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The Work of Writing

School is about to start for most students in the United States. It’s that time of year when learners and teachers alike prepare for the work ahead, excited about opportunities for intellectual growth. That learning and growth alway include writing. For some, no problem. For others, dread sets in at the very mention of written assignments.

Most people don’t think about the work involved in writing. Instructors often don’t consider the full challenge for some students to produce words on a page. Parents know very well how a child’s writing assignment can become a family project. Why is writing such hard work for some people?

If we stop to think about all of the different skills needed to produce a single sentence, we might be able to identify several potential pitfalls in reaching the goal of a complete sentence. Expanding to an essay brings more complexity. Multiple sentences need to be in an order that makes sense. Paragraphs should be formed in ways that help the writer support ideas. The overall piece needs to make sense for the reader, who has no idea what was really inside the writer’s head before the writing started! Putting all of these components together, it’s easy to see how a writing task asks a great deal of the writer. Let’s break down the skills to better understand some of the roadblocks.

To begin, there are physical demands. Can the student write with a pen or pencil and paper if that is required? Can the student type if that is the expected medium? Our youngest students can use a keyboard, but that doesn’t mean they can type in a fluid manner that allows them to easily record their thoughts. The demands of actually producing the final piece can create disruption and fatigue before the work of transcribing ideas is complete.

If the physical demands of writing are easily managed, what about the subject matter that is being addressed? Does the student have a full grasp on the content? What if there is confusion or misunderstanding of the purpose of writing a paper? Did the assignment include clear explanation of why the student is writing? Did all students understand the assignment in the same way? Do the students have enough knowledge to expand their writing to meet the requirements of the assignment?

Maybe the content is understood and the student has no challenge in knowing what is expected. There might be other challenges. Writer’s block. What is the most important thing to write down? Every first sentence can seem “wrong,” leading the writer to scratch it out many times. Getting the first sentence “just right” can be the biggest challenge for some writers. Without that opening about which they feel confident, some students have great difficulty moving ahead in the essay.

For some learners, writing is not just work. It’s hard work. Getting the right words in the right order in a sentence that conveys the right thoughts can feel impossible. Consider the student who is not a native English speaker and is struggling with grammar or word choice. What about the child who has challenges with spelling? Does that young writer seek alternate wording to avoid spelling errors? Probably. Then add the ultimate show stopper for some readers – poor grammar! When a student fears the “grammar police,” writing can be stifled.

Writing really is work for many people. Maybe we all need to appreciate how many different faculties are at play when young people are asked to write. They don’t all enjoy that work, but they do need to know how much we appreciate their ideas. Let’s remember to continue  encouraging efforts students take to put words on paper. Let’s read their ideas with enthusiasm and a spirit of getting know more about these eager learners.

Here’s to a great school year!


Rigor of Common Core Writing

Sample assessment items related to Common Core writing that are now available put students in a difficult position. If you are an expert writer, you understand the difficulty presented by a task that requires cross-textual analysis. You understand the potential pitfalls of guessing exactly what is to be examined in the multiple texts and how that examination will be accepted by the reader.

Samples of Common Core performance tasks for students in Grade 4 require students to read a poem and an excerpt from a story. The task is to compare the actions of the subjects in the two pieces using evidence from the texts. Even a student in Grade 10 would wonder exactly what it means to only compare two subjects. Some teachers would argue that comparison is only looking at those features that are alike and not to point out features that are different. Others would argue that comparing inherently requires contrasting. So where does that leave the Grade 4 writer? Who has defined “comparison” clearly and how will the work be assessed if the reader has a different interpretation of the task than the writer does?

What will become of the current rubric against which this writing is expected to be assessed after piloting the items with real students in real classrooms? Looking at the expectations which are actually written by adults, there is room for a fair amount of criticism. Teachers need to find the continuum of skills and determine how to move students forward in their writing development. Using an adult “guesstimate” of Grade 4 writing can be dangerous. Using student writing collected across a large sample size is the only way to know if we are working with reasonable, yet rigorous, demands for student work.

Writing to Learn

Do you remember what it was like to write an essay that was intended to demonstrate to a teacher everything you knew about one topic?

Do you recall what it was like to write that paper?

Did you struggle at all to meet the requirements of that assignment?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there must be a reason that you remember the assignment, what you went through to produce the writing, and whether or not you struggled. You probably also remember exactly why you struggled.

There is no one way to approach a writing task in a way that is fitted to every student for every content area at every level of learning and at every age. Knowing that writing is a fluid process, educators try to accommodate student needs in writing. The reality is, though, that students learn content differently. So, why would they all express their knowledge of that content in the same way, using the same steps to write? The writing process in itself requires learning of all kinds and no two students will take on that learning in the same way.

