In his column this week, Jay Mathews begins with a premise I can agree with. I know. I was also surprised.
His concept is that schools don’t make writing a priority and that students don’t engage in writing nearly enough.
So far, so good. But then he heads off into well-worn territory, making the case largely about himself.
Mathews suggests that teachers should enlist people like him, “retired or semiretired wordsmiths” such as “journalists, speechwriters, English teachers, lawyers, novelists”, to edit student writing.
I am not a teacher. But I have written for pay since 1966. I know how I learned. In college, a ragged collection of older undergraduates began tearing apart the stories I tried to write for the student paper. Good editing showed me what was wrong and how to fix it. I began to wonder why that never happened to me in class, not even at the big university we were attending.
The reason he “wonders why that never happened to me in class” goes back to the first statement: “I am not a teacher.” He has no clue what it takes for a high school English teacher to cope with assignments coming from up to 150 students.
Anyway, most of the column is typical Mathews: a few general thoughts that don’t add up to a coherent idea. Which tells me he’s probably not the person you want to bring into your classroom to help students become better writers.
Especially since his assumption seems to be that writing in school is all about the standard five-paragraph essay and the classic term paper.1 Formats that only a college professor could love and certainly not how writing is done in the real world.
Besides, why does “writing” in school even have to take the form of words on a page?
The purpose of writing is to organize and communicate ideas, sometimes to inform, others to persuade. Why couldn’t that be achieved using audio or video, formats that students often find more useful?
Reporters at his own paper don’t just write for the traditional newsprint page. Most are frequently involved with creating videos to explain issues and with recording podcasts that provide larger context. They write blog posts and participate in online discussions. All of which requires lots of writing, editing, and rewriting.
As to editing student work, why does that need to come from one person, much less someone calling themselves a “wordsmith”? How about students editing in teams, maybe online with kids in other places? If writing is all about creating something that conveys a message, maybe the best editors are people at whom that message is directed.
But coming back to Mathews original idea, that students need to do more writing. That is very true.
However, the audience for that writing and how it is disceminated has changed tremendously since he started writing for pay in the 60s. The way kids learn to create good writing should also be very different.
1. Mathews uses the term paper to get in his usual cheerleading for the AP and IB programs.