Try this Rubric to Assess Student Writing: It’s Simple

In an earlier post, we proposed a simpler rubric to assess student writing, one which would allow us to track student progress in thinking and writing.  Here’s the general idea:

 

A Simpler Writing Rubric

 

 

Does this   piece of writing…

 

Yes:

Max point   value

 

Getting   There:

Max point   value

 

Not Yet:

Max point value

 

Make a   strong point?

5

 

3

 

0

STOP   HERE STUDENT MUST START OVER

Support the point well?

5

3

1

Include a   strong conclusion?

5

3

1

Make it   clear why the reader should care?

4

2

1

Have a   great style?

3

2

1

Have few   or no grammar and spelling errors?

3

2

1

So how would you use this rubric?  First of all, you would reinforce again and again what it means to make a strong point and to support it , and how their conclusion should somehow tie back to why they are writing in the first place.

To see how this rubric differs from others, let’s score sample student essays and compare our scores to those obtained using the rubric provided by the NYS Board of Regents to score the critical lens essay.

As any New York-based high school English teacher knows, the critical lens essay prompt asks student to discuss two works of literature they have read from the perspective of a statement that is provided.  The student is required to provide a valid interpretation of the statement, agree or disagree with the statement (as he interprets it), and support his opinion using specific references to appropriate literary elements from the two works.

In the examples below, students were asked to write a critical lens essay based on the following statement:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly . . .”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince, 1943

First, consider the following essay:

 For thousands of years, poets and philosophers have argued that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Indeed, love is a very powerful sensation, causing profound sensations of euphoria, almost to the point of inebriation.  Sentimentalists and overly romantic persons are the ones who believe that through love, one can see rightly.  However, what they see is a false veneer; they see a façade that reflects a semblance of truth but neglect to notice the myriad flaws of thinking with one’s heart.  Love blinds its victims, inhibiting their true ambitions, causing young lovers to make hasty and reckless decisions, and can be so utterly consuming that it leads to death. 

One character who exemplifies the drawbacks of love is Romeo, of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  As the tragic hero of the play, Romeo falls victim to an unlikely set of circumstances that ultimately lead to his, and his lover Juliet’s death. His one tragic flaw is his hastiness and his eagerness to be with Juliet.  It is his love of Juliet that causes him to make poor decisions, such as murdering her cousin Tybalt, getting married on a whim, and finally killing himself after seeing Juliet’s lifeless corpse, rather than to live without her.  Ironically, despite the connection of both lovers, both wind up dead.  This outcome is indicative that the inverse of Saint-Exupery’s quote is true:  If Romeo had not used his heart, he could have seen rightly.  He could have stayed with Rosaline and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless love-inspired antics. 

Another character who is the paragon of being blinded by love is Jay Gatsby, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”   Like Romeo, Gatsby is a hopeless romantic who has dedicated his entire career, life and being to wooing Daisy Buchanan.  Born into poor circumstances, Gatsby spent his entire life after meeting Daisy trying to impress her, often resorting to petty crime, bootlegging, and even possible murder to become wealthy and impressive.  He acquires and expansive, opulent mansion, reminiscent of European castles, and stockpiles it with many amenities from many colored shirts to a library full of uncut books.  Because Daisy is characterized as superficial and materialistic (her voice was “full of money”), Gatsby is able to win her over again.  However, this love is short lived because Gatsby is murdered.  Again there is much evidence that Gatsby would have been better off forgetting Daisy Buchanan and living his own life without the limiting factor of unrequited love. The reader learns through Gatsby’s father that the young Gatsby had drawn up a list of desirable character traits and a schedule that would make efficient use of his time.  This obscure allusion to Ben Franklin, an outstanding man and founding father of our nation, shows us that Gatsby was highly ambitious and had many talents and skills.  If he had not been so in love with Daisy, perhaps he could have become rich in his own right, without lust as an impetus.  He was certainly hard-working and fiscally shrewd enough to become a billionaire sands the wine and illicit activities.  As was the case with Romeo, had Gatsby not used his heart he could have seen matters coorectly, and made more coherent, sensible decisions, decisions that would have made him a more successful and a better person. 

It is quite shocking that anyone could be so naïve as to think “with the heart one can see rightly.”  Moderation of emotion, tempered with a good healthy dose of realism]/cynicism is the best option for leading a healthy life. If one only uses the heart to think and see and uses love as motivation and inspiration, they are doomed for failure and death.  It is a harsh, critical, and yet apt description of love.

