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By Jessica Zang

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About this blog: I'm Jessica, a Palo Alto-born high school student who's passionate about subjects from social justice to hustle culture. I love writing articles and having thoughtful conversations with my readers, so please email me (jessicazangb...  (More)

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Why can't high schoolers write?

Uploaded: Sep 12, 2020
American schools have a big problem: they don’t teach us how to write well. Basic grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors are commonplace in the writing of middle and high school students; despite being well-versed in AP Physics C and AP Calculus BC, some of us simply cannot write a coherent sentence.

Part of this new age of writing illiteracy stems from the unequal distribution of resources towards STEM and humanities in schools. With the emphasis on STEM fields accompanied by the stereotype that humanities are becoming obsolete in the workplace, it’s no surprise that our schools have taken emphasis (and funding) off of humanities subjects in schools. Only STEM subjects tend to cause real stress, because those are the “hard” ones—humanities classes typically point to a much lighter course load. Without the right funding, regulations, and expectations, humanities courses cannot be effectively taught, and students are thrown into college and the workplace ill-prepared for the writing tasks ahead.

As the years pass, our high school generation has become less and less proficient in basic writing conventions. Despite this, teachers are forced to score a student’s writing in comparison to other students’, which rewards subpar writing solely because it is better than the rest. With such a grade-centric school environment, it’s easy to simply equate scores with skill—especially in subjects like math and science, where there is often only one correct answer to a question. In the humanities, however, such lines are drawn between good and bad rather than right and wrong, making student performance difficult to standardize.

On the topic of standardizing, there are very few options for standardized testing of writing due to the large amounts of time and energy needed to score a student’s work. When grading an argumentative essay, for example, readers must pay close attention to sentence structure, textual evidence, and logical argumentation. The No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2002, penalizing schools for not meeting testing quotas. However, the testing requirements only included reading and math, which were recognized as the two most important skills for students. While harboring good intentions, the act forced teachers and schools to shift their curriculum to emphasize the testing material rather than striving to teach a balanced distribution of all subjects. With the threat of punishment looming overhead, both for school funding and teacher salaries, many schools had no choice but to ease emphasis on writing, history, and other subjects to make sure students could pass the standardized tests.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015, writing, as a field of study under language arts, was added to testing requirements. While the new requirements were a large improvement from past years, standardized writing tests often reward rigid, rubric-defined pieces and fancy vocabulary while punishing creative students opting for an unconventional route. Such scoring systems, when reflected in local classrooms, give way for a new era of fill-in-the-blank writing to match the bare-bones structure taught in class. Students simply ask themselves what they think their teacher would like rather than what they truly want to say.

High school writing can be truly atrocious and embarrassing. I often find myself blanking on easy vocabulary or trying to make sense of a jumbled sentence when I write for school. However, writing is not only an academic skill—it is also a life skill. Without the ability to form clear, logical arguments or even to elaborate on a resume, our generation, as well as those who grew up without adequate instruction, will struggle in almost every profession in the job market.

Besides its practical uses, writing also helps us express ideas, shift perspectives, and learn about others. With the onslaught of digital media and entertainment, many of us have forgotten the pleasure of reading books and lost the appreciation for storytelling. It is a form of art to transfer emotions, sights, sounds, and feelings into words and readers, and good writing should continue to be commonplace.

For the sake of ourselves and our future generations, let’s rediscover the art of writing as soon as possible.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 13, 2020 at 1:19 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

The blame/accountability rests with the teachers and lax state educational mandates regarding proper writing technique(s).

It's not rocket science...(1) start with a clear & concise thesis sentence, (2) support the thesis, and (3) add a conclusion.

Though student SAT/ACT scores may be on the rise, a Pass/Fail composition test should be required of ALL high school seniors in prior to graduation.

Proficiency in math & science are to be highly valued BUT if one cannot communicate clearly (either verbally or in written form), all we are going to end-up with are a bunch of highly intelligent clods who cannot effectively convey themselves in 'real life'...both public & private.

This particular pandemic is already running rampant among some of our younger citizens (i.e. Generations X-Y-Z) who are seemingly preoccupied with other pressing matters of importance.

Lastly, there should be no exceptions for a weighted written score that favors ESL students. This is America & English is the predominant language.

For those impeded by the obstacle...offer summer school writing & communications classes.

Posted by District parent, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 10:14 am

District parent is a registered user.

Jessica, thank you for your blog. My daughter saw your headline and laughed in agreement. She said she did much more writing at JLS than she is doing at Gunn and is confident that she is now a worse writer. Her English teacher this year said she was going to do only a small amount of writing this semester out of concern for workload and/or mental health. I don't understand why JLS can be so excellent at writing and then Gunn just drops the ball. Why do administration priorities change so drastically between middle school and high school? It's a real shame and a loss for the kids.

Posted by DIana Diamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 14, 2020 at 12:00 pm

DIana Diamond is a registered user.

Jessica --

You bring up a very important problem that has been with us several years. STEM has become tantamount. Forget about writing, civic is no longer taught, and other humanities course offerings are scant. Something is very wrong.

Take civics -- how can students know much about all that is happening in our country when some tests show they can't identify the three branches of government, know little if anything about the Supreme Court and how it functions, and as for the Electoral College -- perhaps a key element in the Nov. 3 election, they ask "What is that?"

