Friday, August 10, 2012


by Earl Staggs

We who write today carry a responsibility during our time to maintain a level of writing quality as it was passed on to us by those who came before.  When our time is done, we will pass that task along to the next generation of writers.

A recent incident gave me serious concern about the writers who will follow us.

I drive a school bus as a part time job.  Writing is a solitary profession and this job gets me out of the house every day for a couple hours and provides interaction with other members of the human race.  One day, several students reported to me that other students in the back of the bus were using profane language. Sure enough, I checked the tape and found it. Our buses have cameras on board with audio recording capability.  Two boys back in the last row used language unsuitable in mixed company anywhere, let alone in a group of children.

 I wrote an Incident Report, copies of which go to the school principal and to the parents of the students involved.  I don’t know what the parents did to their kids, but the principal suspended them for a few days.

The principal also required the boys to write a personal letter of apology to me.  Here’s an excerpt from one of those letters exactly as it was written:

“Dear mr. earl I now what I did was wrong I have taken ownership for what I did I will start being a leader and a better kid being that this is my first offince. . .”

Both letters were in printed letters, not cursive, and the penmanship was so bad, they were difficult to read. They obviously knew little about capitalization, punctuation or spelling.

You might think these letters were from second or third graders.  No, these boys were in eighth grade and would move up to high school in a few short months.

Their lack of writing skill concerned me as much if not more than the offensive language they used. It bothered me that young people were not being schooled in the craft of communication via the written word. 

Instead, they become expert in texting and posting on social venues such as Facebook.  Their language is much simpler than ours.  Instead of asking, “How are you?” they type “? R U.”  Instead of asking, “How are you doing,” it’s “Sup dude.”

Maybe there will be no need for writing skills in future generations.  Maybe the ability to write personal letters in legible script will not be necessary in a technically advanced age.  Perhaps correct word usage, spelling and punctuation will be relegated to the old days.

But who will write books?   Who will create printed material for reading and learning use?

I must admit there are a small number of exceptions on my bus. Occasionally, I’ll see a student carrying a book and spending  the travel time reading.  Sadly, a very small number.

This situation has bothered me since the day of the incident.  A few days ago, however, I received a newsletter  from the superintendent of the school board in which he discussed plans for the coming year.  Part of it said:

“This year’s theme is Once Upon a Dragon. ..with year-long emphasis on reading, literacy and storytelling.  I think you’ll agree that reading is a cornerstone for success across all courses, grade levels and subjects. While it certainly isn’t our only focus, we do plan to emphasize reading during the 2012-2013 school year. We want our students to read for fun and use their imaginations. We want them to hear tales told by expert storytellers, participate in their own creative writing activities and integrate new technologies into their love for reading.

“Many of our campuses already have ongoing programs to promote reading, but you’ll be hearing more about opportunities to incorporate a love for reading into your everyday lesson planning, how to encourage parents to read with their children and how some of our Dragons are already published writers!”

I was greatly encouraged and uplifted to read this.  It indicates that school administrators are becoming as concerned as I am about the reading and writing skills of students.   

Along those lines, I had a personal experience at one of the schools on my route. I was invited to speak to a class about writing. Sounds easy, but the class happened to be Kindergarten. How do you talk to a room full of five-year-olds about writing?  You’re invited to read “My Kindergarten Challenge” at

In spite of the plan outlined for my school district, I’m still concerned as far as where the next generation of writers will come from.  Maybe – just maybe, however - there is some hope.


Susan Oleksiw said...

About twenty years ago when I taught, in both college and adult continuing education, I often wondered what would happen to students who couldn't write. I sadly learned that the answer is nothing. They go on and get jobs and do very little if any writing, and become frightened of writing any kind of report. The advent of computers has certainly made life easier for them but I recall a fellow teacher's comment. I showed her the text I was using for my class and she said, "My students couldn't read that. They don't have that level of thought." I've never forgotten it. In the future the capacity for thought may not be necessary--at least for a while, until an individual here or there begins to wonder if there isn't something more to what he's being told.

