29 April 2016

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.
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)

--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?