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  The notion that you need to write well only if you plan on seeking a “white collar” job is obsolete.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?

The Writing Crisis In Brief…

  •  Two thirds of salaried employees now hold jobs with writing responsibilities.[1]   
  • 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.  
  • Instant Messaging is not to blame.  According to a 2008 Pew Research poll 60% of teens consider texting as “writing.”  The same survey found that 86% of teens view writing as important to success in life (56% find it essential to success) and eight out of ten teens feel their writing would improve with more in-class writing!  
  • But the Internet may be part of the problem. Public figures are well aware that anything they say can be taken out of context and wind up on YouTube or blogging sites—and remain there forever, easily accessible through a Google search.  And so they are more wary than ever of speaking clearly.  So kids are growing up forgetting that words are meant to communicate, not hide a point of view.   

There are many causes of the writing crisis in this country, but the solution i that we must teach kids to think.  But to do that, you have to first clarify your own thinking.

[1] The National Commission on Writing. “Writing:  A Ticket to Work or a Ticket Out  A Survey of Business Leaders.” September, 2004.