Based on our new, simpler rubric above, this essay is a clear winner:

  • The writer makes a strong pointLove blinds its victims, inhibiting their true ambitions, causing young lovers to make hasty and reckless decisions, and can be so utterly consuming that it leads to death.   Score: 5
  • The writer supports the point well, with two detailed examples, one from Romeo and Juliet, the other from The Great Gatsby of how thinking with your heart only can lead to tragedy. Score: 5 
  • The writer includes a strong conclusion:  Moderation of emotion, tempered with a good healthy dose of realism]/cynicism is the best option for leading a healthy life. If one only uses the heart to think and see and uses love as motivation and inspiration, they are doomed for failure and death.  Score: 5 
  • The writer even makes it clear why the reader should care,  pointing out that this notion that love is the ultimate and highest goal for humanity has been promulgated for “thousands of years,”  and implicitly suggests that it is time for us to stop being naïve.  Score: 4
  • The writer has a great style and uses his/her command of the English language to keep us from being bored. Score:  3
  • There are a few grammatical errors, but generally, spelling and grammar are good.  Score: 2

In total, this essay scored 24/25 points (or 96%), which is pretty close to the Regents suggested score of 6/6.  (Please refer to the Regents Comprehensive Exam in English Test Sampler 2010 for the actual Regent’s rubric and recommended scoring approach. The rubric and essay samples begin on page 27 of this link )

Now let’s look another sample essay, one based on the same prompt.

Antoine de Sainte Exupery once said, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”  This means that just by looking at someone or hearing about someone, you cannot get a completely accurate sense about who someone is, nor can you know how you feel about them.  When one uses their heart, they can truly see how they feel about someone and truly get a sense of the person’s character.  I thoroughly agree with this statement because theres much more than meets the eye, also when you use your heart, you’re letting yourself decide how you feel and decide what you think about the person.  You are not developing ideas based on ideas and opinions of others.  I believe that this idea is shown in the novel Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austin and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. 

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is immediately turned off by Mr. Darcy’s cold and unsociable nature.  All she sees is a rude, egotistical and very serious man.  Thus, she vows to loathe him and she really considers him the last man she would ever want to marry.  Her initial opinions are based upon what she has seen and directly experienced.  She despises him because of his conspicuous qualities and what she sees right away but she does not give her heart any say in the matter. 

However, as time progresses, she beings to realize that she does have some feelings for him.  Although these emotions are influenced by her seeing him do some kind things, she allows her hate to be overridden because she feels in her heart that she does love him.  She sees that he is a good man and rather than just relying on what she sees or hears, she turns to heart, which gives her the true answer and allows her not to make the mistake of letting him go just because of her pervious notions of him. In the end, her heart is right and they get married.  

Another book that exemplifies this quote is Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer.  In this book, the protagonist, Bella Swan, moves to a town called Forks in Washington to live with her father.  When she first attends her school, she automatically sees a boy names Edward Cullen at lunch.  He is amazingly attractive, but is also sitting isolated with his family members in the cafeteria.  On top of that he is glaring viciously at Bella from across the room even though they have never met each other. Bella is very taken back by this action.  Then, when she goes to biology class after lunch, there are no seats open except for next to Edward. She reluctantly sits down next to him and he reacts very intensely.  He moves as far away from her as possible and looks very angry and tense.  Finally, when Bella goes to the office at the end of the day, Edward is there attempting to switch out of biology.  Bella feels very angry at Edward after seeing him act this way because she has not done anything to him. 

Bella’s feeling of disgust and anger are fueled and ultimately created by experiencing Edward act in such an awful manner.  Her opinions of him are totally based on what she sees him do since she knows nothing else about him.  However as mad as she is, she is still overwhelmed with feelings towards Edward and still has the urge to be near him.  She feels a certain connection with him which she is unable to deny despite her distaste for him and his rude reactions to her.  What Bella feels in her heart turns out to be right and it turns out Edward feels it too.  They were able to fall in love because Bella is able to get past her immediate feelings toward him and listened to her heart instead. 

It is very true that one should go by what they feel rather than by what they see or hear when making decisions.  People and things aren’t always what they seem and there may be more to them than you know. Your heart is almost always generally right in these situations and it gives you the most clear idea of what you are feeling.

 

According to the Regents scoring guide, this essay should receive a score of 5 or about 83%.    The commentary says that the response “provides a thoughtful interpretation of the critical lens that clearly establishes the criteria for analysis.”  It further states that the writer “develops ideas clearly and consistently with reference to relevant and specific evidence from both texts to show that people are not always what they seem.

Let’s see how the essay would fare using the rubric above:

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  The writer seems to make two points.  One is “when one uses their heart, they can see how they truly feel about someone and can truly get a sense of the person’s character.” The other is “when you are using your heart you are letting yourself decide what you feel and what you think about the person, you are not developing ideas based on the opinions and feelings of others.”  The main point is not as strong or as clearly stated as it could be.  Still, we know that the writer is basically agreeing with Saint-Exupery.  Score 4
  • Does the writer support the main point?  Not yet.  The example having to do with Pride and Prejudice actually supports the opposite of what the writer is trying to prove.  “Although her emotions are influenced by seeing him do some kind things…” suggests that Elizabeth Bennet is not seeing with her heart, an observation more than supported by the novel itself.  The example that having to do with Twilight is problematic for several reasons.  First, Twilight  is not literature.  We need to explain the difference between literature and pop novels to our students.  The basic difference is that it is really difficult to analyse a pop culture novel because there is not a lot to analyze.  When a novel cannot be analyzed, the student resorts to plot summary – there is nothing else to talk about.  In this case, the discussion about Bella was almost entirely plot summary, concluding with an argument that Bella was better off by allowing her heart to lead her to fall in love Edward.  Given that anyone familiar with the novel knows that  Edward is a vampire, this is a weak argument.  Score: 3 
  • Does the writer include a strong conclusion?  Not yet “Your heart is generally almost always right” might be a good conclusion for a greeting card, but not for an analytical essay.  Score: 2
  • Does the writer make it clear why the reader should care?  Not yet.  It is very difficult to convince the reader to care about what you have written if you cannot support your main point. Score: 2
  • Does the writer have a great style?  Not yet.   This piece is very wordy and at times confusing. Score: 2
  • Is the piece free of grammar and spelling errors?  Not yet.  Score: 2  

