Use Writing to Learn Tools for Greater Student Thinking

As the Spring semester comes to a close, I am impressed by the impact a focus on writing to learn (WTL) tools has had on the pre-service teachers in the Writing in the Content Areas course I teach at our local university. We know from research (summary available in the Writing Next report) the impact writing to learn tools can have on student thinking and learning. The idea for our course was for university students to use WTL tools as learners so they would know how to use the tools when they work with K-12 students in the future. To help the university students understand effective use of WTL tools for greater student thinking, they read articles and used different tools each week to demonstrate their own thinking and learning with thoughtfulness and reflection.

Samuel Totten writes on the National Writing Project blog about the importance of pre-service teachers utilizing writing to learn tools in their education programs if we are ever going to change the approach to disciplinary writing in K-12 classrooms. From an informal survey he conducted over a decade ago, Totten writes that not many universities adequately prepare pre-service teachers to teach writing. Fortunately, the university where I teach part-time does emphasize the importance of teaching pre-service teachers writing in the content areas, and the entire state of Kentucky emphasizes writing (not just writing to learn) in all disciplines as evidenced by the required literacy courses for all future teachers.

I appreciate Totten's references to The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolutionand I am optimistic about the changes that have occurred in pre-service programs across the nation since 2003 when this report was published. However, we know there's still room for improvement when we talk with K-12 students about their school writing experiences, and I contend that if pre-service teachers like those I taught this semester continue utilizing the tools they learn in their education programs, they will be prepared to help change what happens in our public schools.

We know that writing to learn tools impact student learning and that when teachers utilize writing to promote thinking, it's more effective than cramming information and facts into their heads via rote memorization or low level worksheets. For additional information on why this is important, the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse from Colorado State University offers resources and suggestions for teaching not only writing to learn but other disciplinary writing as well.
___________

Since I'm a firm believer in student choice and ownership in learning, my students and I co-developed a holistic rubric on the first day of class to help them think about the task of using the WTL tool intentionally. By the end of the semester students shared with one another more than 25 WTL tools and discussed how different tools fit better with specific writing lessons and goals. They also began building their "teacher toolbox."

I'm sharing below the task and rubric we used this semester, and I hope you, too, will share links to your favorite tasks and rubrics for helping pre-service teachers understand how and/or why to use writing to learn tools.
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TASK: For each week we have class, select and read an article or a blog relevant to your content area. Utilize a writing to learn tool to demonstrate your understanding of the article or blog. 


Holistic Rubric (co-developed with students during our first class session this semester)


ExemplaryAccomplished
Developing
Beginning
--Find a relevant and unique article
--Explain what the tool is and how it connects to your article
--Utilize the tool very effectively to promote student thinking
--Utilize a new tool for each WTL assignment
--Submit the link to the article
--Submit the WTL assignment on time
 --Be thoughtful and reflective in what you are submitting

--Finding a relevant article
--Identify the tool you are using
-- Utilize the tool effectively to promote student thinking
--Utilize a new tool for each WTL assignment
-- Submit the link to the article
--Submit WTL assignment on time
 --Be reflective in what you are submitting

--Finding an article relevant to a specific content area
--Utilize the tool without effectively identifying the tool to promote student thinking
--Repeats a tool for the WTL assignment from a previous assignment
--Submit the link to the article
--Submit WTL assignment on time
--Lacks reflection

--Article is irrelevant to a specific content area
--Tool and the article don’t fit together
--Submit the link to the article
--Tool does not adequately promote student thinking



What about you--what are your favorite writing to learn tools and how do you use them? Were you taught how to teach writing in your pre-service programs? Do the student teachers with whom you work know how to use WTL tools and other writing strategies? What suggestions do you have for improving student thinking in our public schools?



Social Studies is My Jam

You know those moments when you or your Facebook friends record the phrases your children utter? People used to record such phrases in baby books (maybe they still do), but I definitely see parents posting exchanges they've had with their children on Facebook where they become more public; we like the posts and chuckle along with our parent friends. Now that my children are in middle and high school, I'm less compelled to share most of our exchanges publicly because I want my sons to own their online presence and create their own digital footprints. That being said, I couldn't resist a particular phrase I overheard my twelve year old proclaim this weekend (I asked his permission to blog about this, by the way).

Friday night while playing Minecraft and simultaneously talking via FaceTime with his friend Isaac emphatically said  "man, social studies is my jam."

Later during the weekend while passing the time between an archery tournament and an indoor soccer game, I asked Isaac to share his ideas about why social studies is so important for us to learn, and he shared the four following reasons we should learn social studies.

We learn from the past--When we study history we learn how and why people lived and we gain a deeper understanding of the world.

