In Chapter 5, Laura Robb briefly discusses writing philosophies and how high stakes assessments and accountability can get in the way of what we know to be best practices in teaching writing. Robb states, "I do know that an overemphasis on accountability and scoring high on state writing tests can prompt teachers to shelve the craft and technique lessons they are doing, in favor of playing it safe. It's disheartening to see backward slides like this in schools where writing process approaches had taken hold--and had helped student writers move forward" (p. 127).
Have you experienced any "backward slides" in teaching writing in your school (current or previous)? Have you felt the need to "play it safe" at times? If so, please share your experiences, the challenges you need to overcome, or how you addressed the issue in your own instruction.
As a future teacher, I hope to be able to prepare my students to succeed on high stakes assessments while at the same time implementing practices I know are beneficial for students when it comes to teaching writing. I feel that craft and technique lessons such as mini-lessons on topic selection, brainstorming and planning should be beneficial to students on high stake assessments and writing in general. Teaching students how to paint pictures with their writing, add ample amount of detail, and use strong verbs should improve their overall writing abilities. Chapter five mentions teaching students about eight different leads that engage readers from the start. I think this is something that would benefit students on high-stake assessments.
I feel that using worksheets to teach students grammatical concepts doesn’t make sense. Students should be analyzing these grammatical concepts in their own writing. Their writing is where these grammatical concepts will be used so why not teach them through their writing? This also makes the concepts more relevant to the students. Doing worksheets feels like busy work to a lot of students. It is something that they might complete with little attention. Usually those worksheets provide an example and then students simply reproduce that example and change some words. This does not seem like it would be beneficial to student learning. I believe that introducing these concepts in a mini-lessons and then having students look back at their writing and identify either where they made mistakes or how they could make their writing strong with these concepts would be very helpful to students. I think actually using these concepts to improve their writing will make the concepts more solid in their minds. I like the idea of modeling craft with model texts in the classroom and then having students demonstrate their understanding by applying it to their own writing. This is also helpful for a teacher to assess their learning. If a student can use the grammatical concepts they are learning in their writing it is more likely that they understand the concepts. This way teaches students the concepts that they need to be learning for high-stakes tests while at the same time improving their writing.
Since I am still a college student it is hard for me to answer this question. I have no firsthand experience on what it feels like to be pressured by high-stake assessments and accountability. I do truly hope that it is possible to teach my students in a way that will help them to improve their writing and perform well on high-stakes assessments.
I love how Anderson teaches grammar withing context of reading. Pulling examples from text is excellecent and posting on the wall. As well as, having students write examples of their own writing that reinforce grammar rules and conventions. Mechanically Inclined is a great book to check out if you have not already done so.
I agree with Laryssa's comment from Chapter 4s thread that teaching on-demand writing within the context of high-stakes testing must take a backseat to careful process instruction that helps students develop their craft and their personas as writers. She goes on to assert that by focusing on the process, students will score likely better on any high-stakes test anyway. I couldn't agree more. Unfortunately, I still observe teachers drilling on-demand writing as if there is a specific formula for writing from which no one should deviate. Just last week, I listened to a whole-class discussion regarding writing and was, at first, very impressed with how the teacher facilitated a conversation about different ways in which students could organize an essay for their LDC task. Students suggested several ways in which they could present their ideas. The conversation was beautiful. Just as I was about to get up and leave, satisfied with what I had witnessed, I heard the teacher ask, "But how should you organize it if it was an on-demand prompt?" And in chorus, they replied, "5-paragraphs". I sat stunned. Next, a student asked, "So, how many sentences do you want our paragraphs to be?" The teacher said, "With all the information you need to get into these paragraphs, I think you will need at least 5 to 7 sentences." One brave student piped up, "But when I read articles, paragraphs are often very short. Sometimes they are only 1 sentence long." I perked up, hoping that the class discussion might begin to address rhetorical awareness in writing. Instead, the student was shut down. "But this isn't an article. It is an essay. They need to be at least 4 sentences."
This formulaic approach to writing is the biggest backward slide I have witnessed in terms of writing instruction. However, I am optimistic that with the advent of the writing program review, that our district will continue to discuss what students need from a writing program in order to think and act like writers. I hope that our district will arrive at a place, like Laryssa describes, where an excellent process approach to writing will enable students to meaningfully tackle any writing task given to them in life, including one from a standardized test.
Your experience with having high hopes dashed when it comes to observing formulaic writing practices resonates loud and clear with me because that is what I am seeing too. I am wondering what we will see in our OD writing scores this fall and if/how they will impact how we make revisions to our writing plans. But, like you, I am optimistic that the program review will reinforce the need for best practices in writing. BTW, hope you don't think I'm stalking you with two replies!