Using the rubric above,  this essay scored 15/25 points (60%)  which is quite a bit lower than the Regent’s recommended score of 5/6 (83%).    Yes, this is a “first draft” essay written under time constraints.  But so was the first essay we reviewed (and, by the way, so is the memo this student’s boss may one day ask for an hour before she needs it).

The difference in scores is largely a function of how the rubrics assess (or fail to assess) the quality of writer’s main point and support for that point. The Regents rubric, although far wordier than the one above, fails to assess the quality of the writer’s thinking.

The writer of this essay can and should be taught how to think more analytically. She has a good command of language and good recall of what she reads.  But the essay does not exhibit the level of thinking we should expect from our students.  To say this essay deserves a 5/6 is to contribute to the crisis employers have been bringing to our attention for more than a decade: The majority of graduates who enter the work place are not prepared for the communications challenges they face.   A rubric, such as the one proposed above, is a simple way to assess and track student progress  in terms of analytical thinking (and therefore good writing).  Try it and see what you think.

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How Do you Know if You are Making Progress?

How do you know if you are making progress?

This is the key question to ask when teaching writing.  And it turns out that even colleges don’t do a very good job of answering this question.  In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks  reported that according to   “surveys of employers, only a quarter of college graduates have the writing and thinking skills necessary to do their jobs.”

In an earlier post, we suggested that most writing rubrics fall short.    They are often too complicated, requiring both teacher and student to learn a new vocabulary to use them with ease.   Even more problematic, many rubrics entirely fail to address the most fundamental question a writer can ask:  Was my point worth making? Most rubrics allow the user to evaluate whether a thesis statement exists, whether it is clearly stated, whether it is well-developed.  But such rubrics rarely allow the user to assess the quality of the thesis statement or the support for it.

As we have said before on this site, writing is just thinking on paper.   To write anything well involves the answering the following questions, a process that becomes habit for talented writers.

1. Who are you talking to and what do you want to happen? The answer to this question will affect the answer to the next four questions.  There are many different reasons people write, but all of them involve having a thought and wanting to share it with someone for some reason.   For instance:

  • If I am writing an analytical essay about the significance of the character of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby, I am writing to my teacher and fellow classmates so that their understanding of the novel will be enhanced.
  • If I am writing a lab report, I am writing to my teacher and fellow scientists so that they can compare the findings of their own research with mine and agree or disagree in the spirit of scientific inquiry.
  • If I am writing a blog about the disastrous rock concert I attended Friday night, I am writing for my friends so that they can understand the experience and think twice before they rush to buy tickets.

2. What is the strongest point you can make to bring about that result?  The most difficult aspect of writing well is figuring out the best point you can make, given your purpose.  Generally speaking, a strong point is one that not obvious, is arguable, and, ideally, makes you think about the subject differently. It takes time to come up with a strong point, and many good writers discover that they cannot articulate their main point as clearly as they would like until a second or third draft.

3.  How can you support that point?  The way you support your point will depend on what you are writing:

  • If you are writing an analysis of literature, you support your point with textual evidence that proves your argument.
  • If you are writing a lab report, you support your point  by describing your procedure and results.
  • If you are writing the blog for your friends about that terrible concert, you support your point with examples of how the concert fell short of expectations.

4.  Why should the reader care? Depending on the purpose for writing, this question may not need an explicit answer.  For instance, in the blog about the rock concert, your main point may have already answered this question (e.g. “If you are thinking of going to the Battle of the Bands at Roxy Theater next month, consider this:  I found the sound of my dentist’s drill more pleasing.”)  But often it is useful to remind your readers why they need to care about what you are writing about.  There are a variety of ways to do this:  You can use rhetorical strategies to persuade your reader that the subject is important.  You can explicitly explain why the results of the lab experiment matter –and thereby show a deeper level of thinking than writing formulaically about the hypothesis, procedure and materials and results.

5.  What is the best take away message you can give your reader?    Generally speaking, the conclusion you write will be directly related to your purpose for writing in the first place.  What do you want your reader to do after he/she reads your work?  Smile?  Take action?  Think about things a different way?  Build on your results?

6.  How do you jazz it up? Once you have answered the previous five questions, it is relatively easy to turn your written work into something that is interesting to read.   By the time you get to this question, you may have already unconsciously employed some stylistic techniques such as diction (choice or words as in “I blew it,” versus “I made an error”) that are appropriate for your audience and purpose.

