The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 14 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Jennifer Gonzalez:This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to episode 14 of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. In this episode I’m going to give you seven ways to support student writing in any content area.
Gonzalez: Hi. Thanks so much for downloading and listening. I have a lot of really good stuff to share with you in this episode, but before I do I just want to ask you a quick favor. If you’ve been listening for a while and you’re enjoying the work I’m doing, go on over to iTunes and give the podcast a rating and a review. This will help a lot in terms of making the podcast more visible and helping it reach more people. To the fourteen people who have done this so far, thank you so much. It helps more than you know.
Okay, so in this episode we’re going to talk about things you can do to support student writing in any content area. Primarily I am talking about people who are non-English language arts teachers. My personal teaching background is in English language arts. I was a – most of the time – middle school teacher. And the idea of helping students improve their writing in other areas is not really a new one. It used to just be called Reading and Writing Across the Content or Across the Curriculum. But when the Common Core came along, in the United States anyway, it became a requirement. Within the Common Core standards there is a section called Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. By “technical subjects” they mean anything that is not English language arts. So it can be a PE class or a life skills class, pretty much anything. It does not necessarily have to be “technical.” But what this does is it requires teachers in all content areas to support students’ skills in reading and writing. You’re not necessarily teaching those. You’re just sort of supporting them. You’re just making sure that students are doing those things and helping them out if they’re not. I’m not going to go through all of those standards because some of my listeners are not even in the United States. But I do think that this idea, that students are reading and writing in every class that they’re in and that therefore we should be all sort of working together to help them improve their reading and writing is a sound one. And it’s definitely not a new idea and it’s not reserved to the United States anyway.
I pretty firmly believe in this idea also. But the problem is that I think someone that is a social studies teacher or a math teacher or a science teacher or they’re teaching in some other content area, they hear this and they get a little freaked out because they think, “Hey I am not a writing person. Or I’m not a literature person. I am not a grammar person. I am not good at spelling. That’s not what I studied. So why am I supposed to teach this stuff?” Or they think, “This is going to take away time I need to spend teaching my content.”
So before I start to get into the strategies I’m going to talk about, one little bit of reassurance, which is that you are not expected to be a great speller or know all of the grammar rules. You’re certainly not expected to correct for all of those things either. What you’re being asked to do when someone suggest that you you to support student writers or student readers in your content area is that (a) you ask students do some reading and writing, which is pretty much a given. And (b) when they do that, you support their use of certain skills. That you ask them to write with a certain amount of detail, of supporting evidence. That when they write something, they do so in a way that is well organized.
I am going to be getting into the reading part of this, by the way. That will be in another podcast a little bit further down the line on how to support student readers in the content areas. This time I’m going to focus on writing. But I do believe that there are things that we can all do to form a common, unified message of what good writing looks like and help them build the habits of good writers no matter what content area they’re working in.
And before I get started let me address this whole question of I’m not a good speller. I think that for somebody who doesn’t have a lot of training in how to teach writing, there is that misconception that the way that you do it is to just check everybody’s spelling and mark them for punctuation mistakes and that sort of thing. Those things are important, but those things are just a small part of the skills that a student needs to be a good writer.
So what I’m going to talk about in this episode are seven things that you can do — and actually there’s going to be an eighth tip too, bonus tip. But seven things that you can do in your class that really are not going to take a lot of time away from your content area. They can be woven into your regular curriculum. But these are ways you can support student writing while you are teaching your regular content and help students become better writers while they are learning your content.
So let’s get started. Number one is understand how the writing process works. Now this isn’t even something that you have to do. This is just a mindset that I want you to start to develop. One of the very first things I was taught in my training to become a writing teacher was this idea of the writing process. I think that for lots of people they were never taught this. So. A long time ago, I guess before the idea of a writing process was ever introduced, teachers would teach this way. They would assign a piece of writing to students and students would either go home and write it or they would write it in class and hand it in. The teacher would give it a grade and that would be the end of it. That was the end of the writing assignment. Whatever grade the kid got was the grade they got and that was the grade they got and that was it. So thankfully in the last generation or so, people who study writing and people who study the teaching of writing have recognized that that is not really how a real writer works. They don’t just sit down with a piece of paper, pick up a pen and just start writing from beginning to end. It’s a pretty messy process. So the five stages of the writing process that most writers go through. This is what we try to teach them in English language arts classes are these five steps.
