Published Online: April 22, 2009

Investing in Writing to Win the Ed Race

Classroom teachers are generally last in line when it comes to spending decisions and the first blamed when those dollars don’t result in student achievement. Given this history, it’s not likely that I’ll be asked to serve on a committee writing a grant for the “Race to the Top” money to be distributed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan this fall. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on the matter.

Duncan says these grant dollars will flow only to states promising innovation. For most policymakers that means grand schemes—charter schools, fancy hardware, giant reading programs with discrete benchmarks, alternative paths to teaching, textbook adoptions, mountains of data and tests, tests, tests.

My idea of innovation calls for a quieter revolution, one with fewer bells and whistles. It begins by envisioning a quiet but humming classroom, where busy heads bend over pads of paper and hands scribble rapidly with pens or pencils.

If I were running the education world, I’d ensure that every building contain, at a minimum, one teacher trained through the National Writing Project in the teaching of writing and the use of writing to learn. Planting that single seed could revolutionize the way we look at students and student work.

The NWP has been transforming teachers from all disciplines and grade levels for over 30 years, and the track record of success is well documented. One study revealed that 98% of teachers in the NWP remained in education their entire careers, while 70% of those stayed in the classroom working with students. More to the point, perhaps, a recent meta-study of NWP research found that teachers who participate in Writing Project professional development outperform non-Project teachers on every measure of student achievement in writing performance.

But why pour dollars into effective writing-instruction? Well, I’ve come to believe—in part through my experiences with NWP—that writing is at the core of learning.

Writing as Making Meaning

From a teaching-and-learning perspective, reading is input – other ideas implanted from a variety of voices – and writing is output – a record of a student’s understanding of what those voices are saying. But though we spend barrels of money ensuring that students can read, we neglect to help our students make sense of what they’ve read, heard or seen by asking them to use the writing process for deeper thinking.

Teachers are quick to note that superiors seldom seek our advice, yet we rarely ask our students what is on their minds. We spend most of our time filling their heads, and carve out very little to discover how they are responding to and integrating what we’ve told them.

What is it they think they have learned? How does that learning fit into their lives? What connections can they make between the new knowledge and the old? Can they imagine a future where their new knowledge expands to resolve problems and issues? Opening a window into students’ thoughts is the only way to know for sure how well they “get” what we’re giving them. Notepads and pencils make excellent window-openers.

Why writing and not some other tool? Writing is thinking—one student sorting through his knowledge and understandings to produce thought. When a student learns something, she must first articulate it in her own language before she owns it. Writing gives every student in the room the time and space to do this important reflecting in a very personal—dare I say differentiated–way.

In a matter of minutes, writing can reveal a student harboring a huge misconception, a student imagining possibilities the teacher has not considered, or a student struggling to learn an important concept.

By not asking students to write, we are also ignoring their potential role in designing education as makers of meaning. Teachers dismissing student knowledge is akin to education policy makers dismissing teacher insights. In my classroom, my students’ written responses help me know them better and tailor my instruction to their interests and needs.

Still not convinced that true innovation in education lies in the paper and pen?

Try transforming your own classroom into a community of learners tomorrow. Ask your students to write about this: What is one thing we have done this quarter that you have enjoyed? What did you like about it? What is something you would like to see as a part of our classroom work? Why?

I guarantee they will respond with the same eagerness and insight you would, if I were to ask: What is one thing you would like to change about education in this country if you could?

You’ve already heard my answer. So go ahead – write away. What’s yours?

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