As a member of this Online Book Club, you are expected to post to the book blog at least once per week between now and July 11 -- that's six weeks. You should finish your book before then, and you will meet during the Institute in your groups to extend the discussion and plan how to present the book to the others in the Institute.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Writing is the New Black:thoughts on chapter 3

The more I read this text, the more I find myself conversing with it -- arguing its points and nodding my head in agreement at some others. One thing this book and I agree on is that writing is a life skill and we need to take time to develop students' writing. From that point though, a lot of things complicate this process and standardized tests seem to be one of them, among others.

First, this text talks about how teachers feel pressured because of standardized tests and that shouldn't be the focus, yet the authors use standardized test scores to show how students are lacking in their writing skills. All I could think was how does writing on standardized tests accurately measure how well our students write? In many cases they are timed, and the product is essentially a rough draft. My question is, how often in "the real world" do we write a first draft of something and send it or publish it? Like, NEVER. (I apologize for the use of the filler word "like" in this instance but all that came to mind was the Taylor Swift song "Never Getting Back Together" -- like EVER -- and the way she stresses it in the song is the way I hear myself saying it in this post. BUT, I digress!) While I agree that there are likely gaps in writing in most students, given the examples of so-called college writing I've seen myself, I'm not sure that standardized tests are the best way to measure how well our students write. Essentially it's like assessing them on a first draft. Can you even imagine grading on a first draft? I can't. It's not realistic. Where's the collaboration? Where's the editing process? What would the final product look like? As we all know, some of us are better first draft writers than others, but that doesn't make one a better writer than the other, does it? Perhaps I'm wrong. I don't know.

Another point of contention I have is the fact that Lattimer asserts high school teachers don't think it's their job to teach writing and that it belongs at the elementary or middle school level. In my experience, all high school teachers have their students write and probably believe they are satisfying the writing across the curriculum idea. However, I wonder if it's a matter of HOW to teach writing for non-English teachers. Can anyone tell me if in their teacher training in disciplines outside of English if you were taught how to teach writing to students in your discipline? I'm legitimately curious to know, because as an English teacher, I had to take a course or two on how to teach writing. So I wonder if the same is true in other disciplines.

Writing absolutely needs to be taught across the curriculum -- explicitly. At the same time, we need to equip teachers of those disciplines how to teach writing in their subject area and sufficient class time needs to be allocated to writing in each classroom and discipline.

One last point I disagree with Lattimer on is her take on providing a framework for writing (i.e. thesis development, topic sentence development, outline, etc.). She argues that the thinking is taken out of the process when we break down the writing process in such a manner. I don't agree at all. Giving a student a starting point as in coming up with a working thesis or working topic sentences doesn't stop the thinking process. I do think it could do that if the student is fixated on a specific number of paragraphs or words, but some type of assistance with organizing thoughts absolutely needs to happen. This doesn't mean that one has to have a rigid format that a student must follow, but young writers need help organizing their ideas. I think offering such tools as graphic organizers and modeling the writing process personally benefits these students. Eventually they will acclimate to whatever writing process works best for them, but we're there to give them the tools to help them organize, and some students need graphic organizers or outlines and such to help them do so.

All in all I can agree with Lattimer that writing is essential in today's world regardless of the field in which one works/studies. I have trouble with the hypocrisy of criticizing standardized tests, yet using standardized test scores to prove how dire our student writing situation is. While our students should absolutely write about real-world situations and audiences, I alsob believe their writing should be assessed in a more realistic way than standardized tests. Additionally,  I think we should assume good will when it comes to teachers in other disciplines as it relates to writing, but perhaps we need to think about how those teachers are trained to teach writing in their disciplines. Maybe then we would see an accurate picture of where our students' writing is and improvement in their skills as well.


  1. Gayle, great points! Your point about the hypocrisy of advocating for not using test scores by using them to justify a point is really interesting. I had trouble with that as well, but couldn't articulate as clearly as you did. I just read through the "this is the problem" parts and sort of said, "Yeah, I know, we do poorly on testing compared to other countries." It's a really interesting point, but I think that comparing our scores to other countries may still have some value. Maybe? If we're all essentially being scored on our first drafts, as you point out, then isn't it still a pretty dramatic problem if we're so far behind other countries with which we "should" be on par?

    I also had the same reaction to the part about providing structure when writing. I think it's definitely important to provide and analyze model texts to help kids identify and discover some of the structure, writing techniques, etc. But, I think that giving a framework and then encouraging students to break out of it once they know how to effectively communicate ideas can work.

    And as far as teacher preparation goes, I did my teacher certification program in Pennsylvania for Social Studies (technically social sciences), and we did not have a specific course focused on reading/writing/literacies and how to teach them. We might have had one class seminar to focus on it, but it definitely wasn't emphasized. However, in moving back to Michigan, I've gotten semi-involved with the teacher education program at the University of Michigan, and their program definitely emphasizes teaching literacies for all their teachers (elementary and secondary teachers). This is exciting to me, and definitely something I wish I had in my training.

    1. Thank you for responding, Joslyn! There is certainly some validity in comparing to other countries, so long as all are compared apples to apples, meaning all students are tested, the same material, etc. But another aspect of writing on standardized tests is that there's only one format: an essay. At least I think I'm correct with this assumption. I'm only aware of high school standardized tests, but as this book talks about the different types of writing necessary in "real-world" scenarios, the testing only assesses essay writing.

      In terms of teacher training in Michigan, I came out of the MAC program at UofM but graduated in 2005, so it's been 11 years. I do know that what you say is true in terms of literacy training in the content areas, but I wonder about teaching writing in the content areas. I could be wrong but I think they cover reading and comprehension, but I'm not sure if they cover teaching writing in the discipline. I'm really interested in knowing for sure whether or not this is the case. I think it would make a big difference in the perception of where writing should be taught and the frequency it is taught in the high school classroom.

      I often come across as critical of this text in my posts, but all in all I do agree with everything in theory. I guess I'm trying to get at the problems as to why this theory is not seen as often in practice. Now, onto the next chapter! :)