The first is prewriting. This is where you’re planning out, brainstorming, outlining. This is anything you do before you actually try to write paragraphs.
So prewriting is the first stage. The second stage is drafting. This is where you’re actually writing out your sentences and actually craft something that looks like the final piece.
But your writing is definitely not done then, there is a third step which is revising. Revising is where you go back over the thing that you just drafted and you change it. Now this is not really correcting for errors at this point. This is reorganizing things and identifying sections where this part here doesn’t make sense; that part needs to go completely; this part needs way more explanation. It’s really tearing into this thing and really ripping it apart and reorganizing it. A lot of times when you’re done revising you go back to some of the drafting stages and you’re trying to — You kind of circle between drafting and revising for awhile, until you have a — something that looks more like a finished piece.
Then you go into the fourth phase. When I say you I just mean writers in general. The fourth phase is editing. This is where the basic structure of the text is in place. It’s pretty much ready to go. But then you’ve got to go through and make sure it’s all correct. Correctness is not the same as it being a well written piece. A well written piece means that the voice is clear and the introduction grabs your attention and everything kind of flows together and there’s organization and then it finishes of with something that’s pretty solid. You feel like you understand it well. But then you have to go through and you have to find all the little mistakes, find the typos, the spelling errors, the places where the comma needs to be here and don’t forget to capitalize that. You’re just polishing it off at the very end.
Then the very final stage of this process is publishing. When you hear publishing a lot of people think it’s published in a magazine or in a book, in a newspaper, it’s online for public consumption. But people who teach writing, we take a very, very wide view on what this idea of publishing means. Publishing could just mean I’m done with it and now I’m going to read it to the class or My teacher’s going to hang it on the wall. There are lots and lots of ways to publish piece of writing. It basically just means that you’re saying you’re done, it’s finished. Here world, look at it. And that world could just be your neighbor in class. But it’s the act of sharing your final piece with someone.
The reason I made this strategy number one, to just understand how the writing process works, is that if you haven’t had any background in how to teach writing, you might be tempted to do it the other way that I described, which is, Here’s the assignment. I give it a grade. We’re done. If your course work is not very writing-intensive, it would be very easy to be tempted to do that because you have to move on to studying your content more.
But if you understand that students need a little bit of time to plan, to be in that prewriting stage, they need a little bit of time to draft, they may need some revising time — a lot of times this means exchanging it with some other people in class or turning a draft in to you and having you look over it and say “This part is working. This part needs a little bit more,” — that’s the revising stage, you’re still getting it right. Also understanding that once they’ve gotten that right they should be looking over it for mistakes. That they’re not quite done yet. If you understand that then sometimes the assignments that they give you could be more fluid. They don’t have to just be this one-time thing. They could turn in an assignment and you could return it to them for more revision and then have it be submitted to you again. This is the way good writing happens. It doesn’t happen in just one shot. It happens over time with more revision. So even just having that terminology down with the students — If you’re going to give them an assignment, say “Okay, let’s do a little pre-writing together.” These are probably terms they’ve heard someplace else, in their English classes. In the pre-writing stage a lot of students will use graphic organizers or they have been taught to use graphic organizers. Find out what the other Language Arts people in your school are using. Get them used to using the same things in your class. It seems as if it would take a little bit more time, but if what they’re writing about is your content area, then they’re still interacting and engaging with your content. It’s just more depth than they might get with a multiple choice test.
Strategy number two is model all stages of the writing process. And what I mean by model is you do some writing with them. I did this all the time as a writing teacher and I found it was the most effective way to get students to really learn how to put words on paper and to put thoughts on paper, and to get it done in an organized way. Because kids who are not really experienced writers, they think that a good writer sits down — like I was describing before — with a piece of paper and this beautifully written piece just comes spewing out of their pen like that — from beginning to end and that’s it. They don’t understand how the process works.
