High School Classes are not College Prep

Over the years that I have been an English teacher, there has been a steady decline in students’ writing skills.

Every time I assign a major piece of writing, one that is multiple pages in length, I brace myself for the avalanche of papers about to be turned in.   It’s not the sheer volume of 100 plus essays submitted in one day that blows me back; it’s the poor quality that is troubling.

It can be quite disheartening to read student writing from advanced students and realize that these young people, the best in their class, struggle to organize their thoughts, unable to form a clear argument.

Reasons for this decline does not require a Brookings Institute study.  Kids are reading less and teachers are assigning less writing.

In the most recent round of essays I graded, one-third of the papers did not mention the literature being written about in the introduction, and when they did, these 15-year-olds did not properly punctuate the book title.

Like turning a car engine on and off, their papers began, ended and began again in just two paragraphs, each paragraph reading as a new beginning, lacking transitions or threads to the thesis.

They often bounced back and forth between present and past tense, singular and plural pronoun forms in the same sentence.

And some students decided to analyze the film version, not the book itself, perhaps because they did not read it.

I teach my students that the best mistake prevention tool when writing is to read their paper out loud; few did it as evidenced by the scores of typos not caught by a spellchecker.  What else explains not capitalizing names of characters or misspelling the names altogether.

I asked my students how many of their teachers (other than me) require them to write an expository essay:  53 percent said one, 14 percent said none.

Of course, students don’t have to write full-fledged essays to practice writing.   Students can show their thinking by writing multiple sentence answers to test questions.  So, I queried my students on this.

While 40 percent replied that they have two or more teachers who administer these type of tests, 32 percent have just one teacher who does so, while 28 percent have none.   That means, for the majority of the time, students are taking multiple choice tests which require no writing beyond a fill in the blank.

Remember, these students are taking other advanced placement classes, the most rigorous courses the school has to offer.   Think about how little writing must be happening in the regular classes.

The teachers at the secondary level, especially those who don’t teach English, need to have students read critically and write analytically as often as they can.   With so little writing being practiced, students enter college with a huge handicap.

My freshman son volunteered that only a couple of his high school classes prepared him for the level of writing and the amount of reading required in college; this coming from someone who took several Advanced Placement classes.  Even though all the courses were labeled “college prep,” few deserved that distinction.

If one of the missions of high school is to prepare students for university-level work, we are doing a miserable job.

Could this partially explain why only 21 percent of Cal State University freshmen finish college in four years?

Finding a student paper that isn’t riddled with errors is as rare as finding a parking space at the Glendale Galleria on Black Friday.   And when there is a crisply written paper with an eye-catching opening, a strong argument, and quotes which support astute observations, a teacher wants to shout “hallelujah,” with hope in America’s youth restored.

Until the next paper on the pile.


Writing any Book is an Accomplishment

Last week I was invited to participate in the Local Authors’ Showcase held at the Buena Vista Library in Burbank.

For me, the event gave me an opportunity to talk shop with fellow writers, and to meet interesting people such as the executor of famed film director and screenwriter Richard Brooks who made films such as “Elmer Gantry,” “In Cold Blood,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” and “The Blackboard Jungle” (whose title I adapted for the title of my column).

Another encounter involved a former long-time substitute teacher who gave me an earful about how awful teaching kids are nowadays.   I stood there with a non-committal expression, politely letting her finish her rant, hoping that by not engaging in a debate with her I would encourage a sale. No such luck.

This wasn’t surprising when you think about it. Holding a “books for sale” event at a library is a hard sell (pun intended) since the people circulating from table to table are those who visit a library expressly because it is a public space with free wi-fi, books, and DVDs.

That’s why it made perfect sense when one elderly looky-loo told a fellow writer that she hasn’t bought a book in several years.

Having plenty of time sitting there watching people pick up my books and put them back down allowed me to ponder the plight of a writer.

While the vast majority of authors present were self-published (I was one of the few there who wasn’t), even the worst book took a certain level of dedication to complete.

If the ultimate goal of writing is to make a pot of gold, then most writers are failures.

Just as with other art forms, only the upper echelon of writers make the real money. That explains why publishers like Scribner pour millions into publicizing established moneymakers such as Stephen King, but will not fund the publicity of lesser known writers.   Why take a chance on a no-name when one can sell even more copies of what already works?

Yet success should not be measured by one’s Amazon sales ranking.

One writer with a walker, after receiving no takers at her table, decided to make the rounds of other writers, figuring she may as well make good use of her time by informing them of her memoir based on seven generations of her family.   This woman clearly poured her soul into this book even if no one was buying it.

By documenting her family’s history, she ensured that their lives mattered.

It’s the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

If a book is published and no one reads it, does it exist?

Emphatically, yes.

This is the lesson I try teaching my students when they write their short memoirs. They get it “published” by having classmates read it. Knowing that there will be an audience, no matter the size, makes a big difference in the effort they put into the work.

So even though vanity presses and self-published books may be the step-children in the publishing world, there is some value to these works.   And that’s why events like a local authors’ showcase serve a purpose; even if it means no books are bought, stories are shared . . . and are worth hearing.