"K-12 and Post-Secondary Writing: Continuum Rather Than Great Divide"
by Ginny Ryan
Memorial University of Newfoundland Writing Centre
This posting consists of two parts: a brief summary of the project named above, and a series of questions concerning that project which I am hoping to ponder with you at Inkshed 22.
Part I: Project Summary My almost eight years as director of Memorial University of Newfoundland's Writing Centre has given me a unique perspective on the reading and writing experiences of students moving from our province's school system to its single university. And in that time I have had innumerable conversations, both formal and informal, with the various stakeholders involved -- high school teachers, high school students, first-year as well as more advanced university students, professors, parents, school board officials, and Department of Education curriculum specialists -- on the state of student writing in this province. The prevailing opinion, particularly but certainly not exclusively at the university level, is that our students' current facility with written language is far weaker than it should be. But although there has seemed to be a general consensus here that young people's writing skills are weak, rumblings from various quarters have suggested that it is neither clear what constitutes "good writing" nor who/what is to blame when "good writing" does not occur.
I decided, therefore, that it might be helpful to try to determine a) whether the aims of writing instruction among K-12 teachers differ greatly from the concerns about student writing at the university level and b) what if any changes educators at the varying levels feel need to be made to the way writing instruction is conducted. So in the winter of 2004, I created and disseminated a survey to teachers of language arts throughout Newfoundland and Labrador's K-12 system, as well as to all Memorial University instructors who require students to write in their courses, to try to find answers to these questions. The survey form simply asked that participants list, in descending order, the five attributes of effective writing they considered it most important to foster in students. It also allowed space for additional comments. Over a two-month period I received 497 responses -- from teachers of all grade levels and from all the 10 provincial school districts, as well as from faculty from Memorial's Arts, Science, and professional schools. I grouped and tallied these responses, trying to be as consistent as possible in my interpretation of the many descriptors the respondents used for writing skills. I also considered the responses in two ways: by their sheer frequency of occurrence as well as by the weightings assigned to them (most important, second-most- important, fifth-most-important, etc.) And what I found was that six aspects of students' writing were identified as most important across the board, whether in the opinion of grade two teachers or of university professors, by my 497 respondents. These were, in descending order both of frequency and weighting, conventions, organization, content, sentence structure, vocabulary, and fluency/coherence (my "definitions" to be provided at Inkshed).
Surveyed teachers of Kindergarten through University ranked conventions -- the ability to use grammar and punctuation correctly and to spell well -- as the most important skill for student writers to develop. They ranked organization -- the ability to structure ideas in logical sequence appropriate to a desired format, to introduce and conclude ideas, and to develop ideas around a strong purpose or organizing principle -- as second most important. And they ranked content -- the quality of message, the degree of idea development, the support of claims and, where appropriate, the quality of analysis -- as third. And not wanting to make any false generalizations about the degree to which these responses were representative across the "continuum," I checked to see if the same trends existed within individual instructional groups; in other words, I wanted to be sure it was honest to claim, for example, that "conventions" were ranked as highly by primary teachers as by university professors. And I found that the same concerns did indeed predominate, whatever the grade level. My resulting question, then, became as follows: if educators at all levels tend to aim for and value the same things in their students' writing, why do our province's students seem to be experiencing so much difficulty as they move through and on from the secondary to the post-secondary system? Why do their journeys as writers seem so little like a continuum, if a continuum is what everyone intends? And what answers I reached came largely from the rich and often impassioned anecdotal responses that many of the survey participants included on their forms -- responses I plan to make available to you at Inkshed. In brief, though, here are the prevalent themes in the responses, grouped by teaching level:
To the School Boards and/or Government:
Part II: Questions to be Considered
1. Where can I go with this? How can I use it to help student writers?
Background: I gave a widely-advertised presentation on this project in February, 2005, at the University. Members of the Department of Education were invited; local and provincial school board officials were invited, and were requested to extend the invitation to teachers at their schools (the presentation was deliberately scheduled during after-school hours); All Memorial faculty members were invited, with a special invitation extended to members of the Education faculty, whom I thought it would be especially important to include in the planned post-presentation forum. Who came? One person from the Department of Education -- a person with no ostensible power and on the verge of retirement; no one from the school boards; no teachers; one Education professor out of a faculty of more than 50; and a good mix of professors from other schools and faculties, many of whom, however, were there at least in part because they knew me. Note: The project has not yet been written up and made generally available in print form; a number of people have requested that I do this -- and I shall.
2. How does one get representatives of the numerous stakeholders to sit down at the same table to talk about these matters? (related, of course, to question #1)
Background: Many teachers would gladly come to the table if they had the time and knew that they were invited; unfortunately, they tend not to have the time, and are difficult to reach except through their administrators who, for various reasons, seem not to see to it that the invitation gets through to them. School board officials and Department of Education specialists seem wary of discussions initiated by someone at the University, especially if they sense that elements of the status quo may be questioned in those discussions. Instructors from the Education faculty seem wary of discussions initiated by University members outside their faculty -- again, particularly if they feel that any of their own practices may come up in the discussion. Instructors from the English department tend to go on the offensive if they sense that anyone might be proposing a change in what they see as the status quo. In short, few stakeholders from any camp seem interested in a discussion that might lead to an altering of things-as-they-are.
3. How does a generally non-partisan person like me who does not belong to any of these stakeholder groups get invited to their internal discussions of things-as-they-are?
Background: I joined the provincial teachers' union's special interest council on Language Arts; it turned out to be an ineffectual body without a credible voice, and it eventually went defunct. I became friends with the Department of Education's Curriculum Specialist in Language Arts, and was even invited to have input into curricular guidelines pertinent to writing; I ceased getting phone calls from this department when it became clear that I had concerns about elements of the prescribed curriculum. I am a member of our university's Faculty of Arts but not a faculty member; I have thus just recently been omitted from a series of very important Faculty Council discussions on directions to consider with regard to writing instruction in the Arts Faculty. I seem to be considered suspect by the Faculty of Education because I am a member (albeit not a faculty member!) of the Faculty of Arts. I am sometimes inclined to go straight to the VP Academic with my concerns, but am aware of the danger of thereby offending my own administrative superior (the Dean of Arts).
4. Is there, finally, any point in pursuing this project any further? Is it a "battle" that others in similar positions have fought and lost? Is it a "battle" better attempted by someone occupying a position different than the one I occupy? In other words, are the answers to question #1 "nowhere" and "you can't"?
I do look forward to any insights you at Inkshed can offer me, and I look forward to seeing you there. Ginny Ryan