Matt Love, 10/24/2010
Current Occupation: English teacher, Newport High School, Newport, Oregon
Former Occupation: Sportswriter
Contact Information: Matt Love grew up in Oregon City and is the publisher of Nestucca Spit Press and author/editor of The Beaver State Trilogy, Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon’s Sesquicentennial Anthology, Super Sunday in Newport: Notes From My First Year in Town and Gimme Refuge: The Education of a Caretaker. He’s a regular contributor to the Oregonian, Oregon Coast Today and Bear Deluxe magazines, and writes the “On Oregon” blog for Powells.com. From 1998-2008 he served as caretaker of the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Tillamook County. In 2009, Love won the Oregon Literary Arts’ Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award for his contributions to Oregon history and literature. He lives in South Beach and teaches English and journalism at Newport High School. He’s currently working on a book about the filming of Sometimes a Great Notion.
Improving Writing Scores
In April, Newport High School (7-12) where I teach English and journalism received word that only 37 percent of sophomores and 22 percent of seventh graders met or exceeded the Oregon state writing standard. These results represented a significant decline from last year’s scores.
Yes, the state tests are politically-driven bullshit that require students to write on the most ridiculous prompts (choose a slogan for a t-shirt and write the reasons for your choice). But still, our scores really suck and I found the results depressing because I have so many great writers turning out far more interesting (and less pretentious) material than I typically read in literary journals.
Naturally, the news sent a shock wave through the administration and faculty, especially the English Department. In response, the principal convened a Writing Task Force to study the problem and implement strategies next fall to improve student writing. The problem is, no one outside of me on the task forces writes on a regular basis and most of them never write at all.
It begs the question: how can teachers of writing who don’t write teach writing?
I’ve heard various theories from teachers explaining why Newport students performed so poorly on the tests. I can’t say I buy any of them. To me, these theories seem more like myths and reek of defensiveness. They also happen to originate from teachers who don’t (or can’t) write but have the responsibility of teaching writing. I liken this contradiction to the PE teacher who weighs 350 pounds, the civics teacher who doesn’t vote, the biology teacher who doesn’t believe in evolution, and my favorite, the sex education teacher who doesn’t have sex or even masturbate.
Let me introduce the myths:
Myth 1: Students demonstrated concrete proof of their apathy with their abysmal writing scores.
Myth 2: Addiction to email, texting, cell phones and multitasking destroyed students’ ability to concentrate and write clearly.
Myth 3: Because Newport is a relatively poor community and many students suffer from serious poverty, we can’t possibly score as well as the rich schools.
Myth 4: Students from previous eras wrote much better than today’s digital drones.
Myth 5: Students rarely show evidence of thought in their writing.
Myth 6: It’s not my fault. Newport elementary teachers did a terrible job of teaching writing.
In my experience and study of history, people and organizations that cling to myths while trying to reform something never end up implementing any meaningful reform. But clinging to myths does allow the alleged reformers to dish out excuses when the reform initiative inevitably fails. This is especially true in public education, and both reform charlatans and teacher unions are complicit in defending the myths.
Limited editorial space prevents me from thoroughly debunking these myths, but I could easily do so. All are demonstrably false. The first step to improve our writing scores is for teachers to let go of all these myths and start asking tough questions without easy answers already in mind. If we don’t, we’ll never improve. They also might want to start writing.