kitchen table math, the sequel: Stanley Fish on teaching writing in college

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stanley Fish on teaching writing in college

Stanley Fish answers the question Isn't the mastery of forms something that should be taught in high school or earlier?
By all the evidence, high schools and middle schools are not teaching writing skills in an effective way, if they are teaching them at all. The exception seems to be Catholic schools. More than a few commentators remembered with a mixture of fondness and pain the instruction they received at the hands of severe nuns. And I have found that those students in my classes who do have a grasp of the craft of writing are graduates of parochial schools. (I note parenthetically that in many archdioceses such schools are being closed, not a good omen for those who prize writing.)
I really want to start a Catholic school. Really, truly. My building used to be a Catholic school; I'd like it to be a Catholic school again.

By the way, I do realize that if I had actually attended Catholic schools as a child I might feel different. But I was raised a flat-footed Methodist, as I think I once heard Huston Smith say on TV, and to me the Catholic Church was magic. The nuns in their black habits, the priests, the Holy water in the doorways and the crucifixes on the wall ---- and the sign of the cross! Oh my.

A couple of years ago I asked my second to oldest sister whether she had liked the sign of the cross as a child, and she said at once and with great enthusiasm, "Of course!" She had been so taken by the Catholic Church she wanted to be Catholic. I had no idea. Were all 4 of us kids having our own private Catholic crush?

Truth to tell, my own Catholic crush wasn't so private. I took piano lessons from the nuns for years, and my parents made arrangements for me to attend the Catholic school one day each school year.

I remember reading somewhere that charter schools copied Catholic schools, and the observation struck me as true. I bet, if you scratched the surface, you'd find a lot of charter founders who as children pressed their noses against the windows of a Catholic school, outside looking in.


MagisterGreen said...

From the article:
" (2) asking students to turn a three-word sentence like “Jane likes cake” into a 100-word sentence without losing control of the basic structure and then explain, word-by-word, clause-by-clause, what they did;"

I have my next in-class assignment!

momof4 said...

I doubt that today's Catholic schools are much like the one my DH attended or the ones my friends attended, particularly at the k-8 level. The nuns that were teaching my generation typically entered the Mother House of their order, directly from HS, and the Mother House gave them their teaching instruction - which has always sounded much like the Normal School programs which a number of my ES teachers attended. In both cases, that meant lots of very practical training in the content areas, how to teach the content and in classroom management - but no pie-in-the-sky theories, edubabble and airy-fairy nonsense. Now the nuns are gone and the teachers are likely to have come from the same ed schools, whether Catholic or otherwise, as their public school counterparts - very progressive, constructivist, multi-culti and social justice oriented and not into the nitty-gritty of managing a classroom and making sure kids learn the basics. It's a pity.

kathyiggy said...

I attended Catholic schools from 2nd grade through 12th, and went to a Jesuit college. I think most Catholic schools now are very different from my experience and really not too different from the "publics" (as we used to call them). I had my share of very strict nuns. Some of the discipline was cruel, looking back from today's perspective, but I had a very traditional education with few extras (no fancy playground, no band, limited extracurriculars in K-8, etc). I have tried to find many of the textbooks I used, including Warriners Grammar and Lennes Arithmetic to teach my kids. While the schools were very strict, many of the nuns were fantastic teachers and great role models for a girl interested in intellectual things. In fact, my old elementary school is featured in a book "Catholic Schools Then and Now" (or something close) which Catherine talked about a few years ago.

Anonymous said...

I fear that Catholic schools are a shadow of their former selves. Eight years ago, I entered a program at a Catholic college that focused on providing second career teaching credentials to students who already had a college degree. Participants were supposed to commit to teaching at Catholic schools if possible. The program was radically constructivist; explicit teaching of phonics and grammar was demonized and we were immersed in the world of whole language reading and Lucy Caulkins writer's workshop. I did what was required to obtain the credentials and state license and then fled to teach at a Core Knowledge/classical charter school.

Anonymous said...


I have Warriners Grammar plus the teacher's edition if you want it. I don't know if your kids still need it, but my youngest is a senior now so I am pretty much done.


SATVerbalTutor. said...

