When Sherry Swain was teaching writing to first-graders, she sometimes took a lesson from E.B. White’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web.”
She would read the first sentence -- “‘Where's Papa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.” -- and tell her students, “You know, that wasn’t E.B. White’s first draft. His first attempt started, ‘Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived on a farm.’”
It’s a white lie, Swain admits; she has no idea how White’s first draft began. But in using the two opening lines, the children got a taste of some of the craft’s most classic lessons, including that writing is rewriting.
Swain, a senior research associate for the National Writing Project, calls writing “the neglected R” in the grade-school curriculum, and the test scores from Bridge’s Academic Champions for charter schools reflect it. Where several schools were able to reach 100 percent at or above proficiency in testing for 4th grade reading and math skills, the highest performers on the writing test were Chandler Woods Charter Academy with 75.6 percent and AGBU Alex-Marie Manoogian School, which achieved 66.7 percent proficient. (The statewide average for all public-school students is 47 percent, and the highest result posted by a public school in last fall's Bridge Magazine's Academic Championships was 81.8 percent.)
As part of its "Academic State Championship" coverage, Bridge Magazine used a database to analyze results from all of Michigan's charter schools on eight academic measures, including 4th Grade Writing, and then divided the results into two groups based on the socioeconomic characteristics of their student bodies. Chandler Woods claimed the writing title for schools with student bodies with 39 percent or less eligible for free lunch programs; Manoogian claimed the title for schools with at least 40 percent of free-lunch eligibles.
Some school principals said writing will always get lower scores, because of the more complex nature of judging it.
“There’s only one answer (in math),” said Thomas Ackerson, principal of Island City Academy in Eaton Rapids, even as he acknowledged that new assessment techniques for writing are more or less objective.
Swain agreed, saying the National Writing Project and others have worked to come up with an unbiased system for measuring the skill. Perfecting the teaching is another matter.
“If all you do is write every day, it'll feel good,” said Swain. “But if you want them to write better, you need to show (students) different sentence styles, show them different types of writing, identify specific strategies.”
Jan Sabin, director of the Upper Peninsula Writing Project and a writing teacher in Marquette Area Public Schools, agrees.
“We’re worried about the product and not the process,” she said. The process -- drafting, revision, etc. -- is the core of the skill. Writing tests generally collect first drafts only.
“I believe if you live the process long enough, you can get to the point where a student can produce something good on the first try,” Sabin said. But it takes time to teach, and it can’t be done overnight.
Chandler Woods Charter Academy, in Belmont, was founded in 1999 as part of J.C. Huizenga’s National Heritage Academies. The company has 71 schools in nine states, said Principal Barbara Lindquist. With an enrollment of 715 in grades K-8, Lindquist said the school’s focus is the same as it was at its founding: “Academics, moral focus, responsibility, parental partnership.”
The school works to incorporate writing in all subject areas, and to offer students “constant feedback” on their work, Lindquist said, so they always know where they stand and where they need to improve, if any.
At Southfield’s AGBU Alex-Marie Manoogian School, students learn as part of a curriculum focused on the Armenian heritage shared by the school’s namesakes; Alex Manoogian was founder of Masco Corp. and a well-known benefactor of causes and charities throughout Metro Detroit.
But half the school’s students aren’t Armenian, said Principal Dyana Kezelian. The diverse student body is comprised of children from all over the area, and “all take Armenian language” as part of the core curriculum.
Kezelian said students write daily, and the school has made writing a focus, “really concentrating” in the lower grades, even preschool.
Swain said the process of teaching writing is constantly being refined. She said strategies such as those in practice at Chandler Woods and the Manoogian school are sound, but nothing beats skill and persistence.
“Writing is a learning tool and a skill to be valued,” she said. “Teaching it does take time. There's a level of expertise that needs to be developed” among teachers. Part of the National Writing Project’s mission is to identify successful techniques and see that others know about them.
“What we do at the NWP is honor anything that works,” Swain said.
Nancy Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.