No mini lessons on comma placement required!

If you teach math, science, social science, art, or any other curricular specialty, you may be UNDERESTIMATING how much you can help student writers meet the goal of the Common Core Standards for writing. And it doesn’t have to be difficult, painful, or time consuming. It doesn’t need to involve any red pens, either!  Here are the two most common misperceptions: (1) My students will have to write those dreaded research papers; and (2) I’ll have to become an expert in punctuation and grammar–on top of what I’m already doing. Neither is true. You have something much more valuable to share. It’s spelled C-O-N-T-E-N-T.

The BIG key to writing proficiency: INFORMATION

The Common Core Standards require students to demonstratre proficiency in both informational and persuasive writing (as well as narrative). The reason many students find these forms challenging has remarkably little to do with the form per se. It is to do with one key problem that NO writer–no matter how great, inventive, talented, or clever–can overcome. You can’t write what you don’t know. Ask any group of students to tell you what is the MOST difficult thing about writing and most won’t mention a thing about reeling in participles or crafting sentences. Eighty percent of them will say, without hesitation, finding a TOPIC. Figuring out what to write about. Invite an author into a classroom and he or she will be bombarded with variations on a single question: Where do you get your ideas?

Content courses (by definition) are all about information: the stuff of writing. They also raise questions for further exploration–if we train students to think this way. Students studying the Amazon Rain Forest might be prompted to investigate how many products from everyday life come from that part of the world–and how this affects the South American economy and world ecology. Students interested in long-life research (discovery of the so-called “God particle”) might write persuasively on the advantages or disadvantages of living to age 200. Students studying calculus might want to investigate the history of this branch of mathematics. Who invented it anyway? Was it Greece, India, Egypt, China, Japan, Iraq, Europe–or all of them? What role did Isaac Newtonplay? And Maria Gaetana Agnesi make a significant contribution? The writing students do about these topics doesn’t have to happen in a math or science class; it can just as well carry over into language arts. But it’s inspired by the learning that takes place in those classes.

Thinking beyond the research paper

That’s not to say that students shouldn’t write in content area courses. On the contrary. The more they write, the more comfortable it becomes to write.  But not everything has to be as formal or complex as a research piece–and not everything has to be assessed, scored, or corrected. Forget comma rules and dangling participles and try one of the following suggestions:

1. Retrieval practice. This is a strategy for literally “fixing” learning in the mind. It was summarized in the December 5, 2011 issue of the Marshall Memo (Number 413) in a featured article titled “Three Ways to make Homework More Effective.” Kim Marshall ( cites New York Times author Annie Murphy Paul, who describes retrieval practice as a way of advancing learning: You read, close the book, and write down everything you can remember–in your own words. It’s a kind of self-quizzing. Paul says that “Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting.” She adds that “Simply reading over material to be learned, or even taking notes and making outlines . . . doesn’t have this affect.” Such writing does not need to be assessed–but it could be shared in learning circles, as a way for students to coach one another. Students don’t need to read whole chapters before writing, either. If the content is complex or difficult, a page or even a paragraph might be a good length to begin with.

2. Summaries. Writing summaries is one of the best ways to teach reflective thinking. It seems obvious–but may not be so to students–that expressing an idea in your own words requires indepth understandibg of that idea. But in addition, in order to write an effective summary, you need to identify what is most important: the main idea, in other words. Take a quick glance through the Core Standards for Language Arts and just see how many times “main idea” or some version thereof, comes up in conjunction with both reading and writing. Identifying and expressing main ideas is the sine qua non of language arts proficiency.

3. Tests. Think about it: A test is a specialized form of the summary. In creating any good content test, we have to identify what matters. What’s important to ask? What makes a difference? Questions don’t have to be based on recall–though such questions are helpful in committing important facts to memory. They can also be interpretive: the how’s and why’s of learning. How would the world be different today if the U.S. had split into two nations as a result of the Civil War? Why are ocean fish populations declining? Why is it important to preserve rain forests? Identify one problem that could be solved using calculus–but not algebra. Use two examples to show how art reflects a culture. Teach students a variety of formats: multiple choice, fill in the blank, short answer, true or false. Have students write out their questions, then exchange them in study groups. Or–if you’re brave–put yourself on the spot and let students hand you the cards on 3×5 notecards. Answer them on the spot. They’ll enjoy quizzing you–and they’ll come up with better and better questions, knowing YOU must respond.

4. Podcasts. Podcasts are fun to put together–and useful by other students. Have each student choose an important sub-topic that can be explored verbally in 30 to 60 seconds, no more. This will make the script (or script notes) easy and fast to write up, and the podcast quick to perform. Podcasts should be focused and fun. Recently, I listened to one that ran 20 minutes. That only works if you’re stuck in traffic or doing something mindless (e.g., dusting or peeling potatoes) as you listen.

5. Wikis. Create a wiki–an ongoing, multiple-author online report–on any topic of interest to the class as a whole or to a study group of say four or five students. The main difference between a wiki and a report is that a wiki is never finished; it’s continually revised and expanded (by more than one contributor) to incorporate new information or clarify what has already been written. This means that a student who has even one tiny fact to add to the discussion can take part. And the result is a product that reflects everyone’s thinking.

6. Letters. Write letters–to the local news station, newspaper, local legislature or school board, or public broadcasting station. Let them know what issues you’d like them to investigate further.

7. Questions. Periodically, make lists of questions that deserve further exploration–questions prompted by whatever you’re discussing in class at the time. Your students won’t write on all of them, naturally.  But they’ll get to hear and see what their classmates find interesting. They’ll gain practice in turning a little bit of learning into questions that invite research. Curiosity is contagious.

8. Reviews. Here at Gurus, we believe in reviews–big time. If we read something that others might enjoy or find educational, we want you to know about it. Encourage your students to participate in that kind of educational community by sharing their thoughts on current books, films, websites, articles, or other resources of interest. Finding books and films that relate to ongoing classroom discussions is both challenging and fun, and expands learning for everyone. Most of what we want students to learn exists outside textbooks.

The goal . . .

The goal is for students to write more–NOT for you to assess more. You can help students feel confortable with writing–just as they do with readng–if it’s a strategy they use all the time. We don’t assess students each time they read. Similarly, if we encourage them to use writing as a way of remembering or teaching others, we can decrease their inhibition about it. If you’re a content area teacher, your course is a goldmine of information about which students can write. You just need to help them see that.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

If you find the Common Core even a little bit intimidating, you won’t want to miss our upcoming editorial. And in the New Year, we’ll have many, many new books for you to consider sharing with your students. We wish everyone a Happy Holiday, and hope you’ll return to visit us on January 3. See you in 2012!