On Target
Curriculum Corner September 2016
  • Teaching NJ High School Students to

    Read and Think Using the Rutgers Writing Program 

    New Jersey schools are exceptional in many ways. We currently rank fourth in the nation for per-pupil spending. Our achievement levels show that our citizens are getting a good return on their investment and, according to the Rutgers Newark Education Law Center, New Jersey is one of only two states nationwide that score “above average” in equitable distribution of resources. This information, shared recently during the Summer College for Teachers at The Plangere Writing Center in New Brunswick, was balanced by troubling trends.

    Our schools have not escaped the alarming developments reported by several national research studies. Children are reading fewer books than any generation since World War II (NEH 2004). Having reached a new low in 2012, reading scores for twelfth graders remained unchanged four years later (NAEP 2016).

    Still other studies show that, although Americans want government to deliver essential services, only. No school administrator who has put years of work into Common Core, PARCC or the changes in teacher evaluation needs to read any of those reports to arrive an inescapable conclusion: test scores are no longer enough to satisfy people who care about quality education for New Jersey schoolchildren.

    What we need is a powerful way to prepare students to rely on their confidence to think for themselves, in their ability to read a passage closely, to respond to a writing prompt intuitively, forming and organizing their own ideas on the subject, and to produce an engaging and lucid expression of their thoughts on the matter. In this, my 51st year of teaching English, one program stands out as the most promising I have encountered during that time.

    The Rutgers Writing Program can be the vehicle to empower educational leaders, teachers and parents to put polarization behind them and to work together in promoting student growth and self-confidence in the best meaning of those terms.

    In brief, the Program is based on six principles, all aspects of teaching students to think and to be able to share their thoughts in writing:

    1. Reading Nonfiction Essays about Ideas
    2. Problem-Posing Assignments that Put Complex Texts into Conversation
    3. A Collaborative, Peer-reviewed and Active Pedagogy
    4. Revision
    5. Teaching Grammar in the Context of Student Writing
    6. Shared Assessment Criteria

    Many aspects of communication: reading, writing, speaking and listening can be viewed as aspects of critical thinking. Writing allows the student to capture those thoughts and to use them to grow.

    At a recent summer institute, New Jersey high school teachers reported their experience using the Rutgers Writing Program in their classrooms. The results were more than promising. What is needed now is to make this Program known to the educational leaders of our state, the superintendents.

    A few minutes’ presentation at one of your Round Table meetings could position us to decide on how best to move forward. Please let me or any one of the program directors at Rutgers, know if you would like to learn more. 


    Editor’s Note: Tim Brennan served as a school superintendent in NJ and NY for 28 years. After retiring, he spent eight years as Part-Time Lecturer of Writing and Research in The Disciplines at Rutgers, New Brunswick. He currently teaches two sections of Reading and Writing 091 (in which a grade of “C “must be achieved to allow the student to move onto graduation-credit courses) at Ocean County College. He also serves as a Coach for Ocean County teams participating in the Robert Woods Johnson/Grunin Foundation New Jersey Health Initiatives. He can be reached at: timbrenn@rutgers.edu, timbren@aol.com  or 732-996-5526 (cell).