 

With these questions in mind, let’s try to construct a new rubric, one that reinforces the idea that good writing begins with good thinking.  Rather than give students points for understanding the purpose and audience for the written work, let’s remind them at the time of the assignment to think about who they are writing for (their audience) and what they want to happen as a result (their purpose, which will directly affect their conclusion).


A Simpler Writing Rubric

 

 

Does this   piece of writing…

 

Yes

Max point value:

 

Getting  There

Max point value:

 

Not Yet

Max point value:

 

Make a   strong point?

5

 

3

 

0

STOP   HERE STUDENT MUST START OVER

Support the point well?

5

3

1

Include a   strong conclusion?

5

3

1

Make it   clear why the reader should care?

4

2

1

Have a   great style?

3

2

1

Have few   or no grammar and spelling errors?

3

2

1

Notice that the three components of writing that are worth the most points on this rubric are making a strong point, supporting that point, and writing a strong conclusion.  It is not that grammar and style are unimportant.  Weak writers will very likely need to work on grammar.   Strong writers will likely need to improve their style.

But remember, our first goal (and it is a worthy one)  is to teach students to think critically, to figure out exactly what they want to write, why they want to write it, and what they want to happen as a result.  And, we want to track their progress.  Because whether you are a high school teacher under pressure to comply with the common core standards or a college instructor trying to get your students ready for the challenge of an academic research paper, you need evidence to prove that the way you are teaching your students is actually bringing results.

In our next post, we will discuss how to use this rubric and how and why the scores resulting from this rubric provide a better gauge of student progress than those resulting from other rubrics, notably that used for the NYS Regents exam in English.

A Rubric to Track Critical Thinking

When it comes to assessing student writing, rubrics reign supreme.  There are probably enough of them to wallpaper every floor of the Empire State Building twice over.  And yet, colleges and employers tell us most high school graduates can’t write.  So maybe we need to find a different way to think about how to assess student writing.

Most writing rubrics look pretty similar.  They rate student writing across a range of factors, including whether the main idea is clearly stated, whether the paper is organized well, whether it includes rich vocabulary and whether it has grammar or spelling errors.   Rarely does a rubric allow the user to assess whether the written work tells us something worthwhile.  This is a problematic, because if the main point is not worth making, the paper, no matter how well-organized, richly worded, and grammatically polished,  is weak.

If we start with the basic premise that writing is just thinking on paper, then it makes sense to begin our assessment of writing with an assessment of thinking.   In an earlier post we laid down a general approach for how to assess student progress in critical thinking.  Now, let’s take that approach a step further and actually create a simple rubric to assess the level at which students are thinking about the words they read.

Let’s review the basics:  Well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but they are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different  main point or conclusion?

Since each of these questions targets a different level of thinking, we can craft a very simple rubric to track student progress.    Let’s start with a rubric that will help track the critical thinking skills of students as they read. 

Can the Student Do This?

Not Yet

(0 points for each bullet)

Yes!

(1-2  points for each bullet)

1.

Identify the Main Point

  • Misses the point.

 

  • Gets the point 

2.

Assess Whether the Point is Worth Making

  • Does not recognize a weak main point.

 

  • Explains why the main point is or is not a strong one. 

3.

 Find support (or lack of support) for the main point?

  • Does not identify any support for the main point.
  • Does not distinguish strong from weak support.
  • Identifies support for main point.
  • Assesses whether support is strong or weak.

 

4.

 

Answer “So What?”

  • Does not comment on what the author’s “takeaway message” is.
  • Does not offer a plausible takeaway message.
 

  • Explains what the author’s takeaway message seems to be.

5.

 Think of another way to see it?

  • Does not present an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.
  •  Presents an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.

Based on this rubric, your weakest readers/thinkers would get a check;  your strongest would get a check plus 12 (Of course, you can use your own numbering system, but this is the general idea).

How would you use such a rubric?    The common core standards place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having students read non-fiction and having them write logical arguments.   So let’s start by assigning students a non-fiction argument to read. The Battle of the Binge, by Jack Hitt, deals with a subject many teenagers can relate to and fits the bill nicely.    (By the way,  this selection is featured in the Norton Reader, a treasure trove of short non-fiction pieces, many of which are suitable for upper high-school students.)    The general approach would be to assign this piece for students to read, and then to have them critique it by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the author’s point?
  2. Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?
  3. How does the author support his point?
  4. So what? What do you think the author wants us to do or think about as a result of reading his work?
  5. Is there another way to see it?  What might be the counter-argument to this author’s claims?

Short answers are fine for this exercise.  Now let’s see how some sample responses would be scored on the rubric.

 What is the author’s point?  

  • 2 point response:  The author’s main point is that binge drinking on college campuses is a result of raising the legal drinking age to 21,thus depriving students the opportunity of “learning to drink” on campus.
  • 1 point response: The author’s main point is that it was wrong to raise the legal drinking age (implied, but not the main point).
  • 0 point response:  Binge drinking on college campuses was as big a problem in the 1970s as it is today.  (If the student entirely missed the point, you need go no further on the rubric:  The grade for this assignment is a “check.”)

          Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?

