Teaching Opinion

Preparing Students To Write Is ‘About Our Own Collaboration’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 01, 2013 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

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?

In Part One of this series, I shared some of my suggested resources, and educators Mary Tedrow, Ray Salazar and Tanya Baker contributed their commentaries. Today’s post highlights the ideas of Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Kathy Glass, and Carol Jago. The third, and final, post in this series will appear on Sunday. I’ll be including readers’ comments there, so be sure to tell me what you think!

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher. She has authored workbooks on teaching Internet Literacy, Project Based Writing, and Nonfiction Reading Strategies for the Common Core. She is the author of ˜Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers and the upcoming Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing Across the Content Areas. Heather blogs for The George Lucas Educational Foundation’s Edutopia.org as well as for her own blog:

Preparing for the Common Core writing skills to come is simply about guiding student to communicate the content. It’s not about replacing content with writing, but about how a scientist or historian or architect or author or whatever, communicate what they love in order to do the job. There are some standard writing elements that all content areas share: argument and informational writing, for instance. But, frankly, a scientist pitching a solution also uses elements found in narrative and summary. They weave together. So preparation is more about respecting the styles of writing and knowing that they all have a place in every subject.

For English and Language Arts, that doesn’t mean ditching fiction, it might mean incorporating facts into fiction. That’s what sci-fi and historical fiction are all about. It’s about writing informational newspaper articles and business-like executive summaries, role-playing as people trying to solve real world problems.

For other subjects, it means not only using writing in your assessments, but also knowing enough about writing that you can hold students accountable for their quality of writing. Insist on them using a Thesis statement. Model how they can use sensory details in their content-specific writing. Teach them when it’s appropriate to use voice and when it’s not. Help them recognize the evidence that can be used. Push them to insert evidence, not just in numbers but also in prose, not just in graphs, but also in infographics. Furthermore, insist that they incorporate commentary to expand on that evidence, injecting their own original thoughts into their writing. Insist on vivid word choice and sentence variety. Better yet, model their use in your own writing that you show the students. This way, high-quality writing doesn’t get relegated only to English class.

In other words, none of our subjects can afford to be segregated anymore. Just as our students need to collaborate, so do the teachers. The experts are already there. Preparation is about our own collaboration. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Tap into the rubrics already used by the English teachers. Share resources. Create a school-wide writing rubric for informational paragraphs, but leave a row on the rubric for each class to individualize to reflect their own content.

And as far as Language Arts goes, teach it not solely as a literature-based course, but as a course about communication. I don’t call my class, Language Arts. I call it the Art of Using Language. Yes, I teach about literature and symbolism. But I also allow students to write about the other subjects. I guide them in how to best state their justification or pitch their next proposal, regardless of its content. By teaching ELA more as a communication class, we broaden the definition of writing and welcome in the teachers to whom writing, speaking, and communicating has been eclipsed by multiple-choice bubbles.

Finally, you really want to prepare yourself for Common Core writing? Forget the typical in-services. Get thee to your local Writing Project Summer Institute. As I say in my upcoming book, it’s a game-changer for you in terms of best practices. Imagine a baseball summer school where Babe Ruth comes to explain what worked for him. Imagine a movie making summer school where Steven Spielberg comes to talk just to your small cohort. That’s what the Writing Project is. For one summer, you and about 20 educators from K-higher education, from all subjects, meet for one month to learn from a daily rotation of the best writing teachers in this country. It’s an amazing experience, and it will change how you communicate your content and how you teach writing.

Response From Kathy Glass

Kathy Glass is the author of several books including her two newest ones Mapping Comprehensive Units to the ELA Common Core, K-5 and 6-12 (Corwin Press). She is a national speaker and consultant in areas affecting curriculum/instruction:

When teachers plan writing units (or any units for that matter) with a backward design approach, the results can be powerful in boosting student achievement. Using this process to design curriculum enables teachers to be clear-sighted about what they expect of students in advance of launching into the targeted unit. They use the standards as a guide to determine their curricular goals of what they want students to know, understand, and be able to do. Then they identify how students will demonstrate what they have learned by crafting appropriate assessments. Once these components are in place, they design lessons to meet the articulated goals since they have a well-defined vision of expectations.

