Author, poet, and educator Fran Claggett believes school should be an environment in which high-level thinking meshes with high-level reading and writing, and she urges teachers toward higher goals than simply preparing students for “life after school.”
Claggett is the author of Teaching Writing: Craft, Art, Genre, a new book from NCTE. She explains that the book “begins with the importance of ‘setting purpose’ and ‘finding form’ before moving into the specifics of how to approach the teaching of specific genres, how to utilize the natural propensity of writers to model and incorporate strategies of other writers, how to explain the importance of including poetry, how to examine the teaching of grammar in contexts for writing, and how to integrate computers into the writing classroom. The goal throughout is to give teachers some specific ideas on how to help students become confident and effective writers, no matter what their purposes are or might become as they enter into their separate paths when they leave school.
“My hope,” Claggett says, “is that this book will serve as a valuable resource for teachers, from those in teacher education programs to those just beginning their careers to teachers who have been in the field a long time and are looking for some new ideas as well as some justification for practices they already use in their own classrooms.”
For most of her 35 years in the profession, Claggett taught high school. She also taught some at the college level. She was an early participant in and consultant for the Bay Area Writing Program. Currently, she writes, consults, and teaches memoir writing in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University. She has written many books, including A Measure of Success: From Assignment to Assessment in English Language Arts, which won the 1998 James N. Britton Award, and Black Birds and Other Birds, a volume of poetry.
CC: Reports from the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges have sounded the alert that a large number of private sector and state government employees don’t have adequate writing skills for their jobs. The reports further note that companies spend billions of dollars per year and state government spends millions getting employees’ writing skills up to speed. In addition, poor writing skills can keep you from being hired and from being promoted, according to these reports. What do you think about these findings?
FC: As a preliminary comment, I’d like to say that I have never considered teaching as preparing students for “life after school.” I’d rather think of it as a time for putting down roots for life, life in school as well as life after school. I think of education as an ongoing process; the time we spend in school is not apart from life, something we do to “get ready” for life. This concern has been part of my philosophy for many years; I even have a long prose poem on the futility of the subject of school as “getting ready” in my first book of poetry, published in 1975!
That said, of course I recognize the need for helping students achieve the level of expertise necessary for them to engage in the “things of this world,” to quote Richard Wilbur. If that means being able to write reports for government commissions or proposals for improving the business environment, we need to see that they have the thinking and writing strategies to perform at that high level. If it means being able to communicate with friends on the Web by creating and maintaining a Web site or blog, then we need to see that they have experience in both journaling and computers. Nearly every job or profession has a writing component. School is not the place to determine the specific writing needs for the jobs that exist now, much less those we don’t even know about because they are changing as we write. What school is the place for is creating an environment in which high-level thinking meshes with high-level reading and writing.
Within that environment, we need to teach students how to write in various genres for various purposes and various audiences. A friend recently told me of a very high-level business executive she was working with who confessed that he had to have his school-teacher daughter read anything he was sending out to the field. He felt he didn’t have the writing skills needed even to express himself clearly within his field. This should not happen. Students need to understand how important it is to know that they can write whatever kind of writing they need or want to do in their lives, from personal to professional. It is our job as teachers to help them reach this level of expertise.
I agree that as teachers we must be committed not only to helping students attain adequate (or better) writing skills for whatever jobs they eventually have, but also to continually monitor and improve our own expertise in teaching writing. We must make time to read current research, attend professional conferences, and set up communities within our school and district to share information. Then we must work together to design a curriculum that makes use of what we know as best practices. We need to be vigilant in ways to resist easy answers: scripted lessons, faulty research, test-driven curricula. Experienced teachers need to provide support to new teachers and to learn from them as well.
CC: How can teachers deal with the pressure (and find the time) to help students succeed on writing assessments in the short term and still prepare them for real world writing demands? Are the two goals mutually exclusive?
FC: I don’t see these goals as mutually exclusive if the writing assessments are authentic. Ideally, writing assessments allow for students to write for various purposes and for specific audiences. No single assessment should be used as a measure of achievement. In the current political climate, I realize such assessments are possible only within classrooms and within some schools and districts. Teachers are being ordered to spend valuable class time preparing students for inauthentic writing assessments. It takes courage and knowledge of the field for teachers to maintain control of their curriculum. My experience shows that students who are well prepared to think and write for multiple purposes and in multiple genres do exceptionally well on most mandated tests.
CC: What types of writing skills should teachers teach in order to prepare our future workforce?
FC: I think we need to acknowledge that we don’t know what the specific demands of the workforce will be in even five years. What we do know is that students should be able to write reports, persuasive pieces, evaluations, and interpretations. In addition, they should value and be able to write autobiographical pieces, reflections, and poetry. They need to attend to both the craft and the art, as I suggest in the title of my book. With these preparations, they will be able to adapt, the critical word for the future.
CC: Is there enough of a connection between school writing tasks and real-world writing demands? Can students make, and mine, the connections?
FC: The connections are there, but teachers may need to spend more time helping students see that they need to broaden their expertise, not focus on what they now think they may need to know or be able to do. The connections are in the mind, not on paper. We can only help students value their own ability to write—understanding their choices, knowing the possibilities of purpose, being aware of their audiences. We want students to be able to enter any job or profession as confident and effective writers in all genres.
I’ll finish my remarks by quoting from a talk I gave at the English teachers’ Asilomar Conference entitled “Words as Legacy, Silence as Gift: Reflections of a Teacher-Writer.”
There can be no effective reform without touching the poet in every person: the legacy of the word is the ballast that enables us to take on these other challenges, not to retreat in the face of what are nearly overwhelming forces assailing us in education today. We can survive these forces if we remember who we are and why we are here. And why all of our students need poetry:
Struggling readers can read poetry
Mathematicians lean toward poetry
Struggling writers can write poetry
Budding physicists cannot deny poetry
Environmentalists have to save poetry
Future politicians desperately need poetry, perhaps now even more than when Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”
Teaching Writing: Craft, Art, Genre; Stock #52503; $24.95, NCTE members; $33.95, non-NCTE members. To order this and other titles, visit the Online Store at http://www.ncte.org/store or call customer service at (toll free) 877-369-6283.
See Fran Claggett and Louann Reid speaking about this book at NCTE’s Annual Convention.