Writing across the Curriculum

Freshman year of high school was terrifying.  People seem incredulous when I tell them that, of all the years of schooling I have had, that year was the hardest.  After all, it was high school.  What could be so tough about that?

As my Grandmom used to say with a huge sigh, “Well…!”

The first problem was that I was not prepared for the workload.  Coming from a public middle school into this rigorous public high school that wanted to weed out those who weren’t able to handle the curriculum, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of work they made us do.  By the time I turned fourteen in October, I thought I was going to lose my mind.  It didn’t help that our school President, Dr. Pavel, said to us during orientation, “Look to your left and to your right.  One of these people, or more, will probably return to their home school at the end of this school year.”  Yikes.

The second problem was that I was expected to do things I had never done before, like write papers and essays.  In elementary and middle school, we did not do much writing.  I think we did book reports in fifth grade, but I could be mistaken.  It wasn’t that I was a bad writer.  I actually enjoyed writing for my own purposes, but did not have the tools I needed to create the papers and essays the teachers wanted.  In other words, I didn’t know how to meet their expectations.  That was scary.

Enter Dr. Kreider, my World History teacher.  She is still my academic hero; I haven’t met a teacher like her since.  The best gift she could have given us hurt like hell: The chance to practice writing.  Many of us almost wrote our hand off.

OK, not really.  But it really did hurt.

Dr. Kreider did three things for us, actually.  First, she managed every student a copy of the New York Times every school day.  Second, she made us keep journals in which we reacted to topics covered in class and NYT articles.  Third, she responded to everyone’s journals over the weekend, and not just with a “Nice job!” either.  Oh, no.  We would get paragraphs back.   If we almost wrote our hand off, she must have thought she should, too.  I do not know how she did it, but I do know that she loved her kids.  She loved them enough to embrace writing across the curriculum with gusto.   Dr. Kreider actually did research in the area, I would learn later, and delivered papers about the positive effects of students learning to read and write in all content-area classes.

Fast-forward 30 years to my son’s freshman English class.  His teacher listened to the students, slack-jawed, as they told her that none of them knew how to write an essay.  Admittedly, this is her first year teaching freshmen in a long time, so perhaps she simply lost perspective.  In my opinion, however, it just shows that some things never change, but they need to quickly.

Rewind 26 years to English Composition class.  Typically, we would write an essay, peer review our classmates’ essays, and then create a final version for the teacher.  I remember being appalled by the writing I reviewed.  My red pen dashed across the page until I think there was as much red on the page as blue or black.  Some classmates appreciated the help.

Others, I was informed one day while riding the 66 bus home with my friend Susanne, were terrified to give me their papers to review.  I asked why.

“Because you are so mean, Heather,” she replied, quietly.

“I’m just trying to help!” I responded, indignant.

“Perhaps you could try helping with a different color ink and less sarcasm,” she said, emboldened by being right.

I sulked, as I usually did when I was wrong about something.  The next day I went to the college store, purchased a green pen, and resolved to restrain myself.

Situations like these are why the creators of the Common Core State Standards focus on literacy and writing – in other words, on communication in all its forms.  The fact is that many students need more opportunities to write their hands off (and yes, I’m an advocate of writing on paper before writing electronically).  They need to write in each content area class, not just English.  Social Studies teachers – like Dr. Kreider – have excellent opportunities to have their students write informatively, persuasively, and creatively.  Science teachers can enforce good communication skills, as well as proper grammar and style, in lab reports, responses to essay questions, etc.  Even math teachers can post intriguing problems and require a constructed response (Aside: Where did that term come from?  I’m not crazy about it.).  My son’s math teacher has done that, using a discussion board online to help the students think through Algebra II problems using critical thinking and standard English.  Technology teachers can incorporate writing skills into their projects.  PE and Health teachers can ask students to produce works that show critical thinking.  Vo-tech teachers can ask students to write about their projects and what they have learned from doing them. Any teacher can incorporate critical thinking and effective communication skills into their curriculum.

Again, why are the creators of the Common Core State Standards so keen on ensuring that communication skills are practiced across the content areas?  I am sighing now as I write, “Well…!”  Here is a another reason.

The students’ inability to communicate effectively, both when writing and when speaking, continue when they enter adulthood and the workforce, unless they are given the chance to overcome these challenges in school.  The potential for knowledge sharing is greatly diminished when a person cannot get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper, the screen, or during a meeting.  Opportunities for innovation are lost, as well as opportunities for employees to advance in their careers.

