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Posts tagged ‘writing across the curriculum’

Helping Students Become Better Writers–A Team Priority!

“Why do I have to revise and edit my lab report?  This is science class, not Language Arts!”

“Why do you give essay tests?” This isn’t an English class!”

“Journaling in Math?  We do those in Language Arts; why are we doing them here?”

“You want me to write about an artist’s style? Why can’t I just show you with images?”

Most of us have experienced student complaints when writing-based tasks are assigned.  Students often compartmentalize skills by subject area, and in their minds writing belongs in Language Arts class. However, writing is a skill that crosses all disciplines and is a requirement for most professional jobs.  In fact, salaries often increase in proportion to one’s ability to write well.  Look at the infographic below.  It details the results of a study conducted by the folks at Grammarly.com, a popular web-based grammar checking service.

Grammarly.com Infographic

Grammarly.com Infographic

Over the next couple of blog posts, I will share several ideas for making the teaching of writing a team-based enterprise. Step 1 might be that the language arts teacher shares this infographic with his teammates and begins a conversation during common planning time by asking, “I wonder if it might not be worth our time to review how we reinforce good writing skills across our team classes, and then explore one or two additional ways to support our students as they work on becoming better writers?”

Next time: How Grammarly.com could be useful to students in all classes.

Use It or Lose It! Writing Across the Curriculum

I decided to take the summer off and not post here.  Out of habit, out of sight, out of mind!  Result: it has been very difficult to get back into writing regularly. Not only has my habit of posting been disrupted, but my ease with the writing process has been adversely affected.  Words don’t flow as easily, and my new idea generator seems stuck in neutral.  It occurs to me that the same thing happens to our students when we don’t expect them to write on a regular basis!

The ability to communicate is a life skill.  It’s one of the 4 C’s in the 21st century skills set  and encompasses several standards in the Common Core. Furthermore, developing students’ abilities to communicate effectively is just common sense–it’s an every century skill!

Teams need to work together to build their students’ ability to communicate in a variety of ways, including writing.  Here’s a terrific article about one very low performing high school that tackled writing together and found improvement in students’ skill levels in other areas: “The Writing Revolution” in The Atlantic.

Everything students write does not need to be corrected and graded. Sometimes the assignments are just practices–like shooting hoops on the school playground.  Providing students opportunities to try out new words, sentence structures, and genres  will have dividends as students become more comfortable with the written word.
A few ideas to get started as a team…

  • An idea from the article above–have students summarize in writing the big ideas from the lesson of the day (in any class) using sentence structures they have studied in Language Arts class.  Write a compound sentence summarizing ratios.  Write a sentence beginning with “although” that explains the process photosynthesis.
  • Use journals or writing logs in every class.
  1. Summarizers
  2. Discussion starter prompts
  3. Practices for citing evidence in an argument piece
  4. Creative writing (The creative economy generates personal income & revenue for state and federal governments–we shouldn’t ignore this aspect of our students’ education)
  5. Write sentences using words from Word Wall
  • Keep a team blog that informs parents and the community about what is happening on your team.  Have students write the different posts.
  • Plan interdisciplinary units where students synthesize information from several disciplines–have you looked at the Webquest site recently for ideas?
  • Teach students to access online writing resources in all classes (OWL. Grammar Girl, thesaurus)
  • Browse ReadWriteThink together to identify ideas for working as a team on literacy skills.

Our students will not improve as writers unless they write.  Working as a team to provide daily opportunities for students to experiment with words, sentence structures, and different genres is an important educational goal.

Additional sources on writing across the curriculum in middle school:

Middle School Journal

Previous post on The Atlantic article mentioned above

RAFT strategy

West Virginia DOE–specific strategies

Working on the Common Core –Together!

The vast majority of states have bought into the Common Core State Standards Initiative which means teachers will be expected to address them in their classrooms.  At first glance the CC seems to be just about English/Language Arts and Mathematics. “Phew!” may be what other content teachers are thinking—but not so fast!!!!

The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening,
and language be a shared responsibility within the school…The grades
6–12 standards are divided into two sections, one for ELA and the other for
history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. This division reflects the
unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy
skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well. (CCSS)

Everyone shares the responsibility for the literacy standards of the Common Core.  What a wonderful opportunity to teach in an interdisciplinary manner!   Let me give you an example…

The CC (in literacy) has anchor standards as well as grade level expectations. Two of the anchor standards in writing are

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant
and sufficient evidence.
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately
through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

So…students must learn how to identify and use evidence from different sources other than just their own experiences to back up an argument or conclusion they have drawn, and they have to write clearly.  Look at the language in these anchor standards–relevant and sufficient evidence, convey complex ideas, effective selection, organization, and analysis.