We learn about other cultures--When we learn about other cultures we begin to understand other people and reduce our judgement of others.

We learn how and why we participate in our own society and government

"I just like it"--What better reason? I'm a huge proponent in students having choice in their learning and tailoring their experiences to their interests because that's motivation enough to keep learning and exploring the world.
photos from various family trips/historical sites

A few of my favorite online social studies resources

Stanford History Group
At this website, you'll find curriculum, assessment, and project advice and examples for your classroom. One of my favorite aspects of this work is the emphasis on moving beyond multiple-choice standardized tests because studying history is much more than memorization of facts, details, and dates. The resources emphasize literacy in history with students reading, analyzing, and writing about primary and secondary sources. In my work over the past three years, I've had the privilege to work with Daisy Martin, one of the founders of the Stanford History Group. The passion, knowledge, and expertise she presents have made our work exciting, thoughtful, and productive.

The National Museum of American History
By far one of my favorite Smithsonian museums is the Museum of American History. I've visited at least a half-dozen times and each time I see more ideas and think about ways the resources the museum provides can be beneficial to teachers. This was also Isaac's favorite museum when we visited Washington DC as a family a few years ago.

Teaching Tolerance
For several years I've followed the work coming out of the Southern Poverty Law Center, including their online resources for teachers. The resources here don't have to be limited to social studies teachers because all teachers need to think about how we teach tolerance and promote diversity, equity, and justice.

The Library of Congress
I've been using the resources at Loc.gov since my first year of teaching when my teaching mentor, Beverly Reavis Payne, attended a workshop and brought back ideas to share with our whole English department. Over the years, their resources for teachers have continued to evolve, and teachers like Beverly contributed to that evaluation. My favorites have always been the images because there are many thoughtful uses for historical images in any subject/grade area classroom.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Not a year of my 12 years in the classroom passed without me teaching students about the Holocaust. The resources at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum just keep getting better. Often I was amazed when teenagers told me they had never heard of the Holocaust before entering my high school classroom.

Trying to Change Education? Focus on Learning

In the past week I found myself feeling out of sorts professionally and wasn't exactly sure what was going on until yesterday when I had a conversation with Drew Perkins and we talked about teaching and learning. You see, conversations about teaching and learning make me happy and all the other business discussed in education I find extraneous (but often necessary) to my bigger mission and sense of purpose in life. Subliminally, I must have known what was causing my despondency because when I submitted my professional growth plan for the year, it focused entirely on...you guessed it...innovative teaching and learning.

Sir Ken Robinson often talks about how children are born voracious learners but begin to lose the appetite for learning when we send them to school. Traditional school models can suck the love of learning out of students just as they can rob teachers of the autonomy they need to do what they do best--engage students in learning. I know I felt this way when I left the high school classroom six years ago. Since then I have immersed myself in work directly connected to supporting teachers because I believe great teachers have the power to create experiences that engage students and make them want to learn.

Fortunately, I'm surrounded by others who also care passionately about improving public education. My hope is that when we discuss what needs to be done to transform education, we never lose site of the focus on learning. Sir Ken Robinson articulates what I feel in this video around the 14:24 mark.
"...we can spend all day talking about education and never mention teaching or learning but if there's no teaching and learning happening, there is no education, so if we're going to improve it we have to improve that bit and everything else has to take place around it and not get in the middle of it or in the way of it."




As he occasionally does, my oldest son railed against me yesterday afternoon for my decision to be an educator. He feels my husband and I should have chosen more lucrative careers. When I grew quiet amid his chatter, he concluded "well, it's not a total loss because at least you and dad like what you do."

How can I not like what I do?  I have the opportunity to work with great teachers, great teachers who...
"...excite people, engage students, pique imagination, fuel creativity and drive passion"

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online January 5-January 24 2016




With the recent snowstorm that hit Kentucky and much of the East Coast, there's been plenty of time to curl up with our favorite books and devices for online reading. I definitely read more books during the snowstorm than online articles, but here are a few of my favorite online reads over the past few weeks.

This Washington Post article from a mom who just wants her children to love learning and enjoy school appealed to me because I want the same for my own sons and for all other children as well. If you've read my blog previously, you might remember previous posts I've written about the insane idea that kids should have to sit still for hours on end, spend hours at a time being quiet or day after day practicing for standardized tests. These are certainly not ways to help children love learning or enjoy their school experiences, nor are they ways to ensure students have what they need to be successful in life. We need schools that emphasize a love of learning, encourage problem-solving and curiosity, and that teach students the importance of healthy living.

