I teach in a high-poverty high school, and over my 32-year career, I can count on one hand how many times a parent has requested a teacher-parent conference. So I was intrigued when both of Hector’s parents wanted to meet with me.
I tried to anticipate their concerns before they arrived. Hector was a good kid—he always did his work and was respectful in class. He was well-adjusted and fit in socially with his peers. He was smart, but unskilled—particularly when it came to writing. He was one of those kids who worked hard, but because writing is central in my classroom, Hector had to scramble to pull a C-. I suspected that Hector’s grade was the reason for the conference.
I was right. When Hector’s parents arrived, they said they didn’t understand how their son could turn in every assignment and yet only earn a C-. I showed them some of Hector’s writing, and we read it together. Then I pulled some work from students who were writing at grade level, and we compared it with Hector’s. The contrast was clear. To his credit, Hector’s father said, “I now get it.” The conversation shifted to what we might do to elevate Hector’s writing skills.
But it was later that the conference took an interesting turn. Hector’s father reached across the table and handed me his son’s report card. Hector earned the following grades in his six classes: A, A, A, A, A, C-. Hector’s father asked how it was possible that his son could receive straight As in his other classes when his writing skills were so poor.
Sadly, I suspect that there are many other Hectors out there—kids who possess below-level writing skills yet still receive As and Bs. For years, students have sat in classrooms that value multiple-choice and short-answer thinking. These students are not writing enough.
My colleagues and I are trying to change this trend in the Anaheim Union High School District. We recognize that writing is foundational to deepening thinking in all content areas, and we have begun a movement to increase the volume and quality of our students’ writing. My article in the February 2017 issue of Educational Leadership details how this movement is unfolding in Anaheim.
I know we’re not the only district working to strengthen and broaden writing curriculum and instruction. I’d love to hear how your school is moving toward improving your students’ writing skills.
Kelly Gallagher is an English teacher at Magnolia High School in Anaheim Union High School District in California. He is the author of several books, including In the Best Interest of Students (Stenhouse, 2015) and Write Like This (Stenhouse, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @KellyGToGo.