These are not skills the average seventh grader possesses; they are going to need to see lots of models, have opportunities for multiple practices, and receive descriptive feedback on what specific steps they need to take next to work toward mastery.  The science or social studies teacher cannot expect that just asking students to write an piece analyzing data they have collected will produce good results. They need to teach the process of writing such a piece.  That’s where her language arts colleague will be a big help–language arts teachers are all about writing process!

Here’s a scenario that popped into my head after reading a post on Middle Talk by Charlie Lindgren (retired K-12 Science Coordinator from Massachusetts) related to a workshop he attended at Harvard University about teaching with the fossil record. Charlie’s enthusiasm for all things science just billows out from his posts, and I always check out the sites he recommends even though I have a very shallow background in science. This time he posted fascinating photographs of fossils, and I imagined a combined science – language arts mini unit in writing that focused on drawing conclusions, using specific evidence, and writing with clarity.  Here are the steps I envision:

1. Combine the language arts & science classes
2. The science teacher does a Think Aloud describing what she notices about the fossil Compsognathus Solenhofen

  • Picture of fossil of a Compsognathus(?) Solenhofen's head


  • size of the head using the coin as a scale
  • teeth

3. She invites the students to add their observations as she charts the observations.

4, The language arts teacher takes over to model how to take these observations and use them as evidence when responding to the prompt, “What conclusions can you draw from the fossil about this dinosaur’s appearance, behavior, and habitat?”  Using a Google Docs document that will be available for everyone to refer back to, he thinks aloud as he starts to type. His text is projected on the screen with a LCD projector. He stresses using the observations as evidence to back up his conclusions. For example when he writes that it was a carnivore he uses specific information about the size and shape of its teeth.

5. About half way through his writing he invites the students to help him.  They get into a discussion of its probable size based on length of its head.

6. He finishes his think aloud by doing some rearranging of sentences so the organization makes more sense and ends with a spelling and grammar check.

7. The next day the classes meet together again.  This time the students are paired up and asked to make observations about another fossil.

Picture of a Solnhofen Pterosaur fossil

Solnhofen Pterosaur

8. After 10 minutes or so, the pairs share their information with the classes.  Everyone can revise their list of observations as they listen to the report outs.

9. Individually the students respond to a prompt similar to the one their language arts teacher modeled the day before, “What conclusions can you draw about this dinosaur’s appearance, behavior, and habitat from this fossil?”  The students have a rubric for constructed responses they can refer to, and they also have the teacher’s model. They use Google docs so that their teachers can give them descriptive feedback on what is well done and what specific issues need to be addressed.

10. The science and language arts teachers divide up the class lists and each provides descriptive feedback to the students on their writing.

11. The students are given the opportunity to revise and edit and then the teachers assess the finished products using the rubric.  No letter or number grades are given, just the rating from the rubric–still developing, meets the standard, etc. The pieces go into the students’ writing portfolios that have selections from all of their classes.

The science teacher is pleased she was able to address specific content information about the fossil record, provide practice in the skill of observation, and offer direct instruction in writing in science.  The language arts teacher is satisfied because his students practiced using evidence in building a case.  When they do a similar lesson using literature or informational text, he will be able to make connections between finding evidence visually with identifying specific language in text. He is doubly pleased that students are writing in another class besides Language Arts!  The social studies teacher is intrigued.  He recently came across a site called Image Detective and is wondering if he can’t use the same process and rubric as students make inferences about historical events by exploring old photographs.

A picture of the Image Detective website

Image Detective

This scenario is meant only as an exploration of  the possibilities in addressing the Common Core, not as a lesson to be copied as is and implemented. I know that my readers can improve on it a hundred fold.

It is really important to remember that students will need multiple practices in varied contexts if they are to successfully meet these rigorous standards. However,  by working collaboratively, middle grades teachers can ensure their students tame the Common Core.

Charlie Lindgren’s fossil site: http://www.scienceofsand.info/sand/lessons/harvard.htm

Charlie also has a fantastic site on sands of the world: http://www.scienceofsand.info/   Who knew that sand was so varied and interesting!

Student Blogging Sounds Great, But What Does It Look Like!?!

Everyone knows that middle school students ought to be writing across the curriculum a lot more than they do in most schools.  And…everyone knows it is often like pulling teeth to engage students in a writing project.  Enthusiastic writing teachers, however,  will tell us that it is quite possible to overcome  student reluctance  to write and write well.   A couple of conditions need to be in play.

