idiots”; it was based on empirical observation.  The problem was that the obervation was too narrow; it was based on independent-minded kids who came from reading-intensive households.

That would describe me.  I had some great English teachers, but I always loved reading, and I taught myself as much as I ever learned in school.  I probably wouldn’t have liked the method described in the article… too time-consuming when I’d rather be writing my own stuff.

Another commenter worries that this will spark one more fad… one problem with education is that methods and evaluations change seemingly capriciously every year or two.  Perhaps the real lesson is that this school and its teachers were allowed to figure out for themselves what was necessary and what would work. Motivated teachers really paying attention to what the kids are doing… that works.  It doesn’t mean it’d work if you packaged it up and sold it to or forced it on schools nationwide.