As teachers in a corporate setting, we find this inability to be most problematic when working with the SME, the subject matter expert. Often, SMEs have difficulty explaining what they do.  They express frustration, often punctuating it with, “That’s just the way it’s done!  Watch me.”  Being unfamiliar with a technique, we can watch all we want, but we will not be able to reproduce their efforts without spending more time than we have to spare trying and failing, or researching.  We cannot ask the SME to teach others, since they cannot teach us.  If we do, we just waste everyone’s time.  That invaluable knowledge remains stuck  inside the SME’s head.  No one else can benefit from it.  We educators feel that is a terrible loss.

Great communicators are not born, contrary to popular opinion.  They learn their art the same way that we all learn something that intrigues us, by watching, listening, and trying.  As Vygotsky said, all learning is social, and it is within the community that we progress from a state of not knowing to mastering something under the tutelage of one or more more knowledgeable others.  It is important that we learn from those who can explain.

I have heard time and again: “I’m just not a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  What they mean is, “I don’t have the talent to be a good writer / speaker / teacher.”  Talent is irrelevant.  Communicators such as  Hemingway, Jobs, Socrates, Shakespeare, and Twain made it look easy, natural.  In fact, they practiced.  Their first efforts were, most likely, awful, not awesome, and what I mean by “first effort” is each and every time they chose to create something new by rearranging the letters of their alphabet.  I’m sure that even Socrates had to practice on someone, perhaps Plato.  Ask any of my writer friends and they will tell you that they have “killed trees” trying to get their message “right.”  What makes the great communicators different from the rest of us is commitment, perseverance, and grit.  Somewhere along the line there was their Dr. Kreider there to push them, even if only in their minds.

I applaud any teacher who embraces “Writing across the Curriculum.”  For those who aren’t English teachers, it seems like a daunting addition to their curriculum, although it does not have to be.  There are plenty of resources on the web that will help these teachers figure out where it makes sense to include a writing or speaking component into their current plans.  Explore the NCTE and ASCD websites for more information.

Happy New Year!

8 Recommended Tools for Professional Development

In the post “Spending Professional Development Time and Money Wisely,” teachers and professional development (PD) providers were urged to personalize learning and make it relevant to the teacher’s current learning environment.  One suggestion was to use Action Research to help teachers identify research questions within their own context, investigate the questions, analyze the data, and plan for the future based on the data collected.  In this post, I identify eight tools that can support teachers as they learn to personalize their professional development.

8.  A Journal

Whether using Moleskine® or going online, keeping a journal about the day’s experiences will, over time, help a teacher identify trends, make better predictions about lesson outcomes, shape and clarify decisions, and grow confidence.  Many teachers have taken their thoughts online.  Here is a list of top educator blogs from 2014 to inspire you.

2014 Edublog Awards – Best Teacher Blog Category

7.  Your State DOE Website

In Pennsylvania, the Standards Aligned System website features a PD Center for teachers with many courses on a variety of topics.  The courses are free for teachers who have a PPID (Professional Personnel ID), and they can choose the courses they want to take based on their needs.  Teachers can see a preview of the course to make sure that it suits their needs, too.  I have taken many courses through this website and have learned something valuable from each one.  The instructors are great, too.

Google searches have often brought me to the Public Schools of North Carolina’s PD website, too.   The resources are helpful, and this DOE also offers live sessions for NC school leaders, both online and face-to-face.

Another example is New York’s EngageNY.  EngageNY is a website chock full of resources for educators and parents.  They have resources for Common Core, Teacher/Leader Effectiveness, Data Driven Instruction, Professional Development, and a video library that addresses topics by grade level.

Other State DOE websites also offer PD resources that teachers can use based on their needs.  Check yours out today!

6.  Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything

She’s not kidding; it really is a guide to everything.  If you can’t find information on a topic, let her know, and I’m sure she’ll find something to add to the site.  Take a look at her page for Assessment and Rubrics, for example.  Find Kathy on twitter here: @kathyschrock.

5. We Are Teachers

Use this site to find lesson plans and resources on a wide variety of topics.   Resources include videos, printables, “out of the box” ideas for lessons,  ideas for integrating art and creativity into the curriculum, ways to teach the whole child,  and more!

4.  The Teaching Channel

The Teaching Channel® video collection features short  (fewer than 10 minutes) videos focused on very specific topics.  They currently have videos for Arts, English Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies, as well as cross-curricular topics like Assessment, Behavior, Differentiation, and English Language Learners.  There are videos for each grade level, K-12.  Many videos also have guiding questions and supporting materials in PDF and Word format.

3.  Twitter

Kathy Schrock has created a page called “Twitter for Teachers” that shares links to practical advice on how to use Twitter for professional development.  Because Twitter users are limited to 140 characters, their tweets are usually succinct, which is more helpful to a teacher looking for quick answers than a long post such as this one.   This article from TeachThought is a primer on Twitter hashtags for educators.  There are so many of them, and I’m sure the number is growing all the time.   Education groups also chat on Twitter.  They agree to days and times to be on Twitter and tweet in real time, allowing for collaboration with any number of colleagues and many experts in the field of education who participate in these chats.   Find a list of Twitter Chats for educators here.