While we're at it, let's also remember to listen to students from everything as big as education policy decisions to as important as classroom learning experiences. Nationwide, but especially in Kentucky, students are joining Student Voice Teams to share their thoughts on our education system. Super impressive is this Kentucky group who is also encouraging students to write op-eds about education issues in Kentucky. This article by a high school senior emphasizes the importance of adequately funding education in Kentucky to ensure ALL students have access to funding for college.

Whether students head off to college or immediately enter the workforce, we have work to do if we are going to make sure students are ready for the future. Ted Dintersmith's documentary Most Likely to Succeed continues to impress community members and educators all around the country. In Kentucky, we had the privilege of being Dintersmith's first state in his 50-state tour. Since his visit here in August, I've been following his tour via blog posts and other articles. This Atlanta Journal-Constitution article asks if we are educating teens for disappearing jobs. If you dig deeper into the AJC blog, you'll find the answer might be--no because if kids don't come out of high school today being innovative, they will come out being unemployed.

Speaking of being innovative, I enjoyed this Inc. article by the founder of an innovative Lexington based company--Big Ass Fans. Carey Smith writes about stock options and stock appreciation rights. It's an article worth your time.

Not only do we need to think about being innovative, we might also think about how we become mentally strong. After reading Amy Morin's book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do last year, I started following her writing via blogs and articles shared on Twitter. Earlier this month, I read a Psychology Today article where Morin says "mentally strong people don't give away their power--they do these 9 things instead."

Ultimately, we want to, among other things, know our values and be willing to stand out from the crowd. Though it doesn't seem as popular here in Kentucky as it is in Colorado or the mountains of North Carolina where I used to live, I still value hiking and nature. This article about 21 awesome places to see in Colorado captured my attention this week because I still long to hike and explore and I love Colorado. So, if anyone reading this blog is from Kentucky and knows of some terrific places to hike, please share with me! Thanks.


Thoughts on Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

When two young Society women in 1916 find themselves bored with daily life in New York, they head west to Colorado to become school teachers. While they both have degrees from Smith College, neither woman has any teacher training, but they commit to learning and giving back to society. In preparation for their arrival, Ferry Carpenter, the lawyer and rancher who hires the women, suggests they read John Dewey's Schools of To-morrow. Citing Dewey, Carpenter emphasizes in letters to the women the importance of "learning by doing, rather than by rote teaching and the rod."

Dorothy Wikenden's book Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the
My husband gave me this book for my
birthday when we were vacationing in
Colorado this past summer
West
immediately hooks curious readers with the telling of the story of her grandmother and her grandmother's best friend, two Society women desiring adventure and exploration. Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood (Ros) write letters to their families back in New York during the year they spend in Routt County Colorado. Wickenden finds the letters and creates a nonlinear narrative where we learn about education and life in Elkhead from 1916-1917.

You will like this book if you are interested in rural education or the ideas of John Dewey. Personally, the book fits perfectly with many of my interests about education, history, women's rights, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Wickendon, captures all of this in her informational and historical telling of the year Elkhead opens its school. Upon seeing the Elkhead school high on a mountain Rosamond exclaims "it is the Parthenon of Elkhead!"

Indeed the school serves as a prominent landmark where students learn and the community gathers. Dorothy and Rosamond ride horseback several miles to reach the school each morning, and the students, wearing thin and tattered clothing, walk or ski to school each day even in winter blizzards (imagine walking 3 miles in thigh high snow drifts and you get the picture).  Wickenden writes
"the teachers found their work strenuous but rewarding: preparing for classes, attending to the children's diverse academic needs, and seeing that everyone was paying attention and behaving (117)." 
For Dorothy, her favorite time of the day is storytelling. In her original letters she shares how the students would "make a mad scramble to pick up all the loose papers, put their desks in order--and then fold their hands and sit at attention!" when it's time for her to tell them stories.

A short time after the women arrive in Elkhead, they must travel to Steamboat Springs for the state teacher examinations. "...the nervous strain of the exams was awful for everyone makes so much of them here and you realize you are a public official...They weren't as bad as they might have been, by any means, but so silly, and taking ten [actually, twelve] exams in two days is not a pleasure trip!"

Wickenden shares more details about the content of the exams (fascinating for readers who are interested in education). She also tells about how Dorothy and Ros meet the school superintendent, Emma Peck, and provides more historical details about Peck--her professional contributions and the geographical landscape in Northwestern Colorado.

The teachers take exams to demonstrate requisite knowledge for teaching in Colorado schools. We read about the teachers creating lessons involving languages, performances, practical living skills, arts, math and current events. Even without teaching experience, the teachers' passion and zeal appeal to the community.
"They weren't yet fully aware of the awe with which college-educated teachers in such far-flung areas were regarded. They spoke perfect English and other languages, too. They valued education for its own sake, not simply as a way to escape the hardships of life at home. Most astonishingly, these two young women from New York seemed genuinely excited by the opportunity of teaching the children (213)."