Sorry for being so long winded, but I do worry about it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

There is hope, Earl, despite the dumbing down of American school children. I taught in the "Poetry in the Schools Program" from 2nd-12th grades and found kids eager to learn how to write well. By making it fun, such as telling them to write about an elephant trying to use the telephone, etc. their imaginations ran wild and they produced some great stories. Later, when my daughter began teaching advanced students in a Salt Lake City middle school, they wrote a book titled, WHAT OUR PARENTS SHOULD KNOW: ADVICE FROM TEENS that every parent should read. I edited and published the book, of which used copies can still still be found at The key is parent involvement, as you said. Read to kids, the younger the better, until they can read for themselves.

M.M. Gornell said...

Good post, Earl,,,makes one wonder.

Kaye George said...
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Kaye George said...

I'm not sure it's that different now. I went to high school in a factory town and not that many of us went on to college. I'm glad some kids will be plumbers and carpenters and electricians because we need lots of those.

BTW, cursive is no longer being taught in Texas. I think it's on it's way out. Spelling would be good, though!

Mark W. Danielson said...

There are plenty of writers out there. The problem is they can only communicate through shorthand.

Jan Christensen said...

Interesting post, Earl. I'm not sure any generation of kids had a huge percentage who could write professionally or even at 12th grade or college level. After seeing the number of kids reading the Harry Potter books, I have hope that many of them will go on to read more and want to write better.

Ellis Vidler said...

I sympathize, Earl. I used to read stories to elementary school classes, and the children always sat spellbound. Once we ran out of time and they didn't want to go to lunch until they heard the end of the story. Many asked to check out the book. There's still hope, but we need to nurture that fragile seed. Reading to children is a great way to start. Glad you're helping with the young ones!

Kimberly Brown said...
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Kimberly Brown said...

I also think there's hope, but it does have to be nurtured by parents as well as teachers. Too many young couples pride themselves on not even owning a book. Yes, I've known people like that. Why own those dust-collectors? My own kids (who are grown) own many, many books (they come by it honestly), and they've lugged them around as they've moved from apartment to apartment. Can you tell I'm a proud mom? They also use correct English when texting and emailing. That's another source of pride for me. We have a five year old that we read to daily. He has used words that have amazed his preschool teachers since he was 2. They can't believe he knows those words and uses them in context. When we're talking to him, we NEVER dumb down what we're saying to him, and I always stop to explain what words mean. So yes, I believe there's hope, but I believe it rests with parents first.

jrlindermuth said...

When I started on newspapers average reading level was said to be eighth grade. I shudder to think your example is now the eighth grade level. We can't blame it all on the schools, though. Too many parents neglect reading and fail to set an example by encouraging reading in the home.

jrlindermuth said...

When I started on newspapers average reading level was said to be eighth grade. I shudder to think your example is now the eighth grade level. We can't blame it all on the schools, though. Too many parents neglect reading and fail to set an example by encouraging reading in the home.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Earl,

As a retired English teacher and librarian who has taught at every level, I understand your concern. I believe there has been a serious "dumbing down" in literacy in general. Educators are certainly aware of this and know there are many complicated reasons for it.

Jenny Milchman said...

Earl, I think this is a very dire statement of the state of things. I can only hope the situation may reverse, a pendulum swing, as we become aware of some of the drawbacks to the shiny new toy of technology. I hope we can retain the good things from the past--including diligence and deep immersion in one medium--despite the siren's song of multi-tasking and instant communication.

On a personal note, I will be coming your way sometime in late winter 2013 when my own first novel comes out. If the kids you transport might like a visit or a talk about writing stories, I would love to drop by, if possible.

I promise to ask them, How do you do?


Earl Staggs said...

My thanks to everyone who came by. It's refreshing to know I'm not alone in being concerned. I appreciate your comments and personal experiences.

Sometimes I see kids behaving in certain ways on my bus and my first impulse is to shoot the parents.

One thing writers can do is attempt to talk with young people in schools, libraries, and wherever we can.

Other than that, all we can do is hope it's true that some people are born with a burning desire to read and write and will not let anything stop them, not even a lack of support and encouragement at home and in schools.

Best regards to all.