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Writing Gaining Emphasis In Science, Math Classes

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ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.--James Ward, a high-school science teacher from Northfield, Mass., learned a new technique here this month that growing numbers of his colleagues claim can make science and mathematics courses "come alive.'' The secret is writing.

When he returns to Northfield-Mount Hermon School, he says, he will treat his science students to daily, non-pressured writing assignments. They might include responses to homework, summaries of lectures, or just questions about a laboratory experiment.

Whatever they chronicle, the exercises will not be aimed at learning the finer points of composition and grammar. They will give students a chance to reflect on what they have learned and express it in their own words.

"Too often, kids learn what they need to know for a test, and don't have any idea what the significance is,'' said Mr. Ward. "They are not given the encouragement for that.''

Mr. Ward was one of a dozen high-school and college teachers who attended the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking this month to learn ways to incorporate writing into mathematics and science classes.

With their participation, the 12 have joined what is fast becoming a national movement. Math and science teachers who have made writing an integral part of their instruction are spreading the word: The assignments improve students' understanding, make classes more exciting, and make teaching more stimulating.

So many science teachers have submitted articles about their successful experiences with writing to The Science Teacher, a journal for high-school teachers, that the publication has stopped accepting them, according to Julienne Texley, the journal's editor.

"We get lots of manuscripts on various uses of writing,'' she said. "It's an up-and-coming thing.''

In math, the increased use of word processors has forced teachers to train students to communicate as well as calculate, added John A. Dossey, professor of mathematics at Illinois State University and president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

"In the past, one person did the math calculations, and another did the writing,'' he said. "But when [job] recruiters come to campus here, they are looking for students who can speak and write clearly, and then someone with appropriate math skills.''

Away From 'Teacher Talk'

The Bard institute, which began in 1982 as an extension of the college's writing course for freshmen, developed the math and science workshop in 1985, as a way of helping teachers in those disciplines restructure their classrooms to give students more opportunities to think and discover concepts on their own, according to Paul Connelly, its director.

"The important thing is not to teach writing,'' Mr. Connelly said. "It's to get classrooms away from 'teacher talk,' which John Goodlad says represents 75 percent of most classroom time.''

By allowing the students to "engage'' the material through writing, rather than by listening to teachers, students can learn to "know what it is to think like a mathematician or a scientist,'' Mr. Connelly said.

"If not,'' he continued, "information just rolls off them.''

But teachers at the workshop suggested that writing techniques might be difficult to implement, because of the large class sizes in most public schools, and the amount of material that must be covered to meet state and district requirements.

"I couldn't afford to take the time to do that,'' said Susan Ward, a 6th-grade teacher at Herberich Elementary School in Akron, Ohio. "It's hard enough getting through all the material in a year.''

Across the Curriculum

Nevertheless, the institute's efforts are but one facet of a larger national drive to make writing a natural part of all coursework. A 1986 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only one-fifth of American students write adequately, suggested that teachers in all subjects require clear and effective writing by their students.

The movement to introduce writing across the curriculum has attracted "a tremendous amount of interest,'' according to Elaine P. Maimon, associate dean of the college at Brown University and a leader in the movement.

As evidence of that interest, an increasing number of teachers in fields other than English have requested training from the National Writing Project, according to James R. Gray, the project's director. A third of the requests the project receives, he said, now come from entire faculties, rather than from English departments.

The project is a 10-year-old network of nearly 150 local programs that train about 3,000 teachers annually in writing instruction.

'Page Full of Numbers'

Providing part of the impetus for the across-the-curriculum writing campaign is a body of research by math and science educators showing that writing helps improve learning in those disciplines.

"We are certain that having students write things is almost essential if you want them to learn things,'' said Peter Renz, associate director of the Mathematical Association of America.

Through the use of writing, students can more easily follow the thought processes that went into solving problems, Mr. Renz explained.

Otherwise, he said, "a page full of numbers is essentially what students hand you.''

