Writing like a swimmer

Olympic swimmers hone their craft through repetition and discipline. So do writing students at a Staten Island high school.

Swimmers, writers, pastors and managers all strive for excellence, but good intentions and grit alone won’t carry even great talent very far. Truly world-class performance demands effective and disciplined training.

This month, the Atlantic’s Peg Tyre explores an initiative at a Staten Island high school where painstaking, repetitive drilling in the mechanics of expository writing has improved student performance.

Most schools today, Tyre suggests, assume students will absorb basic writing skills by osmosis as they read good prose and write in response to prompts. New Dorp High, like most schools in the country, was striving for incremental changes in reading comprehension or vocabulary, the type of changes that were supposed to translate into incrementally higher test scores.

The shift to the “Writing Revolution” program changed that.

New Dorp teachers began, deliberately and aggressively, to give “formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay writing,” systematically teaching particular skills, such as using the conjunction “although” to construct complex sentences.

Learning to write well, the teachers realized, was not just a matter of stuffing everyday speech with more complicated vocabulary -- students need to be taught every step of composition in minute detail. Disciplined repetition leads to mastery.

The similarity to swimmers is striking. In an essay “The Mundanity of Excellence,” Daniel Chambliss describes the manifold differences between an Olympic swimmer and a club swimmer’s breaststroke.

“Olympic champions don’t just do much more of the same things that summer-league swimmers do. They don’t just swim more hours, or move their arms faster, or attend more workouts…Instead, they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their groups of friends are different.”

At New Dorp, this pedagogical shift produced a true qualitative leap in test scores across the board. In one year, pass rates for the state English exam rose from 69 to 89 percent and for the history exam from 64 to 75 percent.

In settings as diverse as Staten Island English classes and Olympic training gyms, the approach Chambliss describes as the key to cultivating excellence continues to produce stunning results.

Christian leaders eager to do better, more effective work would do well to take a cue from New Dorp students, by breaking their work -- whether preaching or mentoring staff -- down to their smallest component parts and then tirelessly perfecting their execution of each in turn.