Last week I corrected my first writing assignment for a group of students– ever. I was pleased to see how most of the answers showed reflection, creativity, and that students had actually paid attention to my lectures. What baffled me was the absence of certain writing strategies in all but two of the essays. St. Agnes prep school for girls required students to pass a grammar test each year in order to proceed to the next grade level. We were required to purchase a copy of Warner’s English Grammar and Composition that became our bible for passing this exam. We diagrammed sentences, knew our prepositional phrases backward and forward, and we were rarely hard pressed to tackle a writing assignment. WOW! I really should have appreciated my sixth grade English teacher Mrs. Esch.
As I was correcting the assignment, a copy of Atlantic Monthly came in the mail and this article jumped out at me: “The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre. It was a quick and informative read. Many students across the country are never given the basics of good writing composition. Complex sentences that begin with although and have a but somewhere in the middle are in short supply. Why? These structures are no longer taught? Kids are encouraged to be creative rather than being forced to follow specific templates? I don’t know for certain, but I have to see how to make things easier for students to express their ideas effectively. With Art History there is the added challenge of teaching them how to look at art that may have no relevance to contemporary culture.
In an effort to help students on the next writing assignment, I have purchased a copy of Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art. At 384 pages, it is anything but short, so I also searched for a concise online guide to the very basics of writing for Art History. Dartmouth Writing Program offered this summation which may be helpful to my students. For a group that is struggling to swallow the entire history of western art in 2 semesters, it is hard to imagine any of these kids will want to sit down to an extra helping of grammar and composition on top of everything else. We’ll see.