  • 2 point response:   Yes, because it offers an interesting explanation of the cause of a big contemporary problem.
  • 1 point response:  Yes, because it is interesting (not specific).
  • 0 point response:  No because encouraging teenagers to drink is dangerous (author is not encouraging young people to drink).

       Does the author support this main point?  How?

  • 2 point response:  The author offers anecdotal and factual support for his claim:
    • He learned to drink alcohol through his own college experience.
    • His nephew, now attending the same college, knows many students who binge drink alone, often in the woods to avoid being caught.
    • Despite various attempts by colleges to reduce it, binge drinking persists on campuses at alarming rates.
  • 1 point response:  Any response that cites some, but not all support for the main point.
  • 0 point response:  No supporting points cited at all.

 So What?

  • 2 point response:  We need to change the way we think about this:  If you can vote and fight in a war, you ought to be able to drink.
  • 1 point response:  We have to lower the drinking age to 18 (not quite, he is suggesting it would be difficult to do this and that we need to change the culture first).
  • 0 point response:   We have to outlaw binge drinking (author never suggests this).

Is there another way to see it?

  • 2 point responses:
    • Is binge drinking only on the rise among college students?  What if it is on the rise among all age groups?  That would weaken the author’s argument.
    • The author says that legislators raised the drinking minimum as a reaction to the “raw emotion deployed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” but he does not tell us whether deaths due to drunk driving have decreased as a result of raising the minimum age.  Have they?  If so, maybe we need to change nothing.
  • 1 point response:  It is up to parents to teach their children social habits, including how to drink and how to abide with the law as it is (a counter argument based too much on personal  opinion).
  • 0 point response:  No counter argument offered.

What Does All this Have to Do with Writing?!

This exercise in teaching students to become critical readers and then tracking the results is an important step in teaching them to think.  And remember, writing is thinking on paper.  When you teach your students to write an argument, you will ask them to use the kind thinking in their own work that they used to critique arguments such as this one.  Then you can grade them using a writing rubric that flows directly from the reading rubric.  

Coming soon:  How to craft and use a writing rubric that tracks critical thinking progress.

They Whys and Hows of Writing Across the Curriculum

There you are at the top of your game.  You are widely recognized as an ace at teaching Geometry or Biology and suddenly it happens, the Lord Voldemort of educational innovation: Your principal tells you that a significant part of your annual performance evaluation is going to depend on how well you support writing in your class.   You KNOW that many students in your class do not write well.  A dedicated teacher, you have already tried to deal with this by assigning more written work:  You have asked Geometry students to explain in writing how they arrived at a proof; you have asked Biology students to write a three page paper on the pros and cons of human cloning.  The results made you want to propose marriage to your protractor, to tearfully seek solace among your amoeba and paramecium slides.   

But wait.  Writing across the curriculum really is a good idea.  And it doesn’t require that you take a crash course in Teaching Subjects You Haven’t Mastered at the New Trends School of Education.  Like so much else in modern life, it requires things much more elusive: patience and common sense.

Why Must We Teach Writing Across the Curriculum?   The short answer is: Because writing has become a core requirement for finding any kind of employment.  The notion that you need to write well only if you plan on seeking a “white collar” job is obsolete.  As Kelly Gallagher points out in Write Like This, writing skills have become part of the evaluation process for aspiring plumbers, landscapers, policemen, fast-food workers, bankers, mechanics and chefs.  According to a report from the National Commission on Writing two-thirds of salaried employees held jobs with writing responsibilities – and that was back in 2004!  The same report found that U.S. employers rate more than 80 percent of high school graduates entering the work force as “deficient” in written communications skills.  Although four-year college grads do better, the numbers are still alarming — nearly 28 percent can’t write basic memos and other communications critical to day-to-day office operations.  

These real-world demands for better writing are actually good news for teachers.  Remember, writing is just thinking on paper.  The more your students write, the more opportunities they have to think and reflect on what they have learned. Colleges and universities across the country have taken the lead in emphasizing writing across the curriculum, and  student response has been extremely positive.  For instance, here’s what a student from the University of Manoa (Hawaii), a highly writing-intensive school had to say about writing and learning:

  • [Writing] helps you get a perspective of what you studied. When you read something–okay, you read it and you sort of understand it, but when you actually have to write about it and tell someone else, in writing, it forces your mind to think of it in a new way. You have to organize your thoughts, you have to make it into some sort of order rather than just thinking on the vast subject. And it forces you to refine your thinking to even more than just having these general ideas. When you have to try to convince someone in writing, it forces you to think a lot sharper . . . it forces you to be even more analytical. (History major)

This response was typical.   And, when directly asked in a survey,  seventy-six percent of Manoa students reported feelings of confidence when writing in their major.

I can almost hear you say, “Alright already.  Writing is important.  But why should I have to focus on writing in my class? Isn’t that the English teacher’s job?”   Well, yes, of course.  But for students to grasp the importance of writing, they need to spend more than 1/5 of their school day thinking about it!

