Do Altamont Students Write Enough? Expert Knights Have Different Takes. What Do You Think?

A.J. Gallitz

A.J. Gallitz

Sunday, February 11, 2024
Do Altamont Students Write Enough? Expert Knights Have Different Takes. What Do You Think?

Altamont students writing in Dr. Alex Melonas's history class. Photos by Dan Carsen.

Educators agree that writing is important. But how much should Altamont students write? Are we doing enough? The right amount? Too much? Those become trickier questions, because writing is not always easy to teach (or grade), and people have strong and diverse opinions on the subject. We wanted to highlight some of those, so The Acta Diurna interviewed people connected to the school, including parents, teachers, and graduates. Their responses are below. Some are lightly edited for length and clarity. What do you think? Students and staff can take the short, anonymous poll at the very end.

J.P. Hemingway, Assistant Head of School, Altamont graduate, and Altamont parent: 

A.J. Gallitz: Everybody has a different opinion about writing and how much of it we should do, alums, parents, teachers. What was your Altamont experience like?

In my experience, the way we think about what we did in school does tend to be a little bit skewed. The reason I say that is, having been a student and an alum, I feel differently as a teacher about my student experience from how I did when I was just an alum. In my memory of what we did as students, the type of writing was definitely more like timed writing. We would have had a short time to answer the question in succinct paragraphs and put a bow on it. That was the majority of the type of writing we did. 

Obviously we had papers that we had to write at home. When I was in high school, there were fewer papers that we had that had to be typed, wrangling sources. We definitely had those, but most of our papers were drawn from the information in our heads or the one novel we were reading or from your notes. That was kind of it. In terms of the types of writing, [we] have really shifted because what’s expected of you in college is different from what was expected back when I was headed to college.

Has your kids' Altamont experience been very different from yours?

I think, in lots of ways, this is a better school than we went to. Part of that is just the evolution of schools in general. Nobody knew about certain things we need to pay attention to -- mental health [and other things]. In terms of what we’re trying to do in the classroom, I think those things are still mostly the same. I think there have been great developments in terms of pedagogy and the way teachers have been taught to teach. There have been lots of changes. A lot of those aren’t just about Altamont, but just about the world we live in. I think we have always prided ourselves in an intellectual curiosity matched with an academic rigor that helps students prepare for college and whatever comes after, but also helps students find what they’re passionate about. I hope that still comes through.

Rusty Tucker, class of 2003: 

Do you feel like your courses required a manageable amount of writing while you were at Altamont? 

It was definitely too much all at once, but I think it had more to do with the class structure than the assignments themselves. We took all of our classes all year long. So we would have a paper due in Chemistry the same day as a math test the same day as a research paper for English, et cetera. It was highly unrealistic expectations. I think (hope) they’ve corrected some of that with different class schedules.

Dr. Josh Barnard, parent, teacher, Altamont graduate: 

As an alum and a parent, do you think students today write enough?  

My gut impression is that quantity may have gone down, but quality may have gone up. We had to write papers at least once a month in English. Sometimes those papers were written in class. My understanding is that frequency of writing doesn’t happen currently. Was it much more often? Yes. Did I get a great skill out of that, in the sense that I could pump out a five-paragraph essay? Absolutely. Having said that, I also never wrote more than a five-paragraph essay. Whereas students now, in ninth grade, are doing by the end of the year somewhat more substantial research papers for history and for English. 

I know I got to college as a freshman, and at the end of freshman year, I had to write a 12-page paper and I had no idea how to do it. So, I basically wrote a bunch of five-paragraph papers and stuck them together. It actually kind of worked. I pulled it off more or less, but in terms of writing habits, I never outlined anything, I never did any of that because you don’t really have to for shorter papers: if you have thought it through really well, you can just sit down and write it, but for a longer thing, you have to build the structure, you have to work on it ahead of time, and I never did. That’s the one thing I think I missed that kids are definitely getting now.  

Are they writing enough? I don’t know. Not being an English or history teacher, I don’t see y’all’s writing regularly. And so, I’ve sort of lost track of what writing by a ninth-grader looks like. I’m sure in my memory I wrote great in ninth grade, but I probably didn’t write all that well. And I’ve got to say, a lot of the things that I get from ninth graders are written exceptionally well. Others are not. But I’m not shocked by the disparity. I think back to plenty of people that I went to school with. I can’t imagine that their papers were all that different from things I see now. 

In terms of ninth and tenth grade especially, I don’t know that I have a good idea of how much they write in class. I don’t know how much they write out of class. I did really value the writing in class. The whole "I’ve got 30 minutes and I’ve got to figure out what to say and how to say it and finish." That’s a challenge and I think that’s a good skill to learn.

Bart Stephens, Altamont class of 1994, and parent of three Altamont students: 

What was your Altamont experience with writing like? 

When we graduated from Altamont, you had students talented in every subject. But under Martin Hames and Sarah Whiteside, if I were describing Altamont to an outsider, I would count Literature and Southern Literature and the humanities as a strong point … English class was writing, writing, writing. Our writing got much better at Altamont. When we got to college, we were so far ahead of our classmates ...

I do get the feeling that the emphasis has shifted from the humanities towards STEM. I think that shift is inevitable. The world has shifted towards STEM. [However], no matter what you pursue in life, the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively through writing is important. You sharpen those skills in English and History classes by getting bad grades back and fixing them. 

Nandhini Gutti, sophomore:  

Do you think we do enough writing at Altamont? 

I think the amount we do right now is fine because I am drowning in it.

[What do YOU think? Do Altamont students write too much, not enough, or just the right amount? Take the short, anonymous poll here.]


Don't tell sophomore Jack Hoover that Altamont students don't write enough...

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