Teaching Opinion

Developing Student Writers By Letting Them Talk...

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 29, 2013 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

Anjilla Young and Lori DiGisi both asked a similar question:

What can we do to prepare for the Common Core writing skills in our classrooms?

I’ll be posting a three-part series over the next week responding to this question, with contributions I’ve invited from many educators. I’ve also received many comments from readers, and there is always room for more! Readers’ comments will appear in Part Three next Sunday.

I’ve previously shared my thoughts on teaching writing in other posts here on reading/writing instruction and on Common Core, as well as here on one of my other blogs. So, instead of repeating myself here, I’ll leave the advice in this series to contributors.

Today’s commentaries come from educators Mary Tedrow, Ray Salazar and Tanya Baker.

Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary K. Tedrow is a National Board Certified Teacher of English Language Arts/Adolescence and Young Adulthood with 24 years of classroom experience. She is also a Co-Director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, the Porterfield Endowed English Chair and John Handley High School, and a charter member of the Center for Teaching Quality Teacher Leaders Forum:

“Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” James Britton (1908-1994), theorist in language and learning.

To grow better writers, let them talk.

The writing goals for the Common Core, beginning in kindergarten, may seem lofty but, in truth, the intellectual goals for writing K-12 are approachable for any classroom teacher.

Though the temptation may be to break the standards down into discrete skills taught in isolation, a more global approach that keeps the language arts authentic and student-centered will have more lasting results. Still others may be tempted to test-proof students by throwing prompt after prompt in their direction. This may leave the teacher feeling that they covered material, but written responses to this prompt salad will lack both voice and depth.

Ironically, writing can be improved if we give students more time to engage in talk, rather than diving right into a written product. We certainly cannot write well on any topic if we do not have a clear idea of our own views and opinions. Beginning in kindergarten, the writing standards ask for student opinion supported with reasons. Talk--with those who are nearest to us in language, our peers--will lead to the formation of opinions supported with evidence.

Let them talk.

Engage students thoughtfully in the same lesson plan over and over: write first about a big question, share ideas verbally about the big question, read about the big question, write again after the reading, share or debate the big question, write again to collect new thinking, research areas of inquiry that arise from the discussions, write again, share again, and THEN assess through writing. Write, talk, read, talk, write, talk, write a third time, read again. Assess only after students have developed their thinking.

Writers who know what they are writing about are better writers. Give your students plenty of opportunities to figure out what they know and think. All this classroom talk will surface and augment what students already know.

Response From Ray Salazar

Ray Salazar is a National Board Certified teacher who works in the Chicago Public Schools. Ray writes about education and Latino issues on the award-winning White Rhino blog:

As an English teacher who holds a master’s degree in writing, I’m grateful and inspired by the Common Core’s focus on writing skills. As you likely know, Common Core presents writing instruction in two components:

1. Writing in terms of purpose, distribution, research, and range. This is demonstrated at the whole-text or paragraph level.

2. Language in terms of punctuation, grammar, and style. This is demonstrated at the sentence level.

Critics dismiss Common Core as the corporate takeover of education. Regardless of these views, “writing,” Marquette University reminds us, “is the primary basis upon which your work, your learning, and your intellect will be judged--in college, in the workplace, and in the community.”

Whether we like it or not--we judge. Students will be judged. And if we truly want to help our low-income students gain access to post-secondary opportunities, we need to teach them how to write. These guidelines and links can help teachers build students’ confidence and competence as writers in the 21st Century:

Narrative Writing: Students must write engaging stories and personal experiences, theirs or others, that focus on making more meaning for the audience than for the writer. In my high-school narrative writing unit, I focus on teaching students to communicate the significance of the experience to others after they understand the significance of the experience for themselves.

Expository Writing: Creating these informational texts in the forms of balanced news articles, abstracts of longer works, or engaging biographies provides students access to the background information too many teachers complain our students lack. If students have the opportunity to sort out and write out information--instead of having it recited in a teacher’s lecture--students develop skills that will help them sort out the questionable information they access on social media every day.

Argumentative Writing: Students have to stop writing five-paragraph essays. Argument is an audience-centered experience. We should enter an ongoing conversation with reasoned evidence or examples grounded in academic, historical, social, or personal research. My anti-five-paragraph post explains ways to avoid unengaging, rudimentary approaches.

Finally, to successfully teach the Common Core’s Language Standards, we must deeply know what we teach. If we were schooled during an era when grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure were not taught, we need to find a way to teach ourselves. Students need to learn the guidelines for a using a semicolon, for example, and they need to know its rhetorical effect: a semicolon creates a cause and effect relationship where the shorter second sentence is emphasized. My post about how I teach to the test in the Chicago Public Schools outlines these strategies.

We can criticize the efforts to standardize education practices--and we should. But if we avoid accepting and teaching the Common Core Standards--especially the writing standards--we perpetuate the social inequalities many activists claim to be fighting against.