I see the appeal of a classical curriculum as much as anyone, but I was also good friends with a couple of people in high school who were absolutely traumatized by their experiences in Catholic school (both were gay). From an educational perspective, though, there's a lot to be said for drill-and-kill. Anyone who can get a class full of kids to the point where they all recognize that a clause can start with a pronoun, not make sense out of context, and STILL be a sentence is a hero in my book;) Whether or not most Catholic schools are still doing that... I don't know. But the few kids from Catholic schools that I've tutored haven't shown the kinds of deficiencies that I regular see in other private-school kids.

Laura in AZ said...

Today's Catholic schools are nothing like the one's of old. My daughter attended Catholic school from preschool until the middle of 4th grade. Up through the beginning of 3rd grade, I was very happy with all of it. We even had our token nun (she wore pantsuits, no habit unfortunately).

I have to say, writing was one of the weak points of the whole curriculum at that school though. In 1st and 2nd grade, it was all age/grade appropriate. In 3rd grade, I started worrying. It seemed all touchy-feely and not very rigorous. In 4th grade, the kids were supposed to do a series of book reports, 6 or 7 of them, I think, each one a different genre. However, not one of them was a real book report. Instead they were "projects." One was a poster, another was a game based on the book, another the dreaded shoe-box diorama... Not one blessed report!

That's one of the reasons we pulled our daughter out of the school and began homeschooling her. Now she has to actually write book reports.

I wouldn't have minded the "projects" so much, if the students had done the reports first, and then for the final report they could choose to do one of the "projects" if they wanted. Unfortunately, the rest of the Catholic school curriculum was similarly "fuzzy."

Grace said...

I took a trip down memory lane last year when my old Catholic elementary school celebrated its 60th anniversary. It's hard to know how the curriculum has changed (I suspect quite a bit), but the students still rise when a teacher enters the room and they still sit in rows!

Anonymous said...

Those who are inclined to believe that Stanley Fish has something new to say on teaching composition might enjoy Joseph Epstein's review of Fish's book
"On How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One". Epstein's essay is titled "Heavy Sentences", and appeared in The New Criterion, June 2011 issue. It's no longer freely available from, but perhaps your public library has it in its electronic archive of periodicals.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have my next in-class assignment!

oh my gosh - you are brave!

you have to tell us how it goes!

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous - thanks so much for the reference.

I'm about halfway through Fish's book -- but hadn't heard about the article ---

MagisterGreen said...

oh my gosh - you are brave!

you have to tell us how it goes!

How'd it go? Well, the first batch of sentences are in (juniors and seniors exclusively) and I'm alternately impressed and horrified. A couple took the assignment as a joke and so I have sentences about how Jane could potentially spontaneously combust, but then I also have a couple of well-thought out sentences examining Jane's love for sweets and how cake hold a special place in her heart.

Grammatically they're also a mixed bag, with some horrible comma splices and at least one student who was apparently recently introduced to the idea of the semi-colon.

Today we review them and today is also the day I start them on the rudimentary structure of Kerrigan's Writing to the Point, so we'll see how this goes.

jtidwell said...

My kid just started kindergarten at our local Catholic school. It's pretty traditional. They use phonics for reading, with the goal of fluency, and my kid's class also uses a sight word list. At least at the K level, they do a "writing workshop" thing that has them writing grammatically correct sentences daily. (It's not clear how much their peers get to correct each others' writing, nor that the workshop approach continues in higher grades. My impression is that it does not.)

The school uses a non-constructivist math curriculum, and it permits above-grade-level learners to accelerate within it. This will be important for my boy, and is one of the main reasons he's at this school.

They're also having the kindergartners recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer daily, so they apparently find some value in memorization. :-)

TerriW said...

(2) asking students to turn a three-word sentence like “Jane likes cake” into a 100-word sentence without losing control of the basic structure and then explain, word-by-word, clause-by-clause, what they did;"

I finally started watching that Great Courses dvd on sentences, and this is the sort of thing he spends most of his time on -- basically, logically stacking up the propositions in your sentences.

(The first lecture or two was a slog, but then it started rolling. I'm enjoying it. I loved the sections where he took extremely famous or well-crafted sentences and expressed the same propositions in alternate ways and it became so apparent how *right* great writing could be over just plain competent, get-your-point-across writing.)