If you decide to read the book, it's a great glimpse into the lives of school teachers in the early 20th century and it's also so much more. You'll learn about homesteading, mining, westward expansion, and life in Northwestern Colorado. If you teach writing, you'll appreciate the nonfiction narrative as another example of how informational text and narrative work well together. Read Wickenden's original article in The New Yorker or purchase the book published by Scribner.

"If we teach today's children as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow."
~John Dewey 




A few thoughts about what I read online December 27, 2015- January 4, 2016

Well over a year ago I started a series where I shared on my blog what I read online each week or two weeks. Keeping up with the links was time consuming but fun, and I was always pleasantly surprised by the responses my readers provided via Twitter, Facebook, email, and even in person. This year, I'm reviving the series and adding a twist. Instead of sharing a larger number of links, I'm going to try sharing thoughts on various articles because sometimes sharing links with only 140 characters just isn't enough room to reflect, and I don't always want to write a full blog post for each article I share either. We'll see how this new format goes, and in the spirit of ongoing learning, I'll revamp or forgo the idea all together if it's not working. So, please let me know what you think!


Star Wars and Women
Please don't judge my skills. This cake was made with love.
I am no cake decorator, but I did challenge myself
to surprise my son five years ago when he longed
for a cake made by me with a Star Wars theme. 


I read two articles about Star Wars: The Force Awakens over winter break, and started a blog post specifically about the movie but then realized I didn't really want an entire post about the movie because to be completely honest, I originally went to see the movie with my family because A) my sons love the Star Wars series and were holding on with eagerness to the movie's release the weekend winter break began and B) I coveted time on Christmas Eve with my husband and sons and our family friends, especially since all our other family live over 300 miles away. We made the movie and lunch afterward a special event.

One article, Star Wars is a Game Changerresonated with me because while watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised about the intentional and positive portrayal of women as competent individuals not needing men to protect them. THIS is a message I want my sons to know and understand. Early in the movie when Rey yells "stop grabbing my hand" to Finn, I knew the movie would be different from the previous Star Wars movies which I had seen only as an adult (Neither my husband nor I were allowed to watch the movies as kids). This scene reminds me of the movie Elizabeth when she yells "I am no man's Elizabeth." One of my favorite movies and definitely a favorite line from a movie.

Kentucky & Colorado

While moving to Kentucky never topped my list of most desirable things to do, I've certainly made the most of my life here. Article titles like this one, A wary start to Syrian refugees' new life in Kentucky, from the Washington Post make me wonder if I want to stay here but when you actually read the article, you learn about how some people in Kentucky really are trying to help fellow humans.

Education issues and topics in Kentucky will continue to be controversial in the coming months as debates about whether we should finally join most of the nation in adopting charter schools ensue. Personally, I'm not theoretically opposed to charter schools. What I want is for ALL students to have equitable access to a high quality and enjoyable education, and we have a lot of work to do in Kentucky to ensure this happens either through charter schools or traditional public schools. My biggest question--what evidence do we have that what we are currently doing in traditional schools is working? If we don't have such evidence, why not try something new? Something new might be charter schools. We shall see.

After working long-distance with educators in Colorado, traveling there frequently for work and  vacationing there with my family for ten days last summer, my love for The Centennial State continues to grow.

This week I read multiple articles about innovative work happening in Colorado. This one about inquiry learning moving from teacher-guided to student-driven was one of my favorites. I especially appreciated that the examples were in elementary schools. Who says elementary students can't lead their learning? The article offers practical advice and question- stems to start with teacher guided and move toward student-driven with younger students, and I'd venture to say from my experience with high schoolers that this works with teens too.

Another article about Colorado I appreciated was this one about a group of educators in Boulder who are rehinking high school as part of the XQ America challenge. Here in Kentucky, I'm working with a small group doing something similar.


Finally, I'll share a couple of links to articles about a book I just finished reading (my first book of 2016). Since Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden was published in 2011, the articles I read are also a few years old, but the book was terrific (I'll write more about the book itself later this week). Typically when I really enjoy a book, I start looking for articles or other online writing about it to learn more. Wickenden, executive editor of The New Yorker, wrote this article prior to writing the book, so this article is great if you want a synopsis of the story. Since we vacationed in Steamboat Springs and Nothing Daunted was the second book I read that was set in Colorado, I decided to check the Off the Beaten Path Bookstore blog and found an article about a book signing and performance. Though the information was dated, I enjoyed reading about two more Steamboat area museums...maybe I'll visit them next time I make it out there.






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