When we approach “writing to learn,” what exactly are we expecting of our students? Do we expect that they are learning about writing or about content?  I would argue that we are expecting both types of learning to result every time students write.

There are multiple cognitive processes going on during writing. The expert writer crosses back and forth between a focus on the logistics of producing written text and the meaning of the text. The novice writer struggles with writing structure and form, and finds it very difficult to focus on the writing while trying to express knowledge and understanding of content. These writers are often stifled in their expressing of understanding on a topic simply because they have difficulty “getting started” with an essay.

As we move into what will be the second semester of the school year for most public school learning communities, maybe we can take on a new philosophy around writing. Let’s stop and consider what the goals of writing really are for each essay we assign. Try asking just a couple of questions:

  1. Do students know how to organize and structure a composition to express what you are expecting?
  2. Is the assignment about the content or about the essay?

These two questions alone should begin to put us on a better track in helping students write. They may be writing to learn about content by recognizing what they don’t understand as they try to put their knowledge into words. On the other hand, they may be writing to learn the best way to express what they know through trial and error and good coaching about language usage and choices in written discourse.

Again, happy coaching!

Meeting the Common Core – Argumentative Writing in Grade 7

Meeting the Common Core, one assignment at a time.

Common Core State Standard

Grade 7 Writing:

Common Core State Standard 7.W.1 (2010) reads as follows:

Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

a.      Introduce claim(s), acknowledge alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

b.      Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

c.       Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claims(s), reasons, and evidence.

d.      Establish and maintain a formal style.

e.       Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

There is clear differentiation between writing argument and writing persuasion, and the Common Core State Standards emphasize this difference. Developing writers, particularly in middle level grades, have difficulty separating the purposes of these two modes. Their limited experience points to argument as winning a verbal debate. In that understanding, argument includes emotional appeals and persuading others to take sides, to move someone to agree with a particular stance because of ethical and emotional points that tug at one’s reasoning. This, however, is not argument. It is persuasion at its finest.

Mature writers know that argumentation involves substantiation of a position based on logical evidence. Argumentative writing requires the author to carry a single point from beginning to end, citing evidence that clearly and strongly supports a claim without involving emotion. A writer’s reputation is not the reason that an argumentative essay is successful.  Effective writing includes promotion of a stance using factual or empirical evidence that leads to solid reasons that a claim is true. It is apparent that depth of reasoning, specific information that is thoroughly analyzed, and language that connects ideas into logical presentation of a viewpoint is required by CCSS 7.W.1. But how do we accomplish this kind of writing with students in Grade 7?

Writing is one skill that includes many subsets. Not only is the writer learning about the topic in order to develop a claim, but he or she is also negotiating the task of composing. We tend to forget that writing is an art and not a science. It is not a task that can be completed by filling in the blanks. Okay, to some that might be one approach. Give the students a template and let them fill it in. The result is an essay that answers some standard questions, covers the bases, and might even be logically constructed; but usually these essays fall flat of engaging the reader, a minor detail that has major consequences in the success of a text. The many subsets of a text need to be addressed holistically. It is the big picture that we need to present to students if they are going to be interested in the hard work of writing.

Think about approaching the Grade 7 strand of writing from all of its parts. By looking through the multiple standards, teachers can detect an overarching approach that includes the big picture. Students are expected to develop practices of writing that include peer and teacher review and input, use of standard English language in their writing of coherent text that expresses ideas clearly, and production of finished writing that reflects research and utilizes technology appropriately. With all of these elements together, it makes sense to step back and breathe and to consider what is different about this standard that we don’t already know. The answer is probably “nothing.” What might have shifted is the clarity with which the standard expresses what we need students to be able to do in written text.

If we know that Grade 7 students must write argumentation, we should also know that they need to read argumentation and understand what it is and what it is not. So, the best place to begin might be with a few anchor texts that can be read together in class. Students should be encouraged to participate in small group conversations, with each group focusing on a different question about the elements of an anchor article. Select a contemporary piece that addresses the world of your students. Work through the article by asking students to identify the major claim and any minor claims. Have them highlight the facts that are used to substantiate the major claim. Digging deeper, ask them to determine if those facts are reliable. They may need to look at the sources the author has used to determine the reliability of the factual evidence.

Then, find a second anchor text that argues an opposing side of the same issue as the first article. Ask students to read the second article in the same way. Together, perhaps the class can develop a debate that helps them understand the topic even further by doing some of their own research. After a good class debate that is well structured with timed presentations and rebuttals of claims, students can write a response to an overarching question about the topic. At this point in the writing instruction, students are writing independently, perhaps in journal form. The objective is to get students writing everything they can recall, substantiating their own position with facts and reliable evidence. These journal writings become the basis of a much more formal essay.

