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Learning requires writing, but students today come up short
October 9, 2003

Last semester, I found this New York Times editorial written by Tamar Lewin. The headline read: "Writing in schools is found both dismal and neglected."

I swore I wouldn't react to it. I've grown weary of the topic, because I'm still in the business of teaching writing, and I face students daily who simply cannot write (oh, you may find one or two who can, but  out of 27?).

And these are college students - or pretending to be.

The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges found some disturbing facts, not the least of which is that "in most high schools, the extended research paper, once a senior-year rite of passage, has been abandoned because teachers do not have time to grade it anymore."

I teach research writing, or what we often refer to as the "documented essay" using Modern Language Association, or MLA, format in incorporating textual evidence and the works-cited page.

The blank look on students' faces is enough to make one quit and run when they hear these words.

"What do you mean by 'textual evidence?' " they ask. "What do you mean by 'works-cited page?' " they query.

And don't even mention the MLA style. You'd lose them, as I often do - about 35 percent of them, by the time we get to this writing assignment. On their way out of my classroom, some mutter, "He's making this course harder than it is."

The commission recommended that the number of writing assignments be doubled.

I fully concur, but if you're working with nothing, where do you start?

The rigor and details of writing (especially a research paper) are something students are not accustomed to.

They simply do not understand, nor care to understand, how to "struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts and rework raw information and dimly understood  concepts into language they can communicate to someone else," as the article reports.

I am saddened when students withdraw from writing classes. I am saddened when they enroll in another, looking for an easy way out, building what I call "fluffy credentials," filled with meaningless credits.

The report said it well: "In short, if students are to learn, they must write."

Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Listen to this: The commission "found that only about half of the nation's 12th-graders report being regularly assigned papers of three or more pages in
English class; about four in 10 say they never, or hardly ever, get such  assignments."

I don't need to be reminded of  these statistics. My classrooms are living proof that student writing is dismal, and our high schools keep passing their graduates on to my classrooms and colleagues' classrooms, hoping perhaps that somewhere along the line, somebody is going to get the job done.

We can't rectify four years of little or no writing in high school in 16 weeks of college.

And please, don't talk to me about their grammar. You might as well be teaching Greek.

* Arnie Davidson is a writing instructor at Pima Community College.