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Q&A: 'The Writing Revolution' Encourages Focus on Crafting Good Sentences

Judith C. Hochman has long seen holes in writing instruction.

"We're very good at assigning writing," she explains. "We're not very good at teaching kids how to write."HochmanAUpic-001.jpg

While working as head of a private school for students with disabilities more than two decades ago, she devised a program to teach the explicit skills she'd found many students to be missing—how to expand sentences using words like because, but, and so; how to combine sentences using conjunctions; how to write a focused topic sentence. Students learn these writing skills within the science, history, and other subjects they are studying.

In 2012, the Hochman Method, as it was known, was featured in an Atlantic article about a struggling Staten Island high school that saw huge gains in writing after implementing the program. Hochman was quickly overwhelmed with requests for training, and soon formed a nonprofit to provide courses and partner with schools and districts. The group's advisory board includes some well-known yet divisive education figures—David Coleman, who crafted the Common Core State Standards for literacy and is now president of the College Board, and Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion.

And now Hochman, with the help of education writer Natalie Wexler, has written a book. The Writing Revolution, which shares the name of both the Atlantic article and the nonprofit, will be released in July.

I spoke with Hochman and her co-author Wexler recently about their recipe for writing instruction and why they think it works. (The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

You two come from the perspective that writing instruction is failing students. What are the problems you see in the way students are being taught to write?

Hochman: It's self-centered. ... Students have a lot of free-writing in journals. They have a writing period where they're given [a prompt] like, "Should we have a longer recess?" and they're writing about that.

The instruction ... is almost nonexistent. Our students write the way they speak, and they don't really learn the difference between the structures of how we speak versus the structures of how we write.

The answer really is not to teach grammar in isolation. You can diagram sentences from now to Tuesday and it really isn't going to inform composing. Children should learn [the parts of speech], but they should learn them embedded in writing instruction.

Wexler: As we we say in the book, you can't write well unless you know what you're writing about well. You can't really separate the skill of writing from knowledge of what you're writing about.

Schools also don't really focus on the sentence level that much. Certainly beyond elementary school, students are not mastering the art of crafting a sentence. And if you can't write a good sentence, you can't write a good paragraph, and you can't write a good essay.WritingRevolutionCover.jpg

There are a few grammatical structures that you focus on having students learn, such as appositives.

Hochman: Yes. "The Writing Revolution, a not-for-profit organization, is headquartered in New York."

With an appositive [such as the clause "a not-for-profit organization" in that sentence], you're presenting more information about the subject.

Explain how you have students learn appositives.

Hochman: It might start in elementary school as a simple matching exercise, where they're looking at the subject and matching it to the appositive device in the sentence. And then we might give them a sentence with a blank in it and tell them to add an appositive. And then we might say we want to see a topic sentence with an appositive in it.

What are some other writing devices you teach explicitly?

Hochman:  We give them very discrete ways to write topic sentences. So we might say one of the ways to start a topic sentence, and a very useful way, is to use a subordinating conjunction. "While many teachers want to stress creative writing, others believe that an emphasis on expository writing will be more productive for students." That word "while," and putting [the writer's] position last, that's important for students to know.

We also teach starting sentences with dependent clauses. "Although there are many fine educational publications, Education Week is outstanding for many reasons."

That beginning ["although"] is a dependent clause, which is not the way we speak. This will help them navigate these dependent clauses when they have to read original documents or classic literature or literature that they're assigned routinely to read. It's enabling them to process language at a much higher level.

A criticism of the technique you're using is that it's too constricting, there's too much of a focus on process, that it stifles students' creativity. What's your response?

Hochman: If they mean by 'creativity' the notion of personal memoirs—four and five paragraphs in 4th or 5th grade—or writing poems, or other activities like that, we feel there's very limited instructional time in schools, and we've got to teach where the returns are going to be the greatest.

We try to use the strategies that have the highest leverage for shifting them from oral structures to written structures within your content.

The way we teach children to write introductions and conclusions, for example, some people might say it's formulaic. Our response to that is: Do you go into a kitchen and start to bake a cake without a recipe? Once you learn how to use the recipe and you bake a pretty good cake, you may come up with variations that are appropriate.

Wexler: Writing is an extremely complex process, so if you're trying to think about the mechanics and master those at the same time you're trying to express yourself, you have less creativity left over to think about your content—what it is you want to say.

But if you've got those tools of crafting interesting sentences under your belt so they become more or less Wexlerheadshot.jpgautomatic, then you can unleash your creativity and really focus your limited brainpower on what you want to say.

What's wrong with turning students loose to write freely every so often? Can't that help foster a love of writing?

Hochman: We usually love what we do well. Most people don't love what they hate to do. So the people who talk about kids loving writing, the possibility of them loving something that's pretty widely recognized as something that they don't do well is very remote.

Right after the common core was published, there was a lot of talk, including in the Atlantic article, about how the standards upped the ante for what's required of student writers, and would therefore change how writing is taught. Do you think that's happened?

Hochman: I think the answer is no. Because [the standards] tell you what's expected, but they don't tell you how to get there.

What you see is much more challenging assignments. So you go into an elementary school and you see all these multiparagraph compositions, and if you look closely, they don't have the coherence and organization that one would expect.

These kids are being asked to do things at a much younger age, but they're not being shown how to do it. And that's a frustration for the teachers, parents, and kids.

Wexler: The standards go grade by grade and they assume that once you've gotten to middle school or high school, we don't have to worry about your ability to write a sentence because we took care of that in elementary school. But in fact that hasn't happened with a lot of kids.

Images (Top and Bottom, respectively): Judith C. Hochman, Natalie Wexler


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