The next step in the development of any argumentation session involves hard work. Writers must begin to hone in on exactly those features of the topic they wish to pursue. They become responsible for more research, more conversation, and independent selection of a more specific topic within the larger topic. At this stage, as a coach and not as a teacher, our jobs become more difficult. Keeping students in the game of going deeper and finding subsets of a topic to explore can be challenging. Some students will believe their work is finished when they have agreed with the anchor article. They find this a time of regurgitation; they want to write from emotional involvement and tell you everything they learned about the topic and why they believe what they do. The coach now needs to get to work helping students identify one area of great intrigue within the major topic. Teachers spend their instructional time during this phase helping students identify texts that provide more information that will feed their curiosity. The real teaching comes in assisting student as they develop questions that lead to new paths of investigation and exploration.

The most important practice in this type of writing instruction is providing time for students to read. Encouraging them to read about a topic from a perspective of interest, inquiry, and for the pleasure of learning about the topic will lead to self-directed investigation. Ask students to read everything they can find that relates to their topic.

After each student has multiple texts available, return to the writing. Ask them to revisit the journal entry they wrote after the class debate. Now is the time to expand that first journal entry. Use these questions to guide the next phase of writing:

  • What do I know now that I didn’t know when I wrote this journal response to the class debate?
  • How does that new knowledge affect my position on the topic?
  • What is my position on the topic?
  • Why do I take this position?

Ask students to do some kind of prewriting activity that will help them organize their thoughts into a logical sequence of argumentation. Remind them that argumentation requires logical organization of ideas. Students now have been through a process that consisted of multiple steps, but they still have not started writing their essay. So far they have spent time in each of these activities:

  • analyzing two anchor texts
  • developing a debate
  • responding in writing to the debate to check their own state of understanding and position on the topic
  • reading for pleasure and inquiry
  • developing more questions and seeking answers
  • revisiting their initial stance
  • evaluating their current position
  • prewriting to organize ideas

Students are now ready to begin drafting their arguments.

During the writing, students need to learn how to use transitional language to connect ideas. They need help understand that the reader must be led through the essay with ideas that connect and link to one another. Provide lists of transitional language that will help them accomplish coherent writing. Then let go.

Let students write and write and write. Give them space to fail. Give them space to find their own errors and to confer with you and other students. Help them understand that as they write, they will learn what they still need to investigate. As they struggle to support a claim, they may find holes in their logic or simply need to read more to be able to explain their ideas.  I am always amazed at how well the practice of providing space and time develop good writing.

We can’t expect students to write well unless we let them read and write more. It is obvious that the Common Core is requiring us to take that approach with all writing instruction. Without support of these activities in the classroom, students cannot become the sophisticated writers that they are expected to become at much earlier stages in their educational careers.

Good luck and happy coaching!

Common Core Expository Writing – Part 2 of 2

A deeper dive on writing standard 2 for secondary students:

W.6.2 asks students “to write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.”

What are the most important elements of this standard? To begin, there has to be a subject matter that students have had sufficient opportunity to investigate and consider if they are to produce text that examines the topic. One of the greatest pitfalls in classroom writing assignments is their design around the topic selected for the writing task. For example, students may be asked to develop a full essay that explores the relationship between two characters in a novel. Performance of standard W.6.2 using that topic and the given novel might not be possible. Most writing teachers would argue that students can examine the relationship of two characters in a novel by looking carefully at the text. Further, students’ writing can express ideas and information by using sections of the text that support a thesis about the relationship of the two characters. Finally, the way that students choose to organize the essay and select textual evidence can meet the needs of proving a thesis. By using strong analysis of evidence from the novel, the resulting essay might be sufficient for this standard.

Look at the same standard for Grades 9-10:

W.9-10.2 asks students to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.”

The standard is basically the same. The level of performance is not the same. The expectation is defined by the use of the modifiers complex, clearly and accurately, and effective. As a writing teacher myself, a few years ago I probably would have put a checkmark next to that standard and felt completely satisfied that my students were demonstrating their ability to produce written text that met this standard. After all, they had read The Catcher in the Rye and examined the sibling relationships between Holden and his older brother and between Holden and his little sister. The relationships were discussed in class, explored from the perspective of personal life connections, and even investigated for the importance that each relationship had on the development of Holden’s own personality. But now I feel very differently about the writing my students did after reading that novel. Is the text under study, whether an independent selection or a class requirement, really enough for students to demonstrate mastery of the standard? Today I would argue maybe not.