In terms of preparing students to meet the demands of the ELA Common Core writing standards--or for any writing standards--I suggest to teachers that they implement what I call the “assessment trio.” This entails (1) a student checklist that students use while they write, (2) a revision sheet that instructs students to verify they have paid attention to the checklist (we know oftentimes they do not), and (3) an accompanying rubric for scoring. Each assessment piece complements the other and represents expectations for a writing project. In a way, the checklist and rubric serve as a commitment to teaching with carefully delineated goals embedded within them. Once these assessment pieces are in place, teachers can devise and conduct lessons with their sights squarely centered on these unit goals.

Click here for an example of my assessment trio for argumentation. For some lessons aligned to this unit, access this link. It contains many differentiated lessons related to research skills and finding credible sources, which was a joint project I worked on with Tasha Bergson-Michelson at Google Inc.

Additionally, lessons should include both weak and strong examples of student writing models. Appendix C of the Common Core has some student samples (here). On the Achieve website, there are additional ones (here). Do not assume that all of these student samples are exemplary because they are not. Read through them carefully and determine how you will illustrate what students might use as a guide or a cautionary tale of what to avoid.

When teaching any unit, it is prudent to choreograph in advance using a backward design approach to map the unit. Developing an “assessment trio” enables educators to be focused on goals and provides a clear guide for lesson design.

Response From Carol Jago

Carol Jago is a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She has taught middle and high school for 32 years and is associate director of the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is author of With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards:

Do your students have the writing skills Common Core demands?

Most teachers tell me, “No.” Despite all the texting and tweeting on digital devices, most students’ writing skills languish far below the standards the Common Core describes. Broadcasting themselves in 140 characters does little to prepare students for the kind of writing and the quantity of writing they will be expected to produce with little or no assistance in college.

What can teachers do?

Writing needs to happen every day in every class across the curriculum. It’s not a matter of practicing language arts skills but rather sound pedagogy for deepening learning and developing thinking in English, history, science, and technical subjects. Alas, it’s the rare school where writing serves as the backbone for curriculum.

According to research from Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer, the average secondary student produces 1.6. in English and 2.1 pages in all their other classes combined. And these pages often bear no resemblance to anything you would call composition but rather “show what you know” writing. Forty percent of twelfth graders report seldom being asked to write a paper of 3 or more pages. Students can’t learn to write doing this little writing.

Teaching writing is more than assigning and assessing

Sound writing instruction begins with reading and research. To often we ask students to create a thesis before they know anything about the topic. Stop decrying the pedestrian nature of your students’ claims and evidence and design lessons around a collection of texts -- informational, literary, visual, video -- and invite them to analyze these “readings” before deciding upon what it is they have to say about the issue.

For example if you wanted students to write about the influence of technology on human relationships, you might have them read and discuss ideas from the following bouquet of texts:

  • “The Flight from Conversation,” Sherry Turkel, New York Times Sunday Magazine, April 12, 2012.
  • “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Henry David Thoreau
  • “The World Is Too Much With Us,” William Wordsworth
  • “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” Edward Abbey
  • “What Are People For?” Wendell Barry

You could leaven the reading with short videos demonstrating advancements in the Robo-pet industry, for example:

Invite students to do their own research on the intersection of technology and modern life and to share what they have found. Once students have thoroughly explored the topic, they can begin to synthesize what they have read in the form of an essay. This process and product is modeled after the College Board’s AP Language synthesis task.

Writing Assignment

Synthesize information from the sources you have read and talked about with your peers, incorporating it into a coherent, well-developed essay that argues a clear position about the influence of technology on human relationships. Make sure your argument is central; use the sources to illustrate and support your reasoning. Avoid merely summarizing the sources.

With Rigor for All

You may be thinking that while such writing tasks are fine for honors and AP students, they ask too much of “regular” kids. I disagree. Why should only a select few have a chance to work through juicy topics like the one described here? Technology’s impact on our relationships is an issue that affects all students, not only those destined to be masters of the universe.

For too long we have offered many students only lockstep, template-driven writing tasks. Integrated reading and writing lessons on topics that matter will engage your disaffected students. It is also the best preparation for Common Core-aligned assessment. Who needs test prep when students are reading, writing, listening, and speaking every day?

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 on 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.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Look for Part Three in this series on Sunday....

Related Tags:

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.