"One of them, supposedly the right answer, is boxed in the lower right corner.''

To pull together research on the subject, the Bard institute, with a grant from the Agnese Nelms Lindley Foundation, will hold a conference this fall on the connection between language and skills in math and science. The institute will then publish the proceedings of the conference.

Teachers who have used writing as an instructional tool say it vastly improves students' understanding and appreciation of science and math.

'I'm Fired Up'

"For 25 years, I denied students the 'exhilaration of discovery,''' said Bob Tierney, a biology and physical-science teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., quoting the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. "I think I have put that back in the classroom.''

Mr. Tierney added that the experience had exhilarated him, as well. "It saved my career,'' he said. "Seven or eight years ago, I was ready to retire. But I discovered I had so much to learn about my own teaching.''

"Now,'' he said, "I'm fired up. I'm enjoying the classroom again.''

Informal-Writing Techniques

Though specific techniques used in the classrooms and workshops vary, most educators agree that students should write informal papers that show that they have digested the subject, rather than formal research papers. The informal assignments need not be graded or even seen by teachers, they added.

"Writing across the curriculum does not mean term papers across the curriculum,'' said Ms. Maimon.

At the Bard workshop, teachers began each lesson with five minutes of "free writing'' on any topic. Alice Rydjeski, a curriculum specialist at the Community College of Vermont and a workshop participant, called the exercise "mental calisthenics'' that limbered her mind for the tasks ahead.

Other techniques included:

  • "Process writing.'' When presented with word problems in both math and science, teachers wrote the strategies they planned to use to solve them, and the steps they took to solve them. Afterward, they wrote any questions they had about the problems or the solutions.

This type of writing enables students to discover concepts on their own, said Ranny Bledsoe, assistant professor of mathematics at Bard, who led the workshop. "They can see that the concepts are not something written on the Rosetta Stone.''

At the same time, Ms. Bledsoe added, students can share their solutions and see that other students might have shared their difficulties. "Students can see that the good students don't get it all the time,'' she said. Otherwise, she added, "math classes are very lonely places for students who feel they are having trouble.''

  • "Learning logs.'' Teachers were asked to write what they knew about the concept of "geometric numbers.'' Then a lecture on the topic was presented, after which the teachers wrote what they had learned.

This exercise creates a "structure in which students have a chance to stand back and think about what they are doing,'' Ms. Bledsoe explained.

  • "Dialectical notebooks.'' While reading a biology text, the teachers wrote summaries on one side of a page, and comments about passages on the other. They then shared their comments with another teacher, who critiqued either their comments or the original text.

This technique encourages students to question, debate, and challenge material in textbooks, Ms. Bledsoe said. "Reading becomes a two-way, not a one-way process.''

Teachers should modify these techniques or use any others that seem appropriate for their classrooms, institute officials said.

"We're not selling a set of gadgets that you can plug into a classroom,'' said Mr. Connelly.

Teacher Objections

But teachers suggested that they might have trouble implementing some of the techniques.

For example, said Frank DeSteno, a biology teacher at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J., unless he grades and comments on each exercise, students will not put much effort into them.

"If I don't feed back to them, they'll do as little as possible,'' he said.

Others maintained that the time it would take for students to do the exercises would make it difficult to cover the material they need to cover.

Mr. Tierney of Irvington High School, who last year conducted 149 workshops on writing in several states and foreign countries, said in an interview that this is the most common objection teachers raise to the technique.

In response, he said, he tells teachers that they must define how they intend to "cover'' the material.

"If you want me to cover the whole textbook, I could do it in a month and a half,'' he said. "If I do, no one would learn anything.''

Rather, he said, "students should know the subject well enough to be able to explain it to another in writing.''

"Otherwise,'' he concluded, "it's a waste of time. We'd end up teaching the same thing in 6th grade, 9th grade, and 11th grade, because they never learned it in the first place.''

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