Writing a Wrong
December 20th, 2006
Pulitzer Prize winner and former Stuyvesant teacher Frank McCourt said of his schooling, “In school, if they told me write an essay of 150 words, I’d write 500 words.” But over-writing is not a problem for many students. For some, the prospect of writing is truly scary.
Freshman year is the time to address the fear of writing. For the past eight years, Freshman Composition, which aims to teach ninth grade students the fundamentals of writing, has been a mandatory class. According to Assistant Principal English Eric Grossman, “The overriding focus and goal of the course is writing instruction.” However, the ideals upon which the course was created are being lost: Freshman Composition is becoming far less writing-oriented.
In an effort to make teaching more intimate and increase class participation, Freshman Composition classes are supposed to be capped at 25 students, whereas other classes are filled to the maximum of 34 students. Teachers, however, must teach five classes—a schedule that makes it nearly impossible to assign weekly essays or give students’ written work the attention it deserves.
Consequently, ninth grade students at Stuyvesant are not being pushed to grow as writers. While teachers may be explaining and teaching the basics, students do not have enough opportunity to experiment and develop their skills. Freshman Composition is becoming less writing-focused and more of a general English class—formerly offered to freshmen as Freshman English—in which students read books, discuss them and answer study questions. However, this type of class does not ensure that all students will be equipped with the same tools and knowledge of writing that are necessary in later years.
The only way to become a good writer is to write, receive constructive criticism and re-write. Although reading other writers’ work does help our understanding of literature, we cannot develop our own individual voices without writing ourselves. But in my three months at Stuyvesant, I have only written about three paragraphs and a short essay in Freshman Composition. My experience is not unique; freshmen in other classes are writing a similarly small amount. Freshman Aviva Hakanoglu said, “We write virtually nothing” freshman year.
Meanwhile, non-English classes demand little writing. Most rely on multiple-choice tests that allow teachers to grade quickly, instead of papers or tests that compel students to write thoughtful responses to provocative questions. Only math honors classes require papers; even lab reports for science are short-answer. Without writing and receiving constructive criticism on a regular basis, it is difficult for anyone to improve.
Freshman year is the time to build a strong foundation and confidence about writing that can be continually refined and applied in the following years. Whether this means rethinking the purpose and execution of Freshman Composition, or designing a new course altogether, Stuyvesant must find a way to develop the writing skills of all incoming students. Students without a strong writing background are not getting enough of a chance to practice the fundamentals, while confident writers may not be challenged or have the opportunity for development. Writing is an essential form of communication for every educated person, and is simply too important to leave to chance