It’s a typical school night, and sophomore Lichi Chan is working on an essay. This is hardly the first essay she’s written, but it is unlike any of her past essays. This is not a thesis essay for English, nor is it a research paper for social studies. Rather, it is an essay on basketball—for physical education.
This is a result of Writing Across the Curriculum—a program designed to deepen students’ understanding of subject material, while also enforcing and enriching their writing skills, by having them write in all classes—even those that don’t typically require it. What started as an educational reform movement in the 1970s has become a developed program found in many high schools and colleges across the country.
While the program has been successful in some classes—namely humanities courses—both students and teachers report that it is lacking in effectiveness in other departments.
Some subjects, such as Spanish and social studies, seem to lend themselves naturally to Writing Across the Curriculum.
“In Spanish class, we write responses to videos about Spanish culture,” freshman Sandy Yu said. “It’s definitely useful because studying Spanish isn’t just about learning the grammar. Writing it out places an emphasis on learning and accepting the way Hispanics speak and think differently. By rehashing it, we get what we can’t learn from a textbook.”
Even in classes that do not lend themselves to writing, however, the program can be successful.
Recently, in the Physical Education department, students were asked to write a report on the rules of games or sports, or on how they could explain certain concepts in physical education. Students in a weight training class also had to create charts explaining each muscle group and do a presentation.
“It’s definitely helpful,” Physical Education Assistant Principal Larry Barth said. “If you can express how to do it to someone else, that shows that you’ve understood the material.”
According to junior Tyng Feng, a supporter of the program, a class’s failure to pass a written quiz speaks ill of the class, not of the writing program. “I like it when my math or physics teacher assigns us writing to do,” Feng said. “It’s a good way to test how much you know. If you fully understand something, it’s easy to put into words. If you’re struggling on your paper, then you know you haven’t learned enough.”
In a survey of 222 students, measuring the effectiveness of the Writing Across the Curriculum program, with 1 being ‘not at all effective’ and 5 being ‘very effective,’ an average score of 4.1 was given to the English Department’s handling of the program. The second highest average score, of 3.5, was given to the Social Studies Department.
However, satisfaction with Writing Across the Curriculum wanes in the Math, Science, Physical Education and Music/Technology Departments, with ratings of 2.1, 2.3, 1.9 and 1.8 given respectively.
There are several reasons given by both students and faculty for the limited success of the Writing Across the Curriculum program in the non-humanities departments. One of the trends is that teachers are having a hard time finding ways to bring the program into the classroom. In a recent survey administered anonymously to 100 Stuyvesant teachers, several of them wrote that they were finding it difficult to incorporate Writing Across the Curriculum policies into their lessons.
Many of the surveyed teachers also wrote that they thought it would be helpful if the administration would give them more concise guidelines on how to incorporate the program. “I really would like to have a kind of handout or even a small pamphlet on Writing Across the Curriculum writing exercises that have worked for other teachers,” wrote an anonymous teacher from the Art Department.
Another suggested reason for the program’s lack of traction in these departments was that it takes excessive time away from the core curriculum. For teachers already rushing to cover all of the required material in the curriculum, having to grade Writing Across the Curriculum assignments takes up too much of their time. “It takes at least three tortuous hours to grade one class set of geometry tests,” wrote an anonymous math teacher.
“Ten minutes per essay with comments times 170 students. You do the math,” wrote an anonymous social studies teacher.
Some students believe that the problem with the program is that no one really cares.“I think a lot of students don’t take writing essays outside of English class seriously,” sophomore Eric Heo said. “It’s probably because the teachers don’t take it too seriously either. My friend gave in his history essay two weeks late and still got full credit for it.”
“My math teacher last year said, ‘I have to do this Writing Across the Curriculum thing’ and made us write essays about any subject we wanted, as long as it related to math,” freshman Nina Wade said. “They couldn’t be any longer than a page because he didn’t want to have to grade pages of essays. He didn’t really care, he was just doing it because he had to.”
Some students and teachers feel Writing Across the Curriculum should be removed from certain classes completely. “I don’t think it has a place in the gymnasium because it detracts from the already too little physical activity for students,” wrote an anonymous Physical Education teacher.
According to freshman Heloise Lanoix, who was assigned writing homework in her Physical Education class, “We would have learned much more if we had spent the time actually playing volleyball—not writing about it.”
Lanoix’s feelings are shared by several other students including Chan, who still does not understand why learning to play basketball requires writing an essay about it.
“For stuff like Global History and English you have to write,” Chan said. ”In other subjects like [physical education] and math, it’s ridiculous.”