Saturday, April 6, 2013

Three ways to engage your students in writing

For years, most schools have operated under the following assumptions:

  • Social studies teachers know how to teach students about World War II and the Constitution.
  • Art teachers know how to teach students about painting and art analysis.
  • English teachers know how to teach reading and writing.

This is the logic in many schools; however, in the era of the Common Core State Standards, this paradigm must shift. One of the great things about the CCSS is that it asks ALL teachers to help teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. Previously, I wrote about five easy ways any teacher can get her students to start close reading.

For some reason, even though all teachers wrote countless papers in high school, college and maybe even graduate school, teaching writing simply freaks teachers out. Even English teachers aren't immune to this feeling when it comes to writing instruction.

Writing instruction should not fall only on the Language Arts department. Kelly Gallagher's book Write Like This is an excellent example for how English teachers can teach writing in their class.

However, his basic principles can be applied to ANY subject area.

Here are three simple things that you, yes even you Mr. Math teacher, can do to engage your students in writing:

1. Training wheels: Provide templates

Learning how to write is a bit like learning how to ride a bike. At first, students need to have "training wheels" before they can learn how to write on their own. Templates make excellent training wheels.

I first learned about templates from the book They Say I Say

Before the CCSS, my assignments would require a minimum number of quotations, and students would just "throw" those quotations in without any introducing or explanation. They would just appear randomly throughout the paper. Now, we use templates especially with our freshmen and sophomores when we teach them how to incorporate evidence in their writing. Simple quotation templates from the book include:

Introducing a quotation:

According to ___(Author)____, "________(Quotation)___________."

__(Author)________ states "______(Quotation)____."

Explaining a quote:

In other words, _____(Explanation)_______________________.

Basically, _________(Explanation)___________________________.

Sure, it is a bit like doing a Mad Lib, but it works. Once students have a basic understanding of how to incorporate templates in their writing, we expand to longer templates that we create in our professional learning communities. Here are some examples of longer, more complex templates:

Rhetorical Precis (From:
Satire analysis of Animal Farm
Imagery in Fahrenheit 451

Could you design a template for writing a lab report in science class? What about justifications in Calculus? Heart rate analysis in physical education? Think about templates that would be applicable to your subject area, and then create them from scratch. Once students have this basic writing idea down, then we can begin removing the "training wheels."

2. Take the plunge: Teacher modeling

We learn new skills best by observing others who are experts at the skill we are trying to learn.  Kelly Gallagher's analogy is that you would learn how to golf by watching PGA golfers swing a club. I show my quarterbacks game film from college and professional teams to teach them technique and plays. This is basic teaching, but something we forget when it comes to writing. Students need to see the teacher write (and sometimes fail!) in front of them.

It. Is. Terrifying.
Take the plunge! Write in front of your students.

It is scary to sit at a computer in front of 25 teenagers and have every keystroke appear on the projector. Sometimes the words flow right through my fingers. Sometimes, I can't think of anything to type. Sometimes, I make a number of mistakes that my students are quick to correct. It is very scary, but it is essential for students to see us struggling with the same work we are asking them to do.

This can apply to ANY subject area:
  • Social studies teachers can write thesis statements.
  • Math teachers can write justifications.
  • Art teachers can write art reviews.
  • Science teachers can write lab reports.
The next time you incorporate writing in your class, take the leap and try writing in front of them. You will learn something about the assignment you are giving them, and your students will learn through watching you write in front of them.

3. Learn from experts: Mentor texts

The problem with most high school students isn't that they don't know how to write. The problem is that they have yet to find their own style and voice. That takes time and work; unfortunately, it doesn't happen over night. One way to help this is to provide mentor texts that students can close read to analyze what the author is DOING, and then emulate that style in their own writing.

We first have students perform a close read of the text, making note of the moves that the author is making. I will often have questions about "how long" a piece has to be, or "what all needs to be included" in the writing. When we look at these mentor texts, we notice the length of paragraphs - usually 2-3 sentences (Not 8-10 you say? Blasphemy!) There are also usually 20+ paragraphs, which is wildly different from the five paragraph essays that we all know and love (hate?) to teach. This is how real writers write, and our students need to closely examine what these writers do.

There is a great blog written by two English teachers called Teach Mentor Texts where they highlight examples of texts that can be used for emulation. I love using Roger Ebert, Rick Reilly and Leonard Pitts Jr. articles as mentor texts because they have have distinct styles that students can emulate.

Admittedly, I am lacking knowledge when it comes to this area in other subjects. I do not know who the writing gurus are for math, science or social studies. I would encourage you to look through articles or examples from real experts in your field, allow students to closely look at the moves author makes, and emulate the style until they are able to find their own voice.

Final thoughts

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers. The basic idea is that it takes 10,000 hours for anyone to become an expert in her area of expertise. If students are only writing in their English classes, they will never get to the 10,000 hour mark in 12 years of school. However, if the writing is happening in every subject area, this is a much more realistic goal.

No matter what subject you teach, all teachers can implement writing in their courses. The responsibility should not fall solely on the shoulders of the English department. These are three strategies that any subject area teachers can quickly implement in their classes: templates, writing in front of students, and mentor texts. My belief is that if we can just get students writing in their other classes, the English teachers can worry about the grammar, organization and everything else that comes with it.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post, Court. Love the mentor texts and I really, really like the templates. Thanks for sharing!