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Head of School Blog: On Writing Well

Matt Green
Like most students, I liked when my teachers invited us to make connections between what we were learning in class and what was transpiring “in the real world.” Not surprisingly, I now find myself slowing down outside Mr. Swanbeck’s classroom when I hear him engaging his students in a discussion about the latest developments in the Middle East or near Ms. Mobley’s lab when I hear her discussing the vital importance of the world’s oceans and the strain they are currently under. They and their colleagues are quite agile when it comes to moderating classroom debate: they are able to create space for a range of opinions while simultaneously messaging that opinions are only as valid as the quality of evidence invoked on their behalf. I am reminded of a mentor of mine, who, when cautioning us about the risks of managing such discussions, would say, “Your job is to teach them how to think, not what to think.” 

With this frame in mind, I hope you will indulge me as I comment on an article written in response to the publication of what is now commonly known as “the whistle blower’s complaint.” It was written by Jane Rosenzweig, the director of the Harvard College Writing Center, and is titled, “The Whistle-Blower Knows How to Write.” Like this post, Rosenzweig’s focus is not on the political implications of this ubiquitous news story. Instead, she uses the “current event” as an opportunity to argue that, whatever one’s political persuasion, one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer quality of the writing. 

She opens by stating, “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen...but I can tell you that the whistle-blower’s college writing instructor would be very proud of him. As a writing instructor myself for 20 years...I see a model of clear writing that offers important lessons for aspiring writers.”

She goes on to extol the author’s prose, highlighting, among other strengths that he gets right to the point, uses subheadings to make sure we can connect the dots, writes strong and purposeful topic sentences, and avoids passive constructions.

“Every semester,” she adds, “I encounter students who tell me...that for the careers they aspire to they won’t need to write. I explain that no matter what careers they choose, they will have to write...but I also tell them that learning to write matters because someday they may have something to say that really matters to them and possibly the world- and they will have to convey it when the moment arrives in writing that’s clear and concise.” 

Falmouth Academy is rightfully proud of its track record of graduating writers. Year after year, alumni return to tell us how well-prepared they are for the rigors of college writing. They tell stories of professors singling out their papers as exemplars or of the hours they spent conferencing with their peers and editing their work. 

When it comes to writing instruction, I am afraid there are no shortcuts. Students need to write, they need to write often, and they need to receive generous, timely, and specific feedback. If you think this is labor-intensive for the student, turn your attention, for a moment, to the teacher. One of our profession’s cruel ironies is that to commit fully to the development of our students’ writing requires us to make an enormous sacrifice of our own, often in the form of before, during, and after school student conferencing, not to mention long nights and weekends reading and commenting on student papers. 

A distinct advantage of studying in a small English class in a small school is that our students’ teachers are able to identify and target each student’s needs and are able to find the time to do the heavy lifting this important work requires. Compared to many of their public school counterparts, who, in many cases are carrying student loads often twice if not three times the number they are working with, Falmouth Academy teachers are afforded the relative luxury of being able to roll up their sleeves and dig in at the sentence level with each student.

Though I had already read Rosenzweig’s article, I should note that it was also shared with me by one of your fellow parents, who wrote simply:

“I am happy that Falmouth Academy emphasizes the development of their students' writing skills. I hope that it will remain a centerpiece of the curriculum in the future.” 

I replied, “Thanks for sharing and yes, Falmouth Academy MUST and WILL continue to make writing core to its curriculum and instruction.” 

I’ve heard it said that the first millennium belonged to the spoken word, the second to the written word, and that third will belong to the visual image. I don’t believe it. As a one-time soccer, basketball, and lacrosse coach, I suspect that I’ve blown my last whistle, but I am certain that I will have many occasions to exercise my writing skills in service of matters of comparable importance and to the extent to which I am able to do so effectively, I will have my English teachers to thank.