So if there is a task for students to do, suppose they have to write a — suppose you’re in history and they have to pick an event in history and they have to write a report on it. Okay? You could pick your own event and you could say to the kids “None of you get to do this one.” Or maybe yours is from a different time period. And model for them the process of. “Okay, here’s what I’m supposed to do with this.” And actually do a think-aloud right in front of them. Put your work on a projector. I used to do this on an overhead projector but I know how people can just use, open up a Word document and it can be projected right up on the screen. Show them how messy that process can be. You can start drafting in front of them or you could do the pre-writing in front of them.
Say “Okay, I think I want to write about this event and I’m supposed to talk about three major parts of it, three major influences of it, so…” And have the kids just sit there and watch you do this for a few minutes. If you’ve never done this, it’s going to feel a little bit awkward, but they are going to so appreciate being able to see inside the head of somebody while they are trying to figure out writing. For some of them, it will be the first time they’ve ever gotten to see that. It is — it’s kind of life changing for some kids to realize, Oh, it’s that simple. It’s not any kind of mysterious skill that people have. It’s that simple. You just sort of talk yourself through it. And you start writing down stuff. And you end up getting rid of stuff. And you keep some stuff. If you are a certified teacher, you have had to do writing assignments before. So let them see how you do that. How would you approach a prompt? Or how would you approach a constructed response on an exam? And then actually start writing it. And then, don’t worry about it being perfect because the less perfect it is the more it’s going to help the students. Show them what it looks like when you say, “Okay, I think I’ve got this paragraph done. But I really don’t like how that last sentence sounds. ” Even get them to help you. How would you rewrite this last part? You don’t necessarily have to consume an entire class period to have them watch you writing it from beginning to end, but as you work through the stages with them, show them how far along your part is. You can do some parts of it at home and you can kind of fake some of it a little bit. But the idea is for them to see what the thinking is behind how these pieces get written.
So that’s number two. Number three, provide sentence stems to help them craft their sentences. A lot of kids don’t spend a whole lot of time reading academic language. They don’t know how you actually put your ideas together in a sentence. This will help a lot in the drafting phase, when they’re actually — They’ve got everything organized now. They know what they’re going to write, but they don’t know how to say it.
So one of the things that students have to do a lot in content area writing is they have to provide evidence for something. So if you show them sentence stems — A sentence stem is just the beginning, the first few words of a sentence, followed by a blank line because they fill in the actual details. But if they have to provide evidence, then what you can do is show them three or four ways that they can actually write that in a sentence. For example, you could write “This is demonstrated by _________” Then they would fill that in with the evidence. Or another sentence could read “Evidence to support this can be found in _______” Then, there’s another blank after that. You can write these up on the board. You can turn them into posters. You’re permitting students to use these stems and construct their own sentences with them. If you show them how to use academic language, they are going to feel much more confident in trying to write this because this is — For some of them the first time they’ve ever really tried to do this. Even if it’s not the first time, they may have failed at it before. So giving them some of the puzzle pieces that they can put together helps a lot.
Okay, so we’ve already gone through three: Number one, understand how the writing process works. Number two, model all stages of the writing process and write with them. Number three, provide sentence stems.
So number four is this: Have students write in class. It’s really easy and tempting to say “Okay here’s your assignment, I want you to write this paragraph at home.” Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re really wanting to focus on helping them improve as writers, if you have them write in class when you’re there to actually walk around the room, look at what they’re doing and give them immediate feedback on what’s going on or help getting them unstuck when they’re stuck, they’re going to produce better writing that way.
Again, I know that there’s a conflict between “I’ve got to teach my content,” and “I’ve got to have the kids write.” That’s going to take away too much time. But if they’re writing about your content, even if it’s just five minutes of writing, a quick response to something, if you just got done showing them a quick video clip, have them describe one thing in the video that they, you know, have a certain reaction to and they need to provide evidence for whatever that is. That’s giving them practice. While they’re writing, that’s a very good time to be sitting down or catching up on e-mail or organizing your desk, but to support them as writers, it’s also a very good time to be looking over their shoulder and going and getting them used to having that feedback loop with you right away.
