Research on Writing to Learn

DictionaryAcademics care a lot about definitions.  And definitions matter.  And that’s a lot of what can turn folks off from academic writing.  Here’s a short example.

Writing to learn.  Seems simple enough, right?  Yes, and no.  For a lengthy discussion, I suggest this great resource from the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse.  A shorter discussion…

For some people, writing to learn supports students learning content and involves the type of writing that is a good fit for the class–probably a more formal, polished kind of writing.  By doing a writing assignment in, say, accounting, students can better learn accounting content, even though they aren’t running calculations in Excel.  For others,  writing to learn is informal, short writing that is done to capture thinking in the moment, often while students are in class. This writing could be a professor asking students to jot down ideas on an index card before class, and then using them to start a discussion.

Another way to think about the definition is that writing to learn is writing that happens as you’re thinking–through an idea, reading a text, watching a move, listening to a podcast, looking at a piece of art.  The audience for this writing is usually the writer, the purpose is to think, so the form/genre is whatever works.  Notebooks often hold writing to learn, but it could be a piece of paper scrounged from the bottom of a bag.  Sometimes this writing happens in class, or while doing homework for class.  Sometimes this writing happens as part of tasks that are a part of a writer’s life, like making a grocery list, or a pro-con list.  It’s writing that isn’t pretty, grammatically correct, or in sentences or paragraphs.  It can include drawing or sketches, post-it notes, quotes, or who knows what.  It is first-draft thinking so that, by the time you get to the writing that’s for other people in particular forms, the thinking has been refined.  If the length is any clue, this broad, wide-ranging understanding is where I stand.

But, no matter how to you define writing to think or writing to learn, there isn’t enough writing that supports learning going on in classrooms, either at the K-12 level, or at the college or university level.  So I was really excited to read a study that looked at writing to learn and found it had value in college classrooms.

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The Writing Cycle in Picturebooks

The Writing Cycle (with credit to Randy and Katherine Bomer).

Working with writers means digging into the writing cycle. Not the 5-step writing process that’s codified in books or in nifty posters you can put on your walls. I’m talking about the writing cycle that involves collecting ideas over the long haul, tuning into your own thoughts, pulling out ideas and refining them, pounding through a draft, revising more than you ever thought possible, nit-picking every comma (and hiring an editor), and then finally sending it out in the world. That writing cycle. The one real writers live.

Making sense of this writing cycle can be tough, especially when you’ve been sold a bill of goods about those 5-steps. Students and teachers, when trying to move toward a more authentic writing process often struggle to forget those 5-steps because they lack a model for a real cycle. So I’ve been working to put together a set of books — picturebooks , specifically— that offers a model for this more real writing cycle. The stories I’ve collected offer ways into the various moments in the cycle, show characters experiencing the same kinds of thinking and struggles that writers — whether students or teachers — face.

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George Washington’s cherry tree never goes out of style

The stories we tell — or fail to tell — our children say a lot about who we think we are

A plate from Cobb’s New Spelling Book (1842).

Curriculum is a story we write, out of all the possible stories, to teach our children of our world and our place in it. That’s why curriculum is such a contested thing and the debates around the Common Core or evolution or who Bill Martin is (the author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, not the philosopher) are so heated: people care a lot about the type of story we teach our children about ourselves as a world, a nation, a people. And people should care! These discussions are often hard, heated, and yet have the potential to be moments for growth and change. We — as a nation, as individuals, as families, as cities — should think about and discuss the stories we tell and consider the stories we aren’t telling, especially because schools can’t ‘cover’ everything in the limited time they have (especially when so much time is spent on testing).

What does all this have to do with George Washington chopping down a cherry tree? Because how (and if) we tell Washington’s story is an indication of what we — which is a naturally limited and contested ‘we’ at any given historical moment — think about ourselves in that historical moment. I’m currently editing a manuscript about my research on the early dissemination of Washington’s story, so I thought I’d share some of my explorations here.

The manuscript began as project for class called The History of American Reading Instruction. For the final class project, I ended up looking for every instance of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree that I could find. And between the UT Library’s extensive collection and Google Books, I found a lot. I also found, as I read these stories, that they reflected exactly those cultural and societal shifts that Nila Banton Smith had outlined in the text on the history of reading instruction, appropriately titled, American Reading Instruction. The stories moved from Nationalistic/Moralistic, toward Intelligent Citizenship, through Cultural Asset to Scientific Investigation (see below for a more detailed chart).

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The material or the digital?

The idea for this post came to me as I was cooking dinner. There was much less risk in writing the idea on a piece of paper than getting out the laptop, or even my phone, and exposing either to heaven-knows-what from my fingers or on the counter. Also, you don’t need to charge paper and pen.

Book or iBook?

Arts & crafts or Minecraft?

CDs or Spotify?

How many parents are already regretting the new game system/tablet/phone Christmas gift? How many hours have your children stared into the glowing screen, working hard on their dowger’s hump? As my husband and I are trying to think about how to manage time spent with the new Wii, I’m reminded that in a world filled with screens — and still filled with books and paper and pens — both/and is really the answer to all of the questions above.

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Where teachers learn to teach matters

I teach future teachers. I teach them in a traditional undergraduate program, and in a Master in the Art of Teaching program. And if feedback from my former students, and their principals is any indication, I do a pretty good job. Teacher preparation is a bit in the news now because the new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as Every Student Succeeds Act, included some language around teacher preparation that has people like me — people who teacher future teachers — worried, angry, and flummoxed. And how teachers become teachers matters to anyone with a connection to schools: public, private, or charter.

State Board of Educator Certification data

I won’t go into the whole history of teaching and teacher education here — it’s a blog post after all. Though I will recommend Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein. The book is a great over view of how things got the way they are, though I disagree with some of her arguments about recent developments. For a more scholarly read, Schoolteacher, is a classic sociological study of the profession of teaching.

What matters for now, though, is that some of the language in the new law appears to allow for (yes, I’m hedging, but the hedge is about the difference between the spirit and the implementation of the policy) something called teaching academies to prepare teachers. Academies seem to be similar to the various “fast-track” teacher preparation programs like Teach for America or local alternative certification programs. The irony being that the ESSA backed off federal meddling in education at the classroom and test level (sort of), but it meddled more in the teacher preparation side.

What’s the problem with fast-track certification programs? To answer that, consider an analogy, one you may be familiar with: teachers are like doctors. Alternative certification for teaching would be like this: taking an undergrad who couldn’t get into medical school, or a mid-career professional wanting to become a doctor, and saying, “You want to be a doctor? Step right up!” Maybe (and that’s a big maybe) this program is picky about who it admits: applicants had to have a C average in college. But all programs aren’t like this. The program might then train this individual for a year, maybe even letting them see patients in clinical settings  — practicing to be a “real doctor.” Then, after a year of courses and some supervised experiences in the clinic, the program says, “Okay, you’ve done our program, go forth and see patients!” Do you want to go see that doctor? Do you want to send your kid to that doctor? Do you want other people to have to send their kid to that doctor?

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