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I was recently asked an intriguing question: How do you improve the writing of high school students who are lagging far, far behind?  I know exactly what the questioner was hoping for, that I would trot out some lovely little system (preferably with a pack of worksheets) that could be used to magically transform students who cannot write a coherent paragraph into the highly literate young adults they desperately need to become in order to enter worlds of work and higher education that will readily discard those who do not measure up.

Unfortunately, the answer to improving inadequate student writing skills is a bit more complicated than that.

Obviously, there are mechanical aspects to good writing that must be mastered.  One cannot write well using commas (if any) as mere decorative elements stringing together a disjointed clump of sentence fragments.  Likewise, a failure to develop a higher order vocabulary makes it difficult to express concepts precisely, and many of the jobs that are being created today require an ability to clearly express oneself that exceeds what was sufficient even a generation or so ago.  The mechanical aspects of good writing can, with sufficient time and rigor, be fairly easily taught, which makes it even more inexplicable that so many students are failing to meet even this modest mark

However, there is an aspect to good writing that goes beyond the mechanical: the ability to think in a linear and logical manner under the pressure of the need to be nothing less than perfect.  This is where worksheets and gimmicky little writing systems fall flat and, although they seem great when the textbook company sings their praises, often turn out to be just time-wasting exercises in busywork.  As much as we might hope a teacher’s innocent exuberance about the wonders of the written word will somehow suffice to fill the gap, I believe there is a bit more needed.

Good writing is, as much as some may wish it to be otherwise, most definitely not a product of some intrinsic ability that educators need only to nurture with kind-hearted encouragement.  Good writing, like the ability to solve a theorem, is an exercise in logical thinking and rigorous skills application, and learning it requires practical and thoughtful direction from an experienced writer, which so many who spend decades teaching writing in our schools are not.

Think about it.  Although no school would ever think of hiring a football coach who had never played the game, it is incredible how many schools will hire someone to teach writing, often to our most underachieving students, who has never written at a level beyond mere class work or, just maybe, a handful of conference papers for the pre-converted, and those doing the hiring rarely give much consideration to a body of published work when looking for a writing teacher.

Why is this a problem?  Plainly put, writers know more about writing than non-writers, just as football players know a lot more about football than I do.

Submitting a piece for print, working as a business professional, or putting oneself out on the public plaza of the Web is the English teacher equivalent of strapping on a helmet and pads and learning on the field of play.  I love football, and I believe I know a lot about football from many weekends glued to the TV or sitting in the stands, but I would never presume to coach football because I have not played in college or, even better, the NFL.  I know a lot less than I would if I actually had played the game, and I am wise enough to know that a book or a workshop will never teach me what I need to know to teach young players who are in desperate need of expert guidance.

It is the same with writing.  Reading a book about business writing is vastly different than actually writing for business; attending a creative writing workshop is a world away from publishing a novel or collection of short stories; classroom expository writing exercises are quite different from having to create a PowerPoint deck to explain something to a roomful of time-pressured managers who are going to fire you if you fail.  If all you’ve ever done is taught writing, the chances are that you are simply not qualified to do so, no matter how many academic credentials you pile onto your résumé, although I am certain there are some exceptions to the rule.

If we are serious about improving student writing, we are going to have to stop insisting that a teaching credential is the only qualification one needs to teach writing.  It is time we started to reach outside the pool of those who have only an education degree and start to actively recruit those with broader professional experience as writers into our classrooms.  In the best of all possible worlds, we will find teachers who have both the necessary state license and significant writing experience; failing this, perhaps we need to find a way to bring published writers into our classrooms to be the expert resources that our struggling students need to sharpen their skills.

However, if you disagree, feel free to visit a doctor who has never actually treated a patient, use an accountant who has never audited a set of books, or trust your car to a mechanic who has yet to perform an oil change.

Also, I’ll be glad use my knowledge of football to guide your school’s team, but don’t blame me if the results are less than stellar.  After all, I’ve watched a whole lot of ESPN in my day.

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