If you send them home, some of them aren’t going to do it, you know that. You don’t know if they’re the ones who wrote it. If they go home, some of them, if they’re really struggling, they may have somebody either dictate it to them or write it for them. The ones who are struggling are never really going to get the benefit of your help if you’re not nearby while they’re working through that process. So if you can provide some time in class to have them write, they are going to improve faster, much faster.
Okay number five, require students to read their writing out loud. Now this is not what is sounds like because I think it sounds like you should have them perform all of the reading, or their writing. Or you should have them each read each piece to the class out loud and that is not what I mean. This what I mean: One of the most effective revision strategies for finding problems in your writing is to just read it out loud to another person. Or even to just read it out loud to yourself. But somehow having that other person for accountability, it makes it better. Here’s some proof of it. Have you ever written something and you think it’s fine and then maybe you have to read it out loud in some sort of a context? As soon as you start reading it out loud, all of a sudden you go “Oh wow, I didn’t notice that before.” or “Wait, that didn’t sound right.” Only when you read things out loud do you find problems, but it is the simplest way to find problems in your writing.
So here’s what I have done and this is what I find works really well: Whenever students say “Okay I’m done,” “I’m done with this draft,” or “I think it’s ready,” or whatever, make sure that you build into that process at some point where they get together with a partner and Person A holds their paper in front of them and starts reading. Person B looks over their shoulder or looks at the paper alongside with them, and the Person B is actually reading the writing while they listen to Person A read so that they can see if there’s a match. Because sometimes a person will read their work out loud and they will fill in the blanks and the person beside them can say “No, no, no, that’s not what it says. You said this but it says that on the paper.” And they can stop — and they should be doing this with a pencil in hand so they can mark mistakes right away. But it such an quick, easy, free, fast way of finding problems. Everybody in the world should read their stuff out loud before they ever put it out there for public consumption because you just will always find stuff wrong. So even if you know nothing at all about teaching writing, at all, this is something you can do so easily is just make your students read their work out loud to each other and they will find mistakes that you won’t have to catch later.
So just build that into the revision process with them. I would say it’s something they can do more than once. If they do it and they make mistakes and they fix it then they can maybe do another read aloud the next day. But they never have to get up in front of the whole class and read out loud. Just use it as a practice and if they can’t get into partners and they just want to go off into a corner by themselves and read it out loud, they can do that. But if they tell you “I can just read it in my head and I’ll find stuff,” don’t let them get away with that because that is not a good way to find the mistakes. For some reason, reading it out loud helps you find stuff faster.
Okay, that’s number five. Number six is grade samples of writing with them. If you have some sort of a rubric or if your school or your state or whatever uses a sort of standardized rubric to score pieces — A lot of time you’ll see this with standardized testing if they have to do some sort of a constructed response to something. There will be a basic rubric that’s used to score them. It is really enlightening to students and it really improves their skills if you can show them a sample piece and as a class, grade it and talk about why you would give it this number for this and why would you give it this score for that and why would you take a little off for this problem. When they see how that rubric translates into an actual piece of writing, it really clarifies that criteria for them.
What I used to do and if you’re willing to take a little bit of time to do this you — It’s the kind of thing you can do once and then you can reuse it again year after year. I would actually write up fake examples that would sort of represent work that was right on the mark, work that was a little off and maybe work that was a little bit above the mark that we were looking for. Kids are usually pretty surprised at what is considered to be quality and what is considered to be a little bit worse. They tend to be harder sometimes on the writing than you would be. Other times they’re way, way easier. If somebody just uses a clever word or a big word then they’ll say, “Oh that’s great, that gets the highest score!” To explain to them that just using a really interesting word is not necessarily what this particular rubric is looking for. So it’s a really interesting intellectual exercise to hand out an example for everyone to look at and talk about what score you would give it and why. Really get into the details. Point out specific sentences where that’s where this person really earned that piece of it or this piece of it.
I would advise you not to use student examples. That’s a really common practice to just take the name off of something and use it as an example. I think it’s okay if it’s a student’s writing from a year or two before and it’s really, really hard for students to identify who it is. But I’ve just heard too many stories of students who are sitting in the room and their piece gets put up and even though no one necessarily knows it’s them, they know it’s them. When errors get found, they’re just horrified. Especially if everyone’s treating it like it’s just this anonymous thing. People tend to tear into a piece of writing if they think the person’s not in the room. So I would avoid doing that, even if it’s something you want to hold up as a good example, because that can also really embarrass kids if theirs is being shown to be the best example. It’s not too hard to just write things up where you’re just kind of sticking in the problems and make them kind of obvious. But anyway, grading examples with them is a really, really good way to get them to understand what’s expected of them.
