Through a discussion with a colleague, I began to wonder what it takes to take a high school student who is not a skilled writer and turn them into one. My colleague (who is not a writing teacher) was going from the assumption that a student could be made into a "good" writer in the matter of one school year.
I really disagree. It takes years for teenagers who are not skilled writers to be turned into them. Many people - especially those who are not English teachers (and many English teachers) - assume that students should already be able to be "good" writers at this age and that they just aren't doing it. In reality, writing is a set of skills that many students just don't have - either because they didn't have literate childhoods at home or they haven't been taught properly. Either way, they are at a deficit by the time they reach us in high school.
After 8 or more years of inadequate writing instruction, it takes more than 10 months to fix it. It takes years and, sadly, many students who come to high school with a large deficit will be leaving with a deficit simply because they started the race 10 miles behind the starting line. That's not to say that the deficit can't be lessened, but you cannot completely undo 8 years of bad writing instruction and a lifetime of inadequate literacy experiences in 4 years. It simply isn't possible.
This isn't even taking into consideration that much of the writing instruction that our students are exposed to is actually preventing them from becoming good writers. This is writing instruction that demands what students should put in each paragraph or (even worse) what goes in each sentence. This doesn't teach students how to make choices as a writer, but rather to fill in the blanks. Then, when those students are confronted with a task which is not fill-in-the-blanks - which they inevitably will on standardized tests, in college, and in the workplace - they don't know what to do. Yes, they filled in the blanks with utter perfection, but they did not learn how to be writers.
We should, of course, aim to help all of our students make steps forward in their writing as much as possible. Just because the task is difficult, doesn't mean we shouldn't set out to accomplish it. The goal is to have students leave high school better writers than when they came in, even if they still don't fit our ideal.
What is needed to do that and correct the situation to begin with is a strong writing program from early childhood to late adolescence. Every year, most students have to "re-learn" how to write because they have a different teacher who has different methods and different expectations of what good writing is. This adjustment period means that students are not moving forward and it is often the case that they are moving back.
Having consistent instruction from K-12 is ideal, but even having it in the steps in between - on the school level - would help. Schools need to think about having writing programs - assessing what their students can do when they enroll and deciding what they want them to be able to do by the time they leave. Plans and strategies need to be developed so that the transition from one teacher to another is seamless. From year to year, the teachers must build upon skills worked on in the previous years.
If we want students to become better writers, we need to understand what it takes to become a better writer - it takes sustained practice over a long period of time.