How Can Math and Science Teachers Be Expected to Teach Writing?   What if, despite being a cracker jack math teacher, writing gives you the heebie-jeebies? How can you possibly be effective at supporting writing in your classroom if you break out in hives whenever you’re asked to put pen to paper?  Here’s some more good news:  you don’t have to do all the work.  In fact, as we will soon discuss, when you encourage collaboration and peer review in your class, your role in “teaching” writing becomes more of a coaching role, supporting students who work collaboratively.  And even when you do assign papers to students individually, you are not expected to supply feedback the way English teachers would.  Consider these guidelines to teachers in writing–rich (WR) courses from Carleton College, another writing intensive institution:

What is  Writing Rich  (WR) Course? This DOES mean that… This does NOT necessarily mean…
A WR course will normally have 3 or more writing assignments. …students have opportunities for improving their writing over the course of a term. …three formal papers with detailed feedback from the professor on each.
A WR course will offer students feedback on their writing. …professors provide written comments. …professors comment on sentence structure or mechanics;…professors line-edit students’ writing;…professors comment in detail on all writing assignments;…all feedback the student receives must be from the professor.
A WR course will provide students with opportunities for revision. …students have an opportunity to write more than a single draft of at least one assignment. …professors must read, comment on and grade multiple drafts of a single paper.

The takeaway is that to support writing in your classroom, you do not have to become a superhero who can instantly transform himself into an English Language Arts teacher. 

Where Do You Start?  Since writing is just thinking on paper, start by asking your students to think.  Once a week as a “do now” activity, post a big question on the board and ask your students to take five or ten minutes to answer it using the three questions all good writers use:

  • What’s my point?
  • How do I support it?
  • So What?

Then randomly choose students to come to the front of the class and give an oral presentation of their answer.  Encourage the rest of the class to ask questions, to respectfully challenge the presenter.  This simple activity  encourages thinking and therefore encourages writing!  After doing this for a few weeks, you will be able to transition into short writing assignments. To cut back on the labor intensity of teaching writing, create peer editing groups in your class.  Confer with the English teacher on your team and find out who the strong writers in each class are so you can group four or five students together with least one strong writer on each team.  These teams can work together to review first drafts of short writing assignments and suggest specific improvements to each writer. 

Here are a few writing assignments, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin, you might want to start out with:

  • A fifty word sentence, summarizing what the student learned in (Math, Science, History) that week.
  • A one minute paper requiring students to cite one new bit of information they learned in class and to ask one question about something that remained unclear.
  • A weekly journal entry, one paragraph long, reflecting on how what was learned in this week’s class is relevant in the real world.
  • An explanation of how a Math problem was solved:  This assignment might be given with a rubric so that students understand the criteria on which they will be graded.

These simple short writing exercises will help students flex their writing muscles. 

Another suggestion (from both MIT and University of Wisconsin) for teaching writing across the curriculum, is to sequence assignments, specifically:

  • Repeat the same assignment; vary the topic.  For example, if you want students to explain how they answered a math problem, spend a lot of time modeling how the answer should look when you first give the assignment.  A couple of weeks later, ask students to explain their answers again, and briefly refer back to the model you already gave them. The next time you give the assignment, you probably won’t need to do any more modelling!
  • Move from simpler to more complex assignments: For example, University of Wisconsin’s writing center suggests that “Over the course of a semester you might build up to a six-page critical review of several sources by having students complete the following series of assignments: a one-page summary of one source; a two-page summary and critique of a single source; a four-page review of two sources (with revision); a six-page review of four sources (with revision). You might first asks students to write a close analysis, then later have them write a longer paper that includes another close analysis. This approach to sequencing assumes that students will be better equipped to write longer papers or undertake more cognitively challenging tasks if they first have the opportunity to build their skills and their confidence.”
  • Break a complex assignment into smaller parts.   For instance, you might want to assign students one 2 – 4 page paper relating what they are studying to the real world (e.g., ”Please write a two to four page argument on why  students must study Algebra in high school.”).    Instead of just assigning the paper with a deadline a few weeks later, break the paper into parts with shorter deadlines, and required peer review team approval before you move to the next step. 
    • Assignment one:  Choose a topic and a potential thesis statement and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment two: Draft your short outline (What is my point?  How do I support it? So what?)  and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment three:  Write your introduction and have it peer-reviewed.

And so on.  (By the way, stay tuned for next week’s post, which will highlight the benefits of peer review and how to teach students to be peer editors.)

There is a lot more to say about writing across the curriculum, and this blog will focus on specific strategies in future posts.   In the meantime,  check out Colorado State University’s wonderful website, which has links to scores of colleges that emphasize writing across the curriculum with very positive results!

Another View on the Problems With Writing Instruction

Below is a post from the Washington Post about problems in teaching writing.  (Click here if you would like to see original post with hyperlink capability).  The piece makes some interesting points.  My favorite sentence,  one that I think gets to the heart of what the issue is:  “Stacey suggested junking “the narrow models, the graphic organizers, the formats and the steps” and do something very simple: “Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions.”    Mathews suggests that a big part of the problem is teachers being too formulaic and using too much  jargon ( for more of my views on five paragraph essays. click here ).  But the main weakness with the way we teach writing, once again, is that we need to teach our kids to think if we want them to write well.  If we skip that step,  and simply hand our students a copy of The Elements of Style  in high school, we run the risk that students will learn to use language in a very beautiful way, and yet to say nothing of consequence.
 
Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 11/13/2011

Writing lessons? Please stop

With a few exceptions, our schools are bad at teaching writing. Students are not asked to do much of it, mostly because reading and correcting their work takes so much time. Instruction methods are often academic and lifeless. English teachers rarely assign non-fiction reading and are even less apt to require non-fiction writing. Almost no high school students, except those in private or International Baccalaureate schools, are required to do major research papers. 

Worthy attempts at reform haven’t gotten far. Writing instruction is killing our children’s natural desire to express themselves. Compare their school assignments to their e-mails and you will see what I mean. The only way to fix this is to tear up what we are doing and start over.  Leading this movement is Paula Stacey, an editor and educator who has taught every level of writing instruction. Her Sept. 21 Education Week piece exposed the torture that is Composition 101. “We have the entire English department at a local high school,” Stacey wrote, “embracing a schoolwide essay format that calls for exactly three central paragraphs containing exactly eight sentences: topic sentence, detail sentence, commentary sentence, another detail sentence, another commentary sentence, a final detail sentence, a final commentary sentence, and a concluding sentence.

“At a different high school across town, a history teacher hands out zeros to students who don’t have the thesis statement as the final sentence in the opening paragraph. Meanwhile, a woman I know who teaches at an elite research university bemoans the fact that her students, among the best in the country, have mastered the five-paragraph essay, but can’t develop a complex idea in writing.”

The new common core standards for ninth and 10th grade writing are enough to chill a classroom. Here is what they recommend for teaching how to write an argument:

“Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence. Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns. Use words, phrases, and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.”

The result of such clerical work is usually unreadable. Few people who learn to write this way ever make it their life’s work. The professional writers I know got excited not in class but while compiling personal journals, or composing poems and songs, or sending long letters or e-mails to friends, or working for the school newspaper.

I have been influenced by educators who think free reading is the best homework for elementary school. Why not add some free writing? Stacey suggested junking “the narrow models, the graphic organizers, the formats and the steps” and do something very simple: “Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions.”

Even elementary school students love research opportunities. How long would it take for a fifth grader to produce a report on which of her grandparents spent the most time in school, and why? Once in high school, they can read Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and do a 4,000-word researched essay on a teacher-approved topic.

They will still need good teachers. Teaching writing the right way is hard work. But educators have told me they do it because for many of their students it is the most satisfying work they will ever do. Most school districts don’t see this. But some teachers have already discarded the old rules. They inspire their students to be vivid and clear, rather than just orderly. They show how much this can improve their lives, from love letters to job applications. What better lesson is there in an Internet era in which more words are being written than ever before?

More Critical Thinking Questions

Before you read this, you might want to read:  Step One:  Challenge Your Thinking.

This post comes right from UC Davis  — another useful critical thinking resource: 

Stumped for intelligent questions to provoke your writing glands? Feast your word processor on these, and generate some text, customizing them to your subject matter and topic as you go along. Then print out your responses, mix and match, and repeat. You’ll be amazed at how fast you can generate better-quality raw materials this way.

  1. What is the purpose, goal, or point?
  2. What is the problem or issue being solved or described?
  3. On what data or evidence is the decision / definition / problem based?
  4. What inferences are being made from what kind of data, and are these inferences legitimate?
  5. What is the solution, outcome, or resolution of the problem or issue?
  6. What are the short-term and long-term implications of the solution / consequences of the outcome?
  7. What are the biases or assumptions behind the inferences, selection or collection of data, or framing of the problem / experiment?
  8. What are the basic concepts or terms being used? How do these definitions affect the framing / understanding of the problem?
  9. What point of view is being expressed? What political / ideological / paradigmatic considerations inform or govern or limit point of view?
  10. How would someone from a related but different discipline look at the problem / solution / issue, and could an interdisciplinary approach improve the analysis / discussion / evaluation?

* * *

Once you reword these questions to fit the particular situation you are examining, they will encourage you to:

  • brainstorm more effectively
  • see beneath the surface
  • understand alternative viewpoints
  • avoid being unduly influenced by what others say
  • decide what you think and why
  • defend and adapt your positions intelligently.

Before You Teach Students to Write…

1. Teach them how to think

  • Ask each student to find a difficult-to-understand article from mainstream media and bring it into class:  Usually, such articles are poorly written. Reassure them that if they read something–in or out of school–that they don’t understand it may well be that the piece doesn’t make sense.
  • Ask “What’s your point?    Encourage students to listen for the main point when people speak and to look for the main point in written works. Ask them to assess whether and how well that point is supported. 
  • Encourage them to challenge you (politely) if they do not understand the point you are trying to make.  Then on occasion, be intentionally unclear when you give directions or explain a concept.  If no one challenges you, tell them poor listening and no questions is likely to affect their class participation grade. 
  • Offer them extra credit if they bring in two examples of an illogical argument or unsupported point on Cable TV news or in Op Ed columns.
  • Encourage logic over speed of response. Encourage them to practice saying, “Let me think about that for a minute,” and then mentally draft a short, logical argument in response to a tough question. Better this approach than to blurt out a thoughtless answer which may more easily be contradicted.