When I was in high school (sorry to go back to that old phrase) but my junior and senior years in English I had to write a theme a week, plus two term papers a year.That thought me to think -- and to write creatively.

Good luck -- and thanks so much for bringing this up.

Diana Diamond

Posted by Ferdinand , a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 11:39 am

Ferdinand is a registered user.

Thank you for your thoughts Jessica. There are some excellent English teachers at Gunn, and hopefully their voices are being heard too. Being a family that values both the STEM and humanities courses, we would love to see more resources put into developing stronger writers (increase writing and provide teachers with some paid readers?). Science may use a "language" of numbers, but the foundational skills to advance any scientific or social science research--to observe, analyze, interpret, communicate, influence, and accurately summarize field data--intersect language development (and possibly visual arts?). Perhaps you could brainstorm with some teachers and peers, and advocate within the school? It might be worth comparing the climate and opportunities in humanities offered at Paly.

Posted by Old Fashioned, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Old Fashioned is a registered user.

According to BLM English grammar is full of racism. Universities must incorporate "linguistic diversity", "critical grammar", and de-emphasize "traditional" English. University of Chicago English Department declared that they will only accept "Black Study" students for the coming year. Writing in "traditional" English will be out of fashion soon, I guess.

Posted by Novelera, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 12:47 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Excellent piece, Jessica. This is a sad state of affairs. I know "back in the day" comments are boring. But my 8th grade class had to diagram sentences on the blackboard. The papers and book reports we wrote in high school came back with pithy red pen comments pointing out even minor grammatical errors. And the comments could also criticize whether or not we'd developed our paragraphs so as to come to the desired conclusion.

Posted by Excellent piece, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 1:04 pm

Excellent piece is a registered user.

Well said, Jessica.

There's much on this thread I agree with...including the need for stronger civics education. I'd stress that. This generation does not seem to understand how to get past demonstrating and protesting to the serious work of policy-making which requires an understanding of governance. We need our schools to fill that gap. Civics is an important course of study for every future voter.

There are several excellent English teachers at Gunn. My kids had a few that I thought were extraordinary (and I majored in English in college). I'm sorry to hear you have been unlucky in the draw so far. Like any large organization, Gunn has teachers with varying skill levels.

That said, the emphasis on STEM, driven largely by anxious parents has caused the school to invest more in that area and less in humanities. Ferdinand did a nice job explaining the danger of that.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of another community,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 3:00 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "According to BLM English grammar is full of racism. Universities must incorporate "linguistic diversity", "critical grammar", and de-emphasize "Traditional English"."

^ A return to 'Ebonics' in certain academic circles?

Posted by jrameyers, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 15, 2020 at 11:46 pm

jrameyers is a registered user.

Grace Hopper, one of the great figures of early computer history, taught at Vassar and elsewhere. She demanded that her math and science students be able to write, and write well, about what they had learned. Many students complained, but she was adamant that they be able to communicate what they knew. We still need teachers with those values.

Good work, Jessica!

Posted by Barron Park denizen, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 8:54 am

Barron Park denizen is a registered user.

Hi, Jessica--You sound sincere and willing to learn. When in high school English, we had lots of writing. Both tired parents took time to review my drafts--no slack granted. College didn't help much due to STEM emphasis, but by the time of my first professional job, I somehow could write reasonably well (letters and reports), and it greatly aided my career. Although not an attorney, later I wrote for lawyers--attorneys tend to be articulate and good writers (and perfectionists), and working with them is like attending writing grad school. Back to you: Due to de-emphasis on teaching of writing and emphasis on PC and wokeness, you will need to be your own best writing critic, continuing throughout your professional life. Suggest you work through "Legal Writing in Plain English" by Bryan A. Garner, a well-known writing guru in the legal world. Try to read mainly well-written publications--The Wall Street Journal? And like, ease back on social media. Find some articulate attorneys to work with. If you see the name Derrida, run away.

Posted by Barron Park denizen, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 16, 2020 at 8:59 am

Barron Park denizen is a registered user.

I should have added---seek out critique of your drafts, and understand the comments you get, then rewrite and get another review. Find the fairest but most critical reviewers you can, wherever you are. You will need a thick skin for this, as the ego gets bruised. After a few hundred such critiques, you will make good progress. Yes, it's work.

Posted by John Donegan, a resident of another community,
on Sep 18, 2020 at 9:16 am

John Donegan is a registered user.

I share Ms. Zang's concern for the literacy of students, but am afraid that she is taking a rather "Palo Alto-centric" view when she attributes it to an over-emphasis on STEM. The problem is nation wide, and includes many students who perform dismally in STEM. Nationally, poor writing skills are the result of a lack emphasis, as well as a lack of rigor and lowered expectations from treating students like "customers" whose demands must be accommodated, rather than forcing them to develop the skills they need. Developing good writing skills can be difficult, and is not something that most kids are enthusiastic about. Our toxic popular culture, and
social media, are also destructive. Palo Alto is fortunate to have bright, motivated students, with supportive families, and writing skills can be developed readily with a bit more emphasis.

Posted by District parent, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 18, 2020 at 11:09 am

District parent is a registered user.

To John's point that this is a broader issue, I wonder if some of this is related to a decrease in reading, at least anything longer than an Instagram caption or a tweet. Jessica, do your peers read much long-form content? My kid doesn't read books and the school doesn't seem to require much. Are school curricula intentionally moving away from text and towards multimedia?

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