Writing in the content areas - a new buzz phrase in the field of education. Some content area teachers embrace it as a great challenge to overcome while others duck tail and run the other way. Regardless, research states clearly that if you can write about it, you can process through it and display mastery of it. Plus, writing about certain things actually helps one to reflect on the process of whatever skill he is mastering.
I've had some interesting discussions about writing with teachers over the years, and what I have found is that our content area teachers outside of the language arts department may avoid writing for a variety of reasons. Below is a list of those reasons, and my responses to each one (in purple).
- It's uncomfortable for me. It's not my expertise, and I don't have a clue how to teach it.
- This is valid. If somebody were to ask me to teach math, I would be uncomfortable also because teaching math is not my area of expertise. As a veteran teacher I would ask for some support from the experts. Know that, first off, you ARE the expert in your content area, and you are the expert in reading your subject - you just don't realize it because you're so good at it! You are probably the expert in writing in your field, also. No language arts teacher is going to be as knowledgeable in writing in your content area as you are because language arts teachers are the experts in writing for literature. But ask one for some guidance if you don't feel perfectly at ease. Ask other experts in the building (your department chair or literacy specialist). Ask an administrator for suggestions. Everything new is uncomfortable, but if you give it a shot it won't be new forever.
- Formal writing takes too much time.
- Writing does not have to be a formal practice. It could take five minutes or five days - depending on your goal. Having students write about whatever they learned each day will begin that process. The key is consistency. Experience has told me that writing-stamina will improve with daily practice. A five minute writing session at the beginning of the year might yield a few sentences from a student, but by the end of the year, that same student may be able to produce a page of writing in the same amount of time - all informally.
- I don't see a real purpose that would support my content.
- As a teacher of science, music, or physical education, the last thing most of your are thinking is, "Ooooo, what can I have the kids write today?" But you have to remember that, just as a language arts teacher needs to remember his kiddos with musical and kinesthetic intelligences, you have to be mindful of those students who are linguistic. You have them. They hate PE, art, or music, but they love to write. Meet these students half-way like your counterparts would in a language arts classroom. Processing information or skills through writing about them is a research-based strategy for learning. If you can talk about it or write about it, you know it. And there is physical evidence that you know it because it is all down there in writing.
- I don't want to grade all of that writing.
- I have some news for you. I've never met a language arts teacher who said to me, "I can't WAIT to go home and grade some argumentative essays tonight." Nobody WANTS to grade it. But the beauty of most writing is that it doesn't have to be assessed. We want to expose our kiddos to as much experience with writing as possible. So don't grade it if you don't want to, but please walk around and give feedback as students are writing. The more feedback they get, the more they will want to write for you.
So now that we have established WHY writing is so important for everybody, let's write an essay. Just kidding. Let's not. Let's do something fun and challenging that will help your students process their new information or skills with words. Several weeks ago when I attended the Day at Judson with Jeff Anderson, he shared this absolutely awesome summarizing strategy with the group. My colleague and I marveled at its ease and fun, and I couldn't NOT share it with everybody.
Anderson shared the book An Island Grows by Lola M. Schaefer as the mentor text (model) before he gave us the strategy. Here is how it works:
- Write down ten (or a predetermined number if you want something shorter) nouns (person, place, thing, or idea) that connect with whatever your topic is. It could be the day's lesson or an article, story, or video. You decide.
- From that list, go back and connect one strong action word (you can use the word verb if you want) to each of the nouns.
- Arrange them in an order that makes sense. Capitalize the first letter, and put a period at the end of each pair.
- And that is it.
Here is what we wrote to summarize the story The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.
We are literature nerds, so it works well with a story written by a great author, but imagine the possibilities! Teachers of social studies could have students summarize a section of their social studies chapter or write one as a summary of the entire World War II. PE teachers could have students write about how their game of volleyball went that day. A student in art might write about how she created a piece of art. In music, students could write about a concert they performed the night before or their rehearsal that day. Any teacher could have students read an article, watch a movie, or look at a visual image and use the strategy to summarize, predict, or describe it.
Get creative with this strategy. The endless possibilities make it versatile and easily adaptable. Kiddos who struggle to read or write can handle the task with their own vocabulary while gifted students would be challenged by finding just the right words to use to create the perfect pairing. And because there are so few rules, you can ask students to create using three sentences, seven sentences, ten sentences, or more! As a teacher who avoids writing, you can now brag that you used a quick and easy writing strategy in your classroom, and it worked so well, you'll do it again next week!