Students need:

  • an authentic audience
  • a choice in what they write about
  • to feel that what they have to say is valued
  • examples of good writing

Teams around the country find  blogging is a powerful way to give students voice, choice, and an authentic audience.  Students are willing to write and take pride in the quality of their work.  Teams working together offer students a variety of opportunities to blog:

  • Displaying their work
  • Offering their expertise
  • Commenting on local, state, national, and international issues
  • Maintaining the team blog for communicating with families

But some readers are thinking…Yes, but what does it look like?????

Here are some samples.

1. Leawood Middle School blogs from Leawood, Kansas : http://lmsblogs.org/ 

A blog discussing the difference between evidence and data

The blogs in this middle school are used for several purposes.  In some cases, students are summarizing the learning in a particular class for the day.  Just think about the positive aspects of this blogging!

  • Communicates with parents what is going on in class
  • Lets absent students keep up with what they missed in class
  • Students are synthesizing the day’s lesson and identifying its big ideas

The blogs are also used as a way to share projects and learning resources. Everyone has access to the information 24/7.

2. Paul Bogush’s Blog Page –Moran Middle School in Wallingford, Connecticut: http://moranmustangs.org/

He uses his page for several purposes–communicate with students, with parents, and to have students blog. A team could use a blog for the same purposes!

Paul Bogush's blog
Student work is kept in a Google Reader Folder which is open to the public. Other middle schools use free blogging sites like WordPress.  Students only use their first names and there is no identifying information. Mr. Bogush’s students blog on a variety of topics related to their social studies curriculum and what’s going on in the world. The blog posts are not long, but it appears that the students are writing frequently.

Examples of blog posts3. Heather Wolpert-Gawron shares in a post the steps she takes to introduce her students to blogging (http://tweenteacher.com/2010/09/08/blogging-with-middle-schoolers-frontloading-and-first-steps/). The post includes questions from her readers such as “How did you convince your administration to allow you to do this?” Heather gives thoughtful responses that teams will find helpful.

'TweenTeacher blog heading

Wes Fryer, a well know education blogger (Moving at the Speed of Creativity), wrote in favor of middle schoolers blogging He offers these reasons why our students should be blogging:

  • Practice writing
  • Learn how to use hyperlinked writing well and responsibly
  • Discover their own, unique voice

Communicating digitally is an important skill we should be teaching our students.  Teams that collaborate and give students multiple experiences with blogging will be addressing 21st century communication as well as traditional writing skills.

Free Literacy Strategies Resource

Many middle schools have a mandate to incorporate literacy strategies across their curriculum.  Quite often there is no professional development to go along with this mandate, and many middle grades teachers have no background in literacy acquisition.  Hence a huge disconnect occurs between the mandate and reality.

Middle grades teams have an advantage in that they can choose to use some of the their common planning time to work together to figure out how to approach literacy in the content areas.  They recognize that this type of planning is critical to the success of their students because:

  • The middle grades curriculum and now the Common Core Standards require that students read and write more complex material.
  • Many reading/writing skills are common across the curriculum and providing students multiple guided experiences in a variety of contexts will improve their skills.
  • It is impossible for one teacher to provide all-inclusive instruction and practice in the myriad of reading and writing skills that young adolescents need. (Spencer,J. (2010) Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success. Westerville, OH: NMSA.)

An excellent resource for teams to use is a free download from the Internet! The Content Area Literacy Guide is from the CCSSO’s Adolescent Literacy Kit. You can find simply by googling “Content Area Literacy Guide”, and you will be directed to a downloadable PDF file. For a quick look, go to tiny.cc/literacystrategies  — there are over 20 strategies.

The Guide provides a description of each strategy and suggestions for how it might be used in Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. These strategies are certainly applicable in other content areas as well.

For example, one strategy is Cue Questions Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Below you see examples of questions on two of the Taxonomy’s levels.

Here are suggestions from the Guide for using these cue questions in the content areas:

Check out this useful resource and work together to incorporate some of these strategies into your instruction.  Be sure to start small–one strategy at a time!

  • Choose one that will work for everyone.
  • Decide who will do the initial introductory instruction.
  • Brainstorm ideas on how to model and use this strategy in your different classes.
  • Plan out when the other teachers will use the strategy and reinforce it in their instructional plans.
  • Reflect as a team on how well the strategy is working:
  1. How has it been used?
  2. What is the students’ reaction? What problems, if any, are they having applying the strategy to their work?
  3. How might the team tweak the strategy to make it more effective?
  4. To what degree is the strategy improving the students’ understanding of their work?

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