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Schools ride new wave in writing

Teachers use games and new tech tools to produce powerful prose
  • Teachers and software help students in Pittsburgh Public Schools revise their work based on constructive feedback while they write.
  • Middle school students from Pittsburgh Public Schools work on essays in their school computer lab using Turnitin Revision Assistant.

For a few weeks in early 2016, a computer program helped educators teach the finer points of writing to students in a Fort Worth ISD high school.

Like so many schools nationwide, R.L. Paschal High School—under pressure from new state standards—has been working hard to improve writing instruction so students can express their ideas and share information fluently. And as in many schools, Paschal educators feel overwhelmed by the challenge.

Technology can help administrators bridge the gap between the need for high-level writing instruction and the reality that many teachers don’t feel prepared to teach the skill.

And most importantly, the best writing teachers compel students to explore their ideas for a story first before ever putting pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, says Terry Roberts, co-author of The Better Writing Breakthrough.

“If you want kids to write about something challenging, you really need to put them in a position to discuss it first in an active, open-ended sort of way, because then they have something to write about,” Roberts says. It introduces them to the language they might use and the ideas they need to be able to manipulate to write with sophistication, Roberts adds.

When students understand that the purpose of writing is to share ideas, they perform better than do students who are asked to write just for the sake of writing.

Here’s a look at some of the strategies and tools innovative districts have deployed to build teacher competence and to increase students’ writing proficiency:

An ocean of reasons

When Kate Campbell first started as principal of Anna Ware Jackson Elementary School in Plainville School District in Massachusetts, teachers would hand out paper and say “‘OK, you’re going to write for the next 20 minutes,' and then count that as a writing lesson,” she says. “That’s not teaching writing.”

Campbell needed to help her teachers learn to teach writing to improve student proficiency. Teachers and students, for example, need to learn that a strong beginning may include a thought, memory or feeling. “The writing process is such an overwhelming task that you have to really break it down,” Campbell says.

Campbell introduced Empowering Writers—an approach created by former teachers Barbara Mariconda and Dea Auray—to develop teacher and student proficiency. Empowering Writers in part uses graphics to teach the components of good writing.

Teachers and students, for instance, study the “narrative diamond”—a graphic illustration that shows a good narrative needs an entertaining beginning, elaborative detail, suspense, a main event and a well-constructed ending.

The “expository” and “opinion” pillars teach that powerful expository and opinion pieces include an introduction supported by at least three main ideas that are each supported by at least four details.

So, during district-led PD sessions, educators at Jackson elementary were taught to emphasize the communicative purpose of writing. “Kids need to know, ‘Who am I writing to? Am I writing to teach and inform? To entertain? To give you my opinion?'” Campbell says. “They need to know that there’s a reason why we write.”

Now, rather than being asked to write about a vacation, a student might write a letter to their parents, using detail to convince them to take them to a dream locale.

Paschal High School in Texas jumped at the opportunity to pilot Revision Assistant, a computer-based program from Turnitin that augments teacher-led writing instruction. It reviews students’ writing and gives them feedback in four areas—language, focus, organization and evidence. Students can then revise their work.

When students submit writing projects, the program measures “signal strength” in each of the four categories, with a graphic that looks like bars on cell phone screens.

“Students like playing with those bars and seeing what they can do to raise them,” says Barbara Ozuna, Paschal's dean of instruction. “Our kids did something like an average of 11 revisions per piece of writing, which is an incredible amount.”

Students learned not only the value of revision, but also specific strategies to consistently improve their writing—such as adding detail to support a thesis statement. Paschal administrators and teachers were pleased with student progress in writing during the two-week pilot period and want to integrate the program into their curriculum.

Composing floats across curriculum

Writing is not an easily generalized skill. A student who writes a well-organized essay with a brilliant introduction in English class may not do the same when assigned a paper for social studies, says Diana Cruchley, author of The Power of Extreme Writing.

“Skills are often really context-specific,” Cruchley says.

To embed writing throughout the curriculum, teachers of all subjects need to learn common language and set common expectations. For instance, students should learn the importance of writing powerful introductions and other approaches that grab the reader’s attention—such as the use of questions or surprising information.

Then, Cruchley says, when social studies teachers assign an essay, they can ask students to write a 'powerful introduction.' They can ask, "What kinds of 'powerful introductions' do we already know?’”

Campbell, the Massachusetts principal, says the common terminology of the Empowering Writers program is one reason her science and social studies teachers have the skills to coach students through writing assignments. Her students learn that powerful introductions and details are as important in social studies as in English class.

Smart technology builds to crest

Increasingly, vendors are creating programs and apps that assist writing instruction by providing basic feedback and revision support that students wouldn't normally get.

Students who don’t enjoy writing or are poor writers particularly appreciate getting first-draft feedback from a machine, rather than a human. “It’s a low-stakes process,” says Ozuna of Fort Worth ISD. “Nobody is reading it and saying ‘You’re stupid,’ so students feel comfortable experimenting with words, thoughts and structure.”

These programs, which include Revision Assistant, Write to Learn and PEG Writing, can also make teachers more comfortable with subject. For example, feedback from Revision Assistant may include comments such as “Look closely at your word choice in your introduction” and “Revise so that you set just the right tone and style for your essay.” It guides teachers toward providing more confident and constructive criticism.

And because such programs provide basic feedback on sentence structure and organization, teachers are able to devote more instruction time to teaching tone and style, for example. Finally, students who get similar feedback—those who have to work on structure—can be grouped together to discuss and revise each other’s work.

Make it fluid

Teachers also need embedded PD on critical and thoughtful reading and the writing process, says Roberts, the author. “A lot of teachers in science, social studies and math haven’t had any of that,” Roberts says. “Even if they, in good faith, attempt to teach writing, they wouldn't know where to begin.”

Improving students’ writing begins with an administrative commitment. It took a year for Campbell to fully integrate Empowering Writers at her elementary school. That included professional days, in-service learning, an instructional coach planning lessons with teachers and plenty of collaboration.

Campbell reviews students’ writing folders three times a year. “I give specific feedback to the teachers,” Campbell says. “Things like, ‘You guys are nailing it with elaborate beginnings,’ or ‘Your details are really, really strong, but I’m not seeing a lot of transition words. Do you think as a group you may need some more discussion of transition words?’”

Three years after they started using Empowering Writers, her teachers are noticing drastic improvement in students’ writing.

“The teachers are saying, 'These are the strongest writers I’ve ever had,’” Campbell says. “Second- and third-grade teachers don’t have to start with, ‘Let’s teach sentences’ because students are coming in with a better idea of what they need to do to write than they ever had before.”

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Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.