ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kandi Maxwell teaches English at Modoc High School in Alturas, California. A teacher-writing consultant for the Northern California Writing Project, she has presented at teacher training workshops throughout Northern California. Kandi has worked in Indian Education for the past 15 years and is currently the vice-chair of the parent board for Resources for Indian Student Education. Her essays have been published in The Teacher’s Voice and California English.
You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. … to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace. … to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work.—Anne Lamott
When content area teachers hear that their already full curriculum load will now include ELA standards in writing, many express doubt about their ability to tackle the challenge. When looking at the new Common Core State Standards for writing along with the new requirements to incorporate history, social studies, science and technical subjects, as well as nonfiction literature, such angst is understandable.
Basically what this means is that teachers of all disciplines as well as ELA teachers will need to teach writing frequently. Although the standards include some examples of performance tasks in writing, there essentially are no road maps. So how do teachers get there?
Tips to adapt current curriculum
One way to include more writing in the curriculum is to examine multiple choice tests and look for questions that can be developed into open-ended questions. Develop short answer questions. Ask the student to explain, analyze, compare, conclude, and synthesize using questions that are more cognitively demanding. These short writing activities prepare students for more complex writing later.
For vocational classes, teachers might begin with process writing. For instance, if students will be building a book shelf, have them write out the steps that will be required to create and assemble the shelves. This type of writing requires students to evaluate and organize the information and to determine what details are important to include. Once the book shelf is completed, instruct students to write a reflective piece about the building process: what worked, what didn't, and what steps to remember in order be successful in future projects. To add elements of argument, let students compose an advertisement for the shelf modeled on real advertisements for book shelves or other wood projects. Have them analyze persuasive techniques such as loaded language or emotional appeal, then write out their own advertisement. Here too, we see short writing that could develop into larger pieces such as research papers.
Practice reading and writing together
Reading and writing coexist. As students break down a complex texts, they are simultaneously moving into the writing process. Read and write the lessons you teach. Begin the process with a quick read of the text, then create the writing task that will go with the text. Read a short story and ask students to write about how the author uses conflict to reveal the theme. This provides a purpose for the reading. As students read the text, they will look for examples of conflict. They might write out quotes that show conflict on sticky notes, or get into groups and write out conflict quotes and explanations on a large poster. Have them look at their examples and determine a theme. Such short writings will become a piece of a larger essay.
Teachers model as writers
Teachers provide samples of their own writing for the lessons they assign in order to gain a better understanding of the writing process. They become aware of the challenges students face firsthand. Through writing a response, they can determine if the writing task is clear and discover strategies to help students with their structure and organization. For teachers who may not be confident in teaching writing, this process hones writing skills. Writing is challenging! Model for students the time it requires and a willingness to take risks.
Revise, revise, revise!
Most teachers observe the classic writing format: read the writing task; brainstorm ideas; write an outline; compose a first draft; then type a final draft (which is usually just another version of the rough draft with spell check). However, in reality that final draft is typically when students should just be getting started. Authentic writers and journalist revise numerous times. For years I would get frustrated at my students for making the same mistakes in writing. After that "final draft," I provided no opportunity for revision.
Now, when my students have the opportunity to revise, they begin to see patterns in their writing. Do they continuously shift tense? Is structure an issue? I provide writing comments on these early drafts without grading the piece. In this way, students don't give up. Small writing groups are a good way to make revisions; students exchange papers and discuss their work. By reading their drafts out loud, most students can immediately spot problems that exist.
Adding more writing to content area curricula does not have to be daunting. As CCSS has teachers incorporating writing into their current curriculum, teachers can simultaneously provide students more cognitively complex lessons. This is not only good for teachers, it is what matters to students in school and beyond.