The rules of writing make their mark

By Tom Murphy, Superintendent of schools

We have lived in Washington since 1981 and I do not remember snow as late in March as we had this year.

The weather fulfilled the old maxim of March “coming in like a lamb and going out like a lion.”

This weekend, I spent some time looking at my calendar and I realized we have a little over two months left in this school year. That’s really not a very long period of time, especially when I realize how much I still need to do before the end of the year. I know this feeling is no different for those of our colleagues in the classrooms working with our students every day. I clearly remember my teaching years in Illinois and the sometimes panic I would experience as I looked at what still needed to be accomplished and the time I had remaining.

I realized I had to abandon the concept of “coverage” and decide what was most important for my students to know and be able to do in order to be successful the next year. The last year I taught, I had five classes of freshmen, and I decided the most important skill I could ensure they had was the ability to correctly write a sentence, a paragraph, a paper. These were the days before writing models. I do recall my department chairperson speaking highly of a new writing method she had come across — the Puget Sound Writing Project. Small world.

These were also the days prior to high-stakes testing, at least state-mandated testing. The only high-stakes testing was of my own creation. These were also the days before “curriculum mapping.” The only curriculum map I had was the textbook given to me by the department. When I asked what I was supposed to teach, I was told, “The book.”

In many ways, I was an entrepreneur, on my own to decide what to teach and how much focus to give any specific topic and/or skill. I understood this once I realized there was no way for me to teach “the book.”

So, we focused on writing for the last two months of the school year. We wrote and wrote and wrote. I believe it was at this time in my life where I gained the skill of being able to read any written word, no matter how poor the penmanship. We spent hours and hours covering the conventions and rules of written English. We even diagrammed some sentences, until I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing with that.

We focused on nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs. We worked hard on subject-verb agreement. We struggled with tense and person. We couldn’t help ourselves and kept ending sentences with prepositions. “Sentence fragments” and “run-on sentences” became regular topics of conversation each day. I became so frustrated at some point I banned the use of the word “it.”

We all survived those last couple of months and I actually saw some incredible progress. I don’t know if my students appreciated the singular focus on writing, but they all were better writers at the end of that year, and so was I.

Tom Murphy is superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools. Contact: tmurphy@fwps.org

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