SOLSC #21: School-wide Writing Instruction

ImageYesterday I worked with a middle school faculty on assessing writing.  In my school system, each school is expected to have at least 2 school-wide goals, and then at least one intervention to correspond with each goal.  This particular school has a writing goal, and has chosen trait-based assessment and instruction as their “intervention.”  This faculty is one of many in my district that has chosen this intervention.  When I accepted this district position, I had no idea that 6 Traits and 6+1 would become such a big part of my professional life.  It is a difficult undertaking – getting every teacher on board to incorporate trait-based writing instruction in their lessons, especially in secondary school.  After all, teaching writing is the job of the English teacher.

As an English teacher, this philosophy is frustrating.   I’m always a bit amazed at how many people in this district will readily claim what is and is not part of their jobs.  How is the job of an English teacher or science teacher or math teacher defined?  Well, in this system, there is one contract for all teachers.  So, I suppose, the content-specific job requirements come from the certification requirements and the standards that we are supposed to teach.  When you look at those, only English teachers are required to have any sort of writing or writing education course, and writing is only in the ELA standards.  Does that technically mean that writing is, in fact, only the job of the English teacher? 

I was at the club last night with one of my friends who also happens to be a teacher at the middle school.  Not an English teacher.  As much as I tried to avoid it, the conversation eventually came around to our work that day.  This teacher is trying to incorporate writing instruction into her health and home ec lessons.  She is using the rubric with her students.  But as we sat together with a beer, she admitted that she is not comfortable with the rubric.  They have a 4-point rubric, to make it easier for the teachers.  She said she basically looks to make sure it’s not a one or four, both of which would be rare, and then picks between the two and three.  She feels fairly certain that she’s not scoring consistently, and she is not confident that an anchor set will change anything.  Finally, she said, “I look at those descriptors and I think if I’m not even sure I can do that, how can I judge if the student is doing it?”

Even if, somehow, everyone suddenly agreed that writing should be taught by every teacher, how can that happen effectively when it’s not part of their education.  And, maybe more importantly, writing is not part of their lives.  Even if they want to teach writing, they don’t really know how.  They don’t really know what writers experience.  They don’t write with their students, even on the assignments they give.  Is a 2 hour training once or twice a year enough to bring everyone up to speed? 

And all of this leads we to wonder if we’re doing more harm than good when we ask teachers who don’t write and who don’t understand a rubric, to teach writing and use a rubric to assess writing. 

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13 thoughts on “SOLSC #21: School-wide Writing Instruction

  1. arjeha

    I can’t count the times I herd content area teachers, especially 7th and 8th grade. say that they don’t have time to teach writing and get their subject matter covered. I had to start small with them asking them to just make sure that what students handed in followed what we set up in the Language Arts. Dept….Complete Sentences…Paragraph formation…punctuation…Capitalization. This they were able to do and it was a start.

    Reply
  2. Kay McGriff (@kaymcgriff)

    I do think all teachers should ask students to write within their classes, but all teachers shouldn’t necessarily use the same rubric to assess their writing. Every discipline uses writing, and history teachers should look at how historians write and guide students that way. Or teachers could have students write in order to more fully learn and understand their content. Our school has been moving to more writing across the discipline, too, and it’s hard. I’ve encouraged those content teachers who were nervous about grading writing to focus on what they know–the content. How does the student writing support their understanding of the content?

    Reply
  3. Jaana

    I think you asked the right question: how can teacher who don’t write teacher and evaluate writing. I don’t have an answer, but I will be pondering that questions.

    Reply
  4. Julie Johnson

    You make a very good point here and you ask good questions. I know that I became a much better teacher of writing once I started writing. I understood so many more things about the writing process. Good luck in working with your staff. You’ve got a challenge ahead of you.

    Reply
  5. Beth

    Hmmm all the common core standards have writing standards for content…do you mean to tell me that DOD schools are exempt from that too?

    Reply
    1. readerlee Post author

      No, we’re not exempt, although we also haven’t started implementation. Even if we had, though, that wouldn’t solve the problem. Having it in the standards doesn’t mean that teachers who have been teaching for years will suddenly know how to teach writing.

      Reply
  6. Lisa

    That is an interesting problem! I remember in school being held accountable for good writing (sentences, grammar, punctuation, etc.) in all of my classes. Of course, now we would say that not being accountable for those is an IEP modification for some. One of the things that fascinates me about teaching is how many teachers really do want their work compartmentalized. I feel we should all be working on helping our students improve their work in general, not just the work they are doing in one area or another. I suppose this is somewhat harder at the secondary level.

    Reply
    1. readerlee Post author

      I agree that we all should be working on helping students improve. I think people start getting “territorial” when they feel uncomfortable and are asked to do things they think they can’t do. I love learning, so I think I’d just fumble through and work it out, but not everyone likes doing that.

      Reply
  7. Chris H.

    We are looking at this at the elementary level right now. Our teachers have a wide variety of professional experiences, but most have not applied (or have forgotten) what they knew. So we are looking at 5 professional days across a year, with differentiated choices on sessions in which to participate, based on teachers’ needs (which are determined by a survey). We will also offer some wonderful professional workshops (away from school), summer book studies and make-it/take-it sessions, and provide instructional coaching across the year. It seems like a start!

    Lucy Calkins has a WONDERFUL resource book on this (and you don’t need to use her stuff to find it useful). Some of her videos and the first couple of chapters are online. Check it out:

    http://www.heinemann.com/products/E02251.aspx

    Reply

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