The language that requires students to “write to examine a topic” in itself tells us that simply using the novel being studied might not be enough. The topic of relationships cannot be fully explored in one novel. Students who are learning about life cannot possibly include any level of depth about relationships without more information. Granted, using our old paradigm about reading, it would be perfectly fine to ask students to respond to the relationship between two characters by using their own life experiences, previous readings, and stories they know from the world around them. In other words, asking students to make connections to their reading could be considered sufficient.

But to really comment, to fully investigate a relationship, shouldn’t we ask students to read about relationships? Wouldn’t it be helpful to ask them to read expository texts on such things as birth-order personality types or sibling rivalry if the novel they are reading relates to those types of relationships? How can a baby of life dig deeper into the realities of relationships without being more informed?

So is the Common Core asking students to respond to a novel around a topic that is assigned by selecting relevant portions of the text as evidence for a thesis and then organizing an essay in a way that is logical? I would argue that the Common Core is asking students to “convey ideas, concepts, and information” about a topic that they have worked to deeply understand. That deep understanding is indicated by the specific words that students should “examine a topic.” Examination of a topic does not mean responding to a topic by making connections to one’s own experiences. Examination of a topic does mean looking at it from multiple aspects, perhaps even using scientific and historic lenses.

When students begin to explore topics from all angles, they also begin to see an author’s story in new ways. The language a writer uses, the physical form of the writing, or the pace developed through word choice and sentence structure can take on a specific purpose when the reader has discovered new, relevant information to apply to the text. Writing standard 2 requires students “to write to explore.” Doesn’t that mean to probe a topic from multiple perspectives? By focusing on one topic using multiple sources of information, including the literary text itself, our students will begin to learn what it means to examine a topic deeply for full comprehension. In order to meet the writing standard, they will then need to describe their examination and all of its results in their own written exposition.

Good luck to all – teachers and students – who are delving into new ways of thinking about writing under the Common Core.

Common Core Expository Writing – Part 1 of 2

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The Common Core State Standard, W.6.2, requires students in grade 6 to write “to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.”

Teachers probably need to read that requirement multiple times to fully grasp the level of skill that is needed for a twelve-year-old child to show mastery of this standard!

Writing requires multiple functions to be performed at one time. The writer is dealing first with content knowledge. Without a strong understanding of content, writers cannot determine which ideas to address in their text. While struggling with content, writers are also dealing with the skill of writing on two levels — mechanical and philosophical.

The mechanical level is just that – the mechanics of spelling, word use, punctuation, and text attributes, as well as grammar that conveys accurate meaning. The mechanical side of writing can also include the physical aspects of writing or keyboarding. Using technology and understanding how to properly format a page and parts of the text can, for some, be a challenge.

Add to those elements the philosophical side of writing – how should a topic be approached and why? The writer needs to understand audience, purpose, and modes of writing. Each of these elements that relate to how readers receive text requires writers to think philosophically about how to present their exposition. No two writers will take the same approach, but there are some generally accepted rhetorical styles that students should be able to access.

How do we as educators help young students with this very heady task? The first step should be to make the standard learner friendly. Unless learners know the goal, they can’t reach the goal. By asking questions and looking very intentionally at the language used in each standard, teachers can translate the goal so that young writers know the target.

We have a good deal of work to do before we can fully adopt the Common Core in writing classes. It might not be enough to read the new standards with the purpose of matching what we already do to what the Common Core requires. We could find ourselves walking down a path of superficial implementation, a redressing of what has always been, in the guise of new language.

We have a perfect opportunity to help our students stretch their thinking and writing skills, but we must be purposeful and careful during the transition period. Our students deserve our very best effort in this endeavor.

Common Core Writing

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We are hearing more and more about writing and Common Core State Standards. So why all the hype?

Writing has always been an interesting topic for educators and students alike. Teachers want students to be strong communicators, using all kinds of media. At times, the emphasis has been on getting young people to write without fear of perfection. Power writing was a term used about a decade ago to get people thinking about frequent, short period of writing that would boost student fluency. As technology has forged new pathways of communication, writing has taken yet another dimension, 140 characters at a time.

Clarification is needed about writing for academic purposes. Our national trend in student achievement has been very disappointing in recent years. Some of this decline could be attributed to a decline in writing skills. If we are thoughtful about what is required for students to write well, we can understand the importance of writing in the learning process. Writing to learn is a skill that has been overlooked in favor of writing to be assessed on what has been learned. There is a major difference.

If we want to know what students know, if we really want to understand how deeply students understand, we should be building extensive writing into our curriculum, everywhere. It is not enough for students to write papers, compositions, essays, or whatever else you wish to name these products, in English Language Arts classes. It is time to return to writing for all content learning.

The Common Core asks us to rethink the writing we ask students to do. Learning through writing just might lead us back to the level of academic achievement that leads industrialized nations.

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