Okay strategy number seven is let them redo things even if you’re not planning on giving them a higher score. I would advise you to give them a higher score for things, but giving them a score on something should not be the end of the road for that individual piece of writing. If — and sometimes it can actually count as an extra assignment if a student does poorly on something, or even if they just do okay on something, you can actually require them to revise it again and turn in an improved piece. Even if they did pretty good on something, they can find some ways to up their game and improve it. Instead of just sort of repeating the same problems on new assignment after new assignment after new assignment, if you let them redo something, it really, really gives them good practice on thinking through some of the problems that they’ve made. Sort of trains them to maybe not make them again because they’re getting a chance to really dig into one piece.
Okay and so I said there was going to be a bonus strategy. This one is not necessarily about working with the kids, but I think this is definitely a way that you can learn to support the writers in your class or the students in your class in their writing better than maybe what you’re doing right now. That is to calibrate your scoring with an ELA teacher or a language arts teacher. In other words, get a piece of student writing, even get an assignment one of your kids just turned in to you, and find an English or a language arts teacher in your building that you trust, somebody you respect. And see if they’ll sit down with you for ten minutes and look at that piece of writing and tell you what they– how they would have scored it and why. Have them explain it to you and see how closely yours match to them because you will probably learn some things about what a language arts teacher or what a writing teacher looks for. They may be a little bit different from the things you looked for yourself.
You may have had a string of teachers in your own schooling that were very, very picky about certain things that maybe these are not things are necessarily considered to be important any more. Maybe. I’m thinking about the use of contractions. There are some teachers that are extremely picky and would score something down if a student ever dared to use a contraction in an academic piece of writing. That’s not necessarily going to get them marks off of an AP exam or of a state standardized test or of a college paper, although it could, depending on who their professor is. But just having that conversation with a language arts teacher about what do you all score for, what do you look for, what is it that you are teaching in your classes? Just having them look at how you’re scoring something and tell them how they would score something, I think it could be very illuminating. You know, it could be, it would take a little bit of bravery because you’re humbling yourself and saying this is not necessarily something I know about. But you’re not really asking them to teach you how to score, you’re really asking them to score it and tell you why. Tell you why they would give that score to that piece of writing. So that’s just the little bonus. If this is something that you feel like you would like to get better at, that’s a super simple way of doing it.
And if you’re not a huge fan of what this one particular person tells you, then go find somebody else. You may have picked somebody who has some bizarre ideas about writing and those people are out there, so. Especially if you talk to two or three people, and they all say kind of the same thing, then that’s an education right there. That’s showing you, okay maybe I’ve been paying way too much attention to this thing and you need to pay a little bit more attention to this skill instead and those conversations are going to inform the way you interact with your students. Especially if you’re giving them time in class to write, then you’re going to be able to say to them, “Hey, you know I’m noticing that you’re not using any transitions in your writing.” That might be a term that you just don’t use very much in your science class. But because you talked to the language arts teacher a little bit, you are realizing that transitions are pretty important to keeping a paper organized. That’ll just weave its way into your instruction naturally and it’s something that takes five seconds and then you can go back to teaching the science. If the kid is writing about ecosystems or something and they’re really getting into the content, which is what you want them to do, you’ve got some vocabulary to talk about their writing, so you know what is important to focus on, then you can just continue to support that kid when they’re in your class.
So that is it, seven plus one strategies for helping students become better writers in your classroom. I hope this has been helpful. I am planning on following this up with another episode later on about how to support students’ reading. So look out for that, it’ll probably be a couple of episodes down the line.
Gonzalez: For a full transcript of this episode, go to cultofpedagogy.com, click “podcasts,” and look for episode 14. While you’re at it, click on “The Craft” to find all of my resources to help you constantly find new ways to hone your teaching craft. Thanks for listening and have a great day.