For decades, many wealthy kids and students at magnet or selective-enrollment schools have been exposed to what Common Core pushes us to teach. That’s one reason those students gained more access to better post-secondary opportunities. Let’s give our low-income, minority students those same options.

Response From Tanya Baker

Tanya Baker is the Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project. She was a high school English teacher in Maine for 12 years and is the author of Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy Grades 6-12. She is particularly interested in teacher networks, professional learning communities and writing in the disciplines:

It took me many years as a teacher to realize how important a well crafted writing assignment could be to my students’ success as writers. I remember giving assignments which produced whole class sets of deadly boring, or convoluted, or ridiculous writing, only to wonder what was wrong with this particular class of students. Only once I realized that it might not be the students, but rather what I had asked them to do, did I know to more carefully craft assignments. And only once I began working hard at this craft did I realize how difficult crafting excellent assignments could be, and how beneficial it could be to do this work with others.

The mission of the National Writing Project states that we focus “the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.” This mission is often enacted by creating opportunities for teachers to learn together, with and from each other. Over the last decade one thread of this work has been understanding the relationship between teacher assignments and student work. As we work to develop students writing skills as described in the Common Core State Standards, one thing teachers can do together is to develop powerful writing assignments for their students.

In 2001 the National Writing Project (NWP) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released a study that analyzed portfolios of student writing to look at the link between assignments and the quality of student writing. According to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, a member of the research team, successful assignments “rose like cream to the surface when we looked at the student writing. The assignments that produced the best writing hit that sweet spot of an engaging challenge presented within what we called ‘enabling constraints.”

The idea of enabling constraints--enough choice to run with a piece of writing but not so much that the writer is overwhelmed--was one common element of effective assignments. The study also showed that successful writing assignments:

  • were rooted in particular and substantive material
  • asked students to interact with and transform that material
  • provided guidelines for how to structure ideas and contain appropriate scaffolding
  • asked students to write for a specific audience
  • provided opportunities to become engaged

Since the release of that study, an era of high-stakes math and reading assessments has relegated writing instruction to the edges, or out of, classrooms. Now the Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to provide students many substantive opportunities to write, and the message still stands: the quality of students’ writing is often related to the quality of the assignment students are asked to complete.

Creating successful assignments is complex, complicated work, the kind of work best done in collaboration and over time. Knowing this, in 2008-2009 the National Writing Project supported teacher research group who worked together to develop Teacher Assignments and Student Work, describing the work of teachers who studied the writing that students produced in relationship to the assignments they were offered. Teacher Assignments and Student Work offers supporting materials for teacher research groups interested in studying the relationship between an assignment and the work students produce for it.

And in 2011, NWP produced a monograph, Wise Eyes ,to support teachers in developing meaningful prompts for classroom assignments. Written by Mary Ann Smith and Sherry Swain, Wise Eyes draws on NWP teacher expertise as developed through classroom experience and knowledge gained through scoring student writing with the Analytic Writing Continuum, a scoring tool developed by the NWP. Wise Eyes provides examples of a number of kinds of writing assignments as well as heuristics for thinking about what makes a writing assignment successful.

More recently, a small number of National Writing Project teachers in seven states have had the opportunity to work together to craft writing assignments and instruction to support students in successfully completing them through the Literacy and the Common Core Initiative. Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the larger effort through which this work was completed, known as the Literacy Design Collaborative, offers many scaffolds for teachers new to developing writing tasks and the instruction to support them, including task templates and an instructional ladder. Over the course of our work together, however, it was the LDC jurying rubric that became the most useful tool in the NWP teachers’ LDC tool box. This rubric helps teachers to ask important questions about the assignments they are asking student to complete, such as:

○ Is this task precisely worded to give students a clear purpose for writing?

○ Is there room for diverse responses?

○ Does this task address content central to the discipline?

○ Does it require students to build strong content knowledge?

○ Does it engage students in complex, higher order thinking skills specific to the discipline?

○ Are the texts students read engaging, relevant and authentic?

○ Does the student product authentically engage students in types of writing central to the discipline?

While the tool of the LDC rubric was helpful, it was in the efforts of teachers working together to deeply understand and apply that rubric that deep, practice-changing learning occurred.

There are many things that we can do to support students in developing the writing skills demanded by the common core (and by our modern, digital, interconnected lives). Working in community with other teachers to craft the kind of assignments that allow and support students to write well is one that is challenging and stimulating. Put together a teacher research group, or a professional learning community, or dedicate some of your department meetings to this work. Avail yourselves of the many resources on this topic, then give it a go together. Craft some assignments, try them out. Don’t be surprised if some of them are duds, but try to understand why. Learn from your mistakes. Laugh at some of your bad ideas, and then craft better ones. Remind each other how hard it is to do this right, then keep on trying. Find a way to share your groups’ work with others. Pass your best ideas along.

Thanks to Mary, Ray and Tanya for offering their advice today!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, readers’ comments will appear next Sunday.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and am starting off with Corwin.

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Look for Part Two in this series on Wednesday....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.