2. ASCD

ASCD is a site that caters to educators with books, publications, conferences, professional development courses, and special programs.  I own many of their titles and have been a member of ASCD for many years now.  Membership is a bit pricey, but the benefits of membership (including many texts available for download and free members-only webinars) are very good, and the support they offer teachers is solid and trustworthy.   They always seem to be aware of each educational trend, and prepared with something (webinar, book, video, article, lesson plan, report, etc.) to help teachers understand it.

1. The Colleagues in Your Building

The most valuable professional development resource you have is your building PLC (Professional Learning Community).  The teachers in your building will best understand your situation, and best be able to provide you with timely advice about students, teaching strategies, classroom management, community engagement, etc.  If you do not have a PLC in your building, perhaps you could start one.  This article from Edutopia might help you.  This PDF from SEDL (The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory) may also be helpful.

An Open Mind

All of these tools require that the teacher has a continuous improvement mindset, and that he or she is committed to reflective practice.  Understanding one’s strengths and challenges, and wanting to improve is critically important.   It is also important that the tool teachers choose proves relevant to their current situation, and that using it is enjoyable and worthwhile.  I hope that I have provided a list of such tools for you, and welcome your suggestions for others.

Sonnet Writing – A Live Blog

As I sit here, with my pen, I wonder
Will I write well, or will words drag me under

07.20

At least | that’s what | he said | later | on shore
While I | washed my | feet of | gritty | wet sand.
My thoughts | swimming | back to | moments | before
When I | panicked,| not see | ing him | from land.

Yes, that will do nicely!

10.30

I watched | a buo| y with | gray hair | floating
In the | ocean,| no wor|ry in | his mind.
To God,| he di|rected | his face | gloating,
“A more | perfect | life you’ll | struggle | to find.”

I like that rewrite!

At least | that’s what | he said | later | that day

While I | washed my | feet of | gritty | wet sand.

My…

08.38

First, I have to say that this is really hard.  🙂

In the ocean, on his back he floated,
No worry in his mind, nor in his heart.
To God, he lifted his face and gloated,
“My life is perfect. We’ll never part.”

I like the first quatrain. Well, I should say that I like it enough to not change it yet.

On the beach, his children played in sand,
Castles they made, and buried mother’s feet.
She let them, scrunched her toes, feeling safe on land,
Comfortable in her beach seat.

Oh, that’s terrible. I just really like the bit about burying mother’s toes.

Mother heard a frightened, “Where is he?”
Her eyes opened wide.  Was he lost?
Kids laughed as he came from the sea,

As I sit here, with my pen, I wonder
Will I write well?  Will these words drag me under?

08.00

In the ocean, on his back he floated,
No worry in his mind, nor in his heart.
To God, he lifted his face and gloated,
“My life is perfect. We’ll never part.”

On the beach, his family played with sand,
Castles they made, and buried mother’s feet
She laughed, wiggled her toes, …
 

Then she saw her husband had disappeared…

As I sit here, with my pen, I wonder
Will I write well?  Will these words drag me under?

16.16

Great Feedback
What a wonderful gift I received today when I checked in on my professional development courses.

03.21

More on Consideration Number One

I simply found it fascinating that an educator would say that SBG and CBE do not reflect the real world.  I understand why the person said it.  If you don’t meet the goals set in the workplace, there are consequences.  If you don’t do the work you’re supposed to do, there are consequences.  As I said above, however, adults set these deadlines while collaborating on a project or task, and the goals are continuously revisited for validity.  The manager does not set a goal in a grade book and give you a zero if you don’t meet the goal.  Yes, you have to explain yourself if you don’t meet the goal, but if you can explain yourself well, the penalties are often slight or not imposed at all.

Which brings me to my next point: Communication feeds the heart and soul of any human organization, project-based or not.  [pullquote]Communication feeds the heart and soul of any human organization, project-based or not.[/pullquote]In this reformed version of grading, students and teachers work on communication and collaboration skills, two very important skills to have as one enters the workforce.  If done right, I believe the students will learn to acknowledge that goals and deadlines are important, but more importantly, they will learn to communicate with their teacher when they are struggling to meet them or believe the assignments are not going to help them achieve their goals.  I think that educators are misunderstanding a fundamental part of this learning process when they allow students to miss deadlines or not complete assignments at all.  That’s a misconception about the process that absolutely must be addressed.  Students are missing vital learning opportunities when they do not attempt an assignment simply because they know they will not be penalized.  When students and educators agree that the assignments are learning opportunities and that they should communicate about its effectiveness and collaborate to make changes if necessary, that is when true learning takes place.  That reflects what happens in the real world.