 2.  Ask Better Questions: 

 Better questions lead to better writing.  If you ask a student merely to summarize a passage, they will simply paraphrase what they have read without thinking much about what the passage means.  Instead, think of better questions to get them to start thinking. 

 1.  Encourage students to develop their own questions:  When they read literature, history, science, even Math, encourage them to develop “higher order” thinking questions.  (Why, What if, How…)  And, as criticalthinking.org, suggests, have them share views and ask:  Is there a different question we should be asking ourselves?  What other questions do we need to answer before we can answer this one? In other words, get students to think about the quality of questions they ask and are being asked.

 2.  Encourage in-class debates:  Divide students into groups and have them choose an issue (from a list that you provide) of topics they do not all agree about.   Have the opposing side present their arguments and then have the class evaluate them:

  •  What is the main point?
  • What is the evidence that backs up the main point?
  • How well can the speaker refute the arguments of his opponent?
  • On the basis of these questions, who won?

This is a wonderful exercise with which to introduce persuasive essays.   After the in-class debate, have the members of each group write on the topic of another group.

 3.  When reading books or stories, focus on purpose

  • Why did the author write this story?
  • What was he trying to accomplish?
  • Did he succeed?
  • What is the main point of the story?
  • Why does main character have the traits he has?
  • Is there anything that seems unrealistic or exaggerated in the story?  Why do you think the author exaggerated that way?
  • Is the story’s lesson obsolete now?  What have we learned as humans since it was written?
  • Does the author have a view of the world that is different from yours?  How so?  Is your view better? Why? Is her view better? Why?  Are you both justified in thinking about the world the way you do?  Why?

 4.  Explore the “what if”

  • What if Atticus Finch had been an angry, loud mouthed and opinionated man?  How would that have changed the story and affected the story’s message?
  • What if America never used nuclear weapons in WWII?  Would we be a different and safer world today?

 5.  Foster unobvious connections

  • How is The Paradise of the Blind like The Great Gatsby?

 3.  Pique their Interest Research shows that students write more easily when they can write about topics that interest them. A great way to get classroom writing started on a positive note is to begin the year with an “introductions” survey.   Ask your students to tell you their favorite subject, their hobbies and interests, what books they have read lately, what their favorite movies and TV shows are – you get the idea.  You will get much better answers if the survey is anonymous. Then, develop a list of thoughtful questions based on the survey results.   For instance, if a few students tell you that they play xbox every day, you might ask:  Are video games a help or a hindrance to teenage social life?”

 Your first assignment will be to have them select a topic from the list and write about it.  Don’t grade this one – hold onto it!

 At the end of the year, when their writing is oh so improved, let them write a second draft of that essay as their final writing project.

Step One: Challenge Your Own Thinking

If we want our students to be better writers, we need to challenge them to be better thinkers.  But how do we do that?  To begin with, we have to clarify our own thinking.  The following strategies are adapted from a great online resource:  www.criticalthinking.org**

 

1. Clarify Your Thinking
Be on the look-out for fuzzy thinking. Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying.  When people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction, you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens.Strategies for Clarifying Your Thinking

  • State one point at a time  
  • Elaborate on what you mean  
  • Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences  
  • Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer, and then another, and another and another and on and on)

Here is One Format You Can Use

  • I think . . . (state your main point)  
  • In other words . . . (elaborate your main point)  
  • For example . . . (give an example of your main point)  
  • To give you an analogy . . . (give an illustration of your main point)

To Clarify Other People’s Thinking,
Consider Asking the Following

  • Can you restate your point in other words? I didn’t understand you. 
  • Can you give an example? 
  • Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?

2. Stick to the Point

Be on the look out for fragmented thinking, thinking that leaps about with no logical connections.
Ask These Questions to Make Sure
Thinking is Focused on What is Relevant

  • Am I focused on the main point? 
  • How is this connected? How is that?  
  • Does my information directly relate to the main point? 
  • How can I make it relate to the main point?  

3. Question Questions

Be on the look out for questions. The ones we ask. The ones we fail to ask. Listen to how people question, when they question, when they fail to question

Strategies for Formulating More Powerful Questions

  • Whenever you don’t understand something, ask a question of clarification. 
  • Whenever you are dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem at hand. 
  • Whenever you plan to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance the most significant questions you think need to be addressed in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question, making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.

Questions You Can Ask to Discipline Your Thinking

  • What precise question are we trying to answer? 
  • Is that the best question to ask in this situation? 
  • Is there a more important question we should be addressing? 
  • Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer this question? 
  • What information do we need to answer the question? 
  • What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts? 
  • What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another? 
  • Is there another way to look at the question? 
  • What are some related questions we need to consider? 

4. Be Reasonable:  Good thinkers want to change their thinking when they discover better thinking.

** And specifically, from:  Elder, L. and Paul, R. (2004). Adapted from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Strategic Thinking: 25 Weeks to Better Thinking and Better Living.