I've played it safe simply because it works....according to test scores. I hate the 5 paragraph standard and work hard to move my students away from it. However, I'm not the only class they write papers in and most teachers still want the 5 paragraph look. I personally think as long as the writing piece has the correct components, the presentation is completely up to the writer. When we go over their papers, I ask questions and have them highlight with different colors. For example-Where did you actually answer the question? Highlight in yellow. Where did you back up your reason number 1? Highlight in blue. etc This way kids can see for themselves where they may have fallen short. When I go back and read them, I'll add comments to help them along as well.
I was never a fan of the portfolio process that we used here in KY for assessment. I felt that we were teaching kids to revise and edit with help, not teaching them to be writers. However, at least when we were required to do portfolios, I felt that most schools and districts took writing seriously. I think that now that this requirement is gone, many teachers (other than language arts) believe that we no longer need to have kids write anything. Other than the "on-demand" accountable grades, I do think we have taken a step backwards. I wish we could find a balance and get to some real writing istruction across the curriculum.
Sometimes, I feel that when I begin thinking about how I will take what I'm learning in my methods classes and how that will translate into my classroom, I get really overwhelmed thinking about all of the things there are to accomplish! It is moments like that when I understand why so many teachers have a difficult time adhering to the process-based approach; if it doesn't work, they invested a lot of their proverbial poker chips into it. However, what I'm reading a lot of in these threads is how flawed curriculum and state assessment is these days. If teachers act now, and more instances of the process-based approach to writing appear in more schools across the states, the curriculum will have to make a shift.
I try to make writing as least scripted or regimented as possible. I love the natural flow of writing. This year I have been attending the LDC trainings and will be starting my first LDC unit next week will have the students writing an essay. I will follow the guidelines, but will tweek in order for students to students to help develop the scoring rubric and evaluation and work with them on a mentor text to help guide their writing and make it their own within the essay format.
Writing has become so scripted and unatural in the form of limiting how much space a student has to write. Its become how to teach them to write simple and to the point without any voice or perspective. The writer has disappeared.
I have been trying new approaches to writing this year. One of the big questions that my students always asks is "How long does it have to be?" Every year I get this question the moment I assign something for writing. My response is always "I will not tell you how long it has to be. Did you answer the question or add the detail that you need to explain your answer, story, etc." This seems to be a real problem for students. I get them starting in 4th grade and I keep them through 6th grade. They are taught that sentences need to be 7 words and that a paragraph is five sentences. This makes it very difficult for me to teach anything new to the students because they have a preconceived notion of what they have to write. By the time they get to 6th grade, they know not to ask how long it has to be.
I feel like since we no longer have scored writing portfolios, everyone has become so much more relaxed with writing. It is not really taught as a process, especially in content area classes. Writing has become an assignment instead of a teaching opportunity. I know I am somewhat guilty of this too, and part of it comes from how we used to be a piece to death with revision. Also, with focus on on-demand writing in two grades now, it seems that is the focus as well.
Since I have much less experience in the arena of teaching the “writing component” side of the language arts curriculum, I will not attempt to speak to my experiences about “backward slides” or trends at my school. What I can respond to are my thoughts as I digested this chapter.
First, I was struck by the sentence on page 135 that reads, “Give your students the gift of time.” Adults seem to have such tight timelines… we block out 1 day for this and 2 days for that, and we need to be finished with this unit by such and such a date… and don’t forget that we need to practice for the state test, and we have the next ERQ/LSS practice session scheduled for next Tuesday…and make sure that students have done this… and…” We rarely give the gift of time – to think, to plan and then think some more… I returned to chapter 4, page 121, Table 4.1, because I recall looking at that table and counting out the average time needed for the process states of working on ONE piece. The thought that the process of finding a topic to a publishable piece could be as much as 26 class periods – I thought to myself at the time that “there is no way I can give 26 CLASS periods to a writing piece!”, and yet that is exactly what I need to do if I wish to create writers… oh my…
The second aha! for me was also on page 135 where Mrs. Robb writes that “Next, I created planning forms for each genre and told students that they could write, draw, or draw and write.” Our school “requires” students to plan using one standard planning form when it comes to state testing (although many students ignore it). Perhaps if students have become experts at planning for various genres in authentic situations throughout the year, then maybe they will buy into the benefits to planning when the stakes are at their highest?
Next, I am again challenged to find quality pieces to use as mentor texts that model the quality writing. I already embrace the idea of using picture books in my classroom. Now I need to embed the art of using the picture book as a mentor text for writing Think Alouds to allow students to experience quality writing as models.
Finally ,I think back to a few years ago when I taught “English” for two classes one year, and my teaching partner used a lot of the writer’s craft lesson from Nancy Atwell. We taught “Show, Don’t Tell”, and we taught “Leads”, etc… and for some reason, I seem to have lost those plans… perhaps the “backward slide” is in my own lesson plans and the pressures that come from the high stakes of “needing to perform”??? Something to think about… when I have time….