Saturday, April 19, 2014

Writing: Four Essential Guidelines for Middle Grades

As educators, we read the headlines outlining the rigor of the new PARCC assessments--the reading, writing, and technology literacies that will be demanded of students. It all seems a bit overwhelming, especially for educators who work with lower income students who do not have technology in the home or even books to read. This is maddening in many ways, but we must keep it all in perspective, knowing that this is where the country is headed, and work strategically to make positive change in regards to student performance, especially writing.

The following are a few guidelines for integrating writing across curriculums:

1. Read, Write, and then Write Some More-  The first two strands across the curriculums under the Common Core includes literacy standards- reading and writing. Personally, I've observed classes reading, at least from the textbook, but are they writing? By writing, I mean essays, responses to literature, or reflective journaling. Do their unit tests include short answer and at least one essay question? Often, when these questions are posed, teachers outside of an English department begin to groan and state, "Why? Don't they know I have a life? I can't sit around grading essays all day?" Well, as George Costanza (Seinfeld) would say, "Stuff your sorries in a sack, Mister!" This is the rigor of today, and we've got to meet it. This includes writing across curriculums. We must meet the challenge. Teachers outside the English department don't need to grade for mechanics or spelling, but they can grade on ideas and content. The more students write, the greater chance for improvement.

2. Stop the Presses!- Save the trees, and the ink. Stop handing out so many worksheets. College ready, authentic learning does not include worksheets. Reading, writing, discussion, and technology integration is the foundation for student growth. However, worksheets create the opposite. The use of worksheets opens up an "out" for teachers. For example, a typical worksheet lesson might be to read a few paragraphs out of the textbook, discuss the questions posed in the textbook as a class, and then give the students several more worksheets as follow up to the discussion, which they then must complete as homework. This is an example of "low-level teaching". It requires hardly any planning on the part of the teacher, and allows for no ownership. Teachers should own their work. However, this takes planning, critical thinking, and most importantly time to research, develop ideas, and write lesson plans. This is necessary under the demands and rigor of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

3. Technology is HOT! HOT!HOT!- I've heard it argued that students cannot learn to write with excellence utilizing technology, only pencil and paper will do. This may be true for some of us who grew up without technology, and could not imagine writing without scratching an outline, draft, or even the final copy on a piece of paper first--but, this does not resonate with students today. Their pen is the keyboard and their paper is the computer screen. Students love to write if they can use tools such as Kid Blog, or use Google Docs to read each other's work or reach a wider audience. Teachers should be busting down the doors for use of the computer lab, but not to create Microsoft Power Point presentations. Students need to be writing, collaborating, and creating using new tools that will set them on the road to success to better writing and engagement.

4. Test Evolution-  Bubble sheets. As a student, I loathed them. Why? Because I was a terrible bubble sheet test taker. As a student, the thought that I had only one shot at getting the answer right filled me with so much anxiety, I over thought it most of the time. So, I'd get it wrong. When I got to college everything changed. Most of my classes required answering essay questions, allowing me the opportunity to demonstrate all my knowledge of the content. I flourished, and made A's. So, it is for our students. Now, tests do not need to be all essay questions, but there should be a balance in a test. Multiple choice, short answer, and essay. Yes, it will take more time to grade, but it's what is best for the students. It increases the testing rigor, gives students an opportunity to show their strengths, and prepares them for standardized testing.

The classroom is changing rapidly, and so is teaching. Writing is a big part of that change. As teachers, we can meet that challenge by requiring writing through essays and research papers, staying away from worksheets- incorporating authentic instructional techniques, utilizing technology to write and collaborate, and creating balanced unit tests with multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions that will allow students to show what they know.

It's not easy. But....

~ There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is right.
                                                                                                                                Ronald Reagan

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