Teaching Writing Is My Job, Too

November 27, 2010

Last week I was fortunate to be invited to observe Jed Smith’s biology classes while they worked on a research/writing assignment. Rather than spending hours lecturing on fungi, mammals and fish, Jed decided that his students would be better served discovering information themselves and writing about various organisms in newspaper-style articles, including feature interviews, sports stories, horoscopes and even comics.

The lesson is an excellent reminder of two facts.

1. Students learn more about the content you are teaching when they write about it. When they have to research it and get creative with the writing, the effect is even stronger. Jed’s assignment epitomizes this challenge.

2. Writing is not an English-only activity. Exposure to writing in all disciplines, in various formats, for various audiences and purposes, enhances students’ writing skills.

Still, under pressure of EOCs, VOCATS, and mile-wide SCOS, writing instruction is often neglected. We all have a responsibility to teach writing (if for no better reason), so that our students’ scores on the 10th grade writing test will demonstrate growth. The scores do factor into the ABC model, but with no department holding responsibility for the scores, we seldom bother to process the data as carefully as we do EOC scores.

Here’s what the data shows us:

  • Over the past three years, our projected mean score was 11.93. Our actual mean score was 11.18, an effect size of -.73.
  • Last year, our effect size was -1.25.
  • African American students predicted to perform at middle and higher levels on the test had an effect size of -1.68 and -2.03 respectively.

What does this mean?

In brief it means our sophomores, and particularly our African American students, are performing below potential in writing. It means they are not growing adequately in their writing skills.

Why? That’s much harder to answer. It is easy to blame student motivation, which is certainly a factor in most schools throughout the state. Let’s ignore motivation for now and consider three questions about writing instruction, instead:

1. Do our students write in most classes most days?

2. Do our students spend time revising writing assignments?

3. Are we teaching students skills that might improve their writing?

I would love for Rose High to be able to answer, “yes, yes, and yes.” That’s where I come in. As instructional coach, it is my responsibility to help teachers find strategies for incorporating writing instruction without significantly detracting from their ability to cover the content of their courses. I can:

  • Model or co-teach writing and revision lessons.
  • Collaborate with you to create writing assignments pertinent to your course.
  • Offer write-to-learn strategies to increase the frequency of writing in your class.
  • Assist with time-saving strategies for writing assignments.

Unfortunately, I can only help you if you want my help. Stop by my office in student services or send me an e-mail if I can help you with writing instruction.

Feel free to share your comments below.

Curiosity Contest (read to find out who won)

November 15, 2010

I take a lot of my cues about teaching and learning from my three-year-old son. Three year olds are surprisingly similar to our teenage students. On Saturday, Elliott and I attended the Pioneering Technology Days event at A Time For Science in Ayden. Earlier in the day, I had attempted to “quiz” Elliott on his ability to recognize simple words based on first letters. “D is for dog. Can you point to the word dog?” He loves books but quickly quit the book we were reading in favor of his cars.

At A Time For Science, his reaction to a loom was much different. Seeing a nine-year-old girl learning to use a loom to weave fabric, he was intrigued. The loom’s owner allowed Elliott a turn. She talked him through the steps as he worked the shuttle and bead board. He learned slowly, but she continued to “quiz” him into the correct action. “Do the brown balls go up or down? What goes next?”
What was the difference between the two activities? The teacher? Certainly. The kinesthetic activity? Of course.

The degree of curiosity? Absolutely. In fact, curiosity about the contraption and how it works, I would argue, could have sustained Elliott’s interest in the loom for another thirty minutes. What better way to develop that understanding than to watch and operate the device? How does this thing make that cloth? For Elliott, and I think for all of us, the time to teach about weaving is when curiosity about weaving is established. The time to teach about the rotation of the earth is when a child wonders why the sun rises. The time to teach about any skill or concept is when curiosity has been piqued.

The Contest
With that premise in mind, I posed the question, “What do teachers do to create curiosity in the classroom? To make students wonder.” I received several terrific responses. Here they are:

Angie Byrne:
We began a unit on Infectious Disease a few weeks ago in Biomedical Technology. When each student arrived in class they were given a test tube of fluid and a note card. Students “exchanged fluid” with three people and recorded who they exchanged with. I then told them that there had been reports of an infectious disease and added a chemical to their “fluid”, some test tubes turned pink in color. What they did not know is that one person had a test tube with sodium hydroxide and the rest of the students had plain tap water at the beginning of the activity. As they “exchanged fluid” they spread the sodium hydroxide (our disease) to their classmates. At the end of the activity we had 8 positive test tubes. They then compiled the information into a chart and tried to determine who spread the disease. In their lab reports each student stated their hypothesis and concluded if the hypothesis was correct in the end. Most students were shocked that our disease spread to so many so quickly!

Jennifer Mabe:
I recently did a “hand’s on” activity with my Tech Math class entitled … “Life is Like a Box of Chocolates … You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get.” But I prefaced it as to whether Forrest Gump’s chaos theory was really true … if we open a bag of m & m’s or skittles, do we really not know the proportion of colors or is it simply random as Forrest hypothesizes? My kids had a great time working through this activity (that I have sort of used before but got the idea offline) and coming up with the idea that in fact, we CAN predict the proportion of colors and that Forrest Gump is WRONG :)

Jed Smith:
I wanted my students to wonder what it would have been like to be in Charles Darwin’s shoes. So we watched an IMAX video about the Galapagos, then I asked my students to imagine what it would have been like to be on the HMS Beagle on a 5-year voyage around the globe. I asked them to write 2 entries in Charles Darwin’s diary, one when they arrived at the Galapagos describing the animals they saw, and another at some point later when Darwin had thought about the implications of what he’d seen. Got some good work and not so good work, but I think it made the “history” more meaningful to them.

Monica Edwards:
I have all students answer the question: “How/Why?”… it not only inspires curiosity but also stretches their imagination. They must also “exhaust” all the possible answers to the question before they reach a conclusion.

Alicia Carawan:
I’ve been talking about Genetic Engineering this week. Today we were looking at how to “read” DNA fingerprints to determine whether or not the parents were the “true” parents of a child. I then asked the class what they thought should/would happen if the parents discovered the child they had been raising was not really their child? Oh, the discussion that one question caused! The students were branching off into all kinds of “what-if” scenarios. I definitely stimulated a huge amount of curiosity with just one question.

Heather Smith:
As part of our exploration of Newton’s Laws of Motion, students constructed bottle rockets out of 2-Liter soda bottles. The object was to create a rocket that stayed aloft for the longest time. Students had to create a rocket that not only propelled as high as possible in the air, but returned back to Earth as slowly as possible. Following the rocket launching, students evaluated each other’s rocket designs and planned improvements to their designs. We plan to test these new designs in the future.

Darlene Harrell:
Due to a CTE staff development recently, I had to have a substitute. In an effort to try and keep it simple for my Engineering class I assigned them a creative project. They were to write a paper or create a power point about an engineering feat describing the challenges and successes for the project. I gave them a few links to inspire them but there were a few that had their own feats to write about. Their research needed to include the what, when, who, where and how for the feat. They were asked to use several sources and to include pictures. The next day they had to present their project to the rest of the class.
Ryan D. had an interesting presentation on the F-22 Raptor and included a video taken at an airshow. Other feats included Hoover Dam, Statue of Liberty, Space Station, Coliseum and Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Fantastic strategies, everyone. I liked them all so much that I had to select a random winner. And the winner of two gift certificatets for Panera is…
Heather Smith. Congratulations, Heather.