Explorations in Storytelling

On Writing

Writing about writing

Schools Remain in the Dark Ages


I am switching gears, am embarking on my third life, as it were, and am focusing on writing, photography and, well, who knows? But I continue to do some workshops with teachers and schools and kids. I have to confess, though, I am far less optimistic (no matter what, I always am optimistic) about whether schools can realize the potential for e-learning, that is the ability to use digital technology to enhance learning and creativity. And I am even less optimistic about how well we are teaching our kids to write.

First a bit of background on my interest in the digital world.

My fascination with the Web began in 1993. I was a journalist in Akron, Ohio. In late 1993, we started the first syndicated column on the Internet. In 1994, we created the 13th news organization Web site. And sometime that year, I remember our Web columnist shreik: “Oh My God! Do you know how many site there are on the World Wide Web?” “No, Glenn, tell us.” “4,000!” Think about that.

My interest in the Web, in digital technologies persisted and then, in 2006, I left journalism to found Young Writers Project as a nonprofit geared to helping young people find voice. YWP provided them a civil, respectful Web community to share work and give each other support (https://youngwritersproject.org); this was, and is, a “safe” place for youths to take creative risks. YWP staff, volunteers and guest experts provided additional feedback and guidance and workshops — online and in person, but we did so around the students’ ideas (or, if they were a little low on ideas, we gave them “challenges” to devise new ones). YWP published the young writers’ best work in newspapers, on radio and TV and in our own publications. This gave them affirmation and audience — a sense of purpose. And then we started working with teachers.

Then in 2007, at the request of a 5/6th grade teacher, YWP created a closed Web platform as a tool for the teacher to conduct his short story block. Here’s what happened: the kids wrote more, and at a higher level than ever before. They enjoyed it. The class seemed to jell better. Even more remarkable? Two class bullies became class leaders. Whoa.

For the next several years I immersed myself in the world of digital education and honed the platform on an ongoing basis from feedback from students and teachers. We studied it. We found that students using our platform wrote more and of higher quality, they gained confidence and skills and, perhaps most importantly, they developed both an appreciation for writing AND for their classmates. As one student put it, “I had no idea that my classmates were … thinking.” And we also began seeing better, gulp, test scores. In a word, it worked.

We were trailblazers. Schools at the time had only a glimmer of understanding of the potential of digital tools. With part of the statewide student assessments focused on writing — and writing scores were continuing to decline — the demand was there. And the terrain was wide open; YWP flourised. At one point we had teachers in 65 schools using it, which gave us data to begin looking at how the platform might be impacting assessments. The first results were fascinating: Where the platform was in use, writing proficiency testing improved or stayed the same while statewide averages saw a continuation of writing proficiency declines, particularly among boys. But we were tiny. We expanded to provide training and professional mentors and a Master’s Level course which I taught for 7 years. The teachers liked it even though it opened up more work and new methods (how do you design curriculum around providing and receiving feedback?)

And then a host of other companies whose names I dare not mention jumped into the market. They were more focused on classroom management systems (CMS) than on learning; their goal was market dominance; they were extremely well-financed. We did not stand a chance. The corporatization of education. And, at the same time, school administrators and technology directors responded as is normal in the chaos of innovation: They sought to simplify and control. They began the search for ONE software that would take care of a variety of needs. But the people making the decisions weren’t teachers. And their goals were to simplify, to make uniform, to make their own jobs easier. Which is why most schools now use Google Docs instead of online platforms that help kids create community of learners.

And as schools rushed to Apple but eventually flocked to Google, along came Common Core for State Standards, the framework for “reformed” and uniform education and assessment in K-12 in the U.S. While Common Core placed a greater emphasis on writing, it was writing that was reactive and analytical, writing designed to help assess. Poetry was no longer considered a “text type.” Creative writing, even narrative, was of diminished importance. And, most importantly, Common Core’s new testing eliminated writing as a specific proficiency to be assessed. This has reduced public demand that students learn how to write well, further diminished class time devoted to writing (many schools are confining much of writing instruction as a way to prepare for the testing), eliminated almost entirely programs that taught kids how to “touch type” and, of course, diminished the incentive to work with outside nonprofit education organizations like Young Writers project.

So the platform developed by our tiny, innovative organization — and developed over the years with input from students and teachers — has been shunted off to niche-land. And YWP has now decided to hibernate it.

So after 12 years of work I can say this:

  • Writing is an essential life skill.

  • For decades schools have neglected the teaching of this skill.

  • The neglect has gotten worse.

  • Online solutions to enhance writing — commenting, revision, audience, community building — has been forgotten in favor of Google Docs and classroom management software.

  • Writing is a skill needed more now than ever before.

  • And kids are more bored with writing than ever before.