December first I gave my students a new assignment. Even though I am a third of the way through the school year I decided to make a change in my daily routine. I have always been a good rule follower and I do what my bosses tell me to do. One of those things is to put my learning objectives up on the board. They are there, every day, diligently displayed on my PowerPoint agenda. I do not however honestly believe that my students gain from seeing them. They help me a lot. They help me be more purposeful in my lessons and they help to gauge student learning and understanding, but the impact on the students’ actual metacognition is minimal at best. On December first however I handed out a graphic organizer to my students and I upped my objectives from one to three. I now have a content standard objective for the week, and a language and lesson objective displayed for each day. The students have a graphic organizer on which they record all three objectives at the beginning of the period, and yes, at first they whined while they did it. Then at the end of the period they reflect on the organizer as to what their new understandings are and how they met the objectives. By the end of the week they weren’t whining anymore. I could tell just by these sentence or two remarks at the end of each class period how well the lesson went, what the kids were understanding about the day’s learning, and what I needed to progress to or tweak for the next day. These short pieces of writing have become invaluable for both my students and me. Many students admitted to me that they like the organizer and that it helped them stay on track during lesson because they were thinking about what they knew they were supposed to be getting out of the activity.
This happened because of my renewed thinking about the title of this post, the idea that writing is thinking. I don’t think I stole this title outright, but I sure didn’t make it up. I got it out of an article by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey that a TOSA in my district passed along to me. I googled it to see who I was ripping off and it turns out, everyone. This is clearly not a new idea. This article did however make me think about a few things in my classroom in a new way.
The article is “Writing, Not Just in English Class.” In the article the fourth sentence is “writing is thinking.” It’s not that I have never thought this, or realized it before, it’s just that I really thought to myself, how can I use more writing to show thinking in my classroom?
I am a social studies teacher and I ask my kids to write a lot. I use the Literacy Design Collaborative model for almost all of my assessments and I am constantly hearing my students say that they write more in my Senior Contemporary World Studies course than in their Senior English class. In the defense of my skilled and competent English department I do not believe this is true, but I do believe the students perceive that it’s true. I think they think it’s true because often times my students only think that formal essays and assessments count as writing. Fisher and Frey helped me think about how often teachers make this same mistake, particularly secondary content area teachers like me.
When I was first on the literacy team at my school we were trying to get as much traction with literacy and the Literacy Design Collaborative as we could. Where we got the largest amount of push back was from teachers who thought they just didn’t have time to grade all those essays. Teachers really shied away from assigning writing because they only saw it through the same lens as the students–the lens that writing was always long, formal, and needed many drafts. This understandably left teachers feeling like they didn’t have the time or the training to include writing.
The article addresses the same concerns. Fisher and Frey say, “One of the reasons that content-area teachers say that they do not assign more writing related to their concerns about the revision process.” This revision process is seen as too time-consuming for the precious little amount of time they have for content purposes. This is exactly the hurdle we got hung up on in my building, but I have worked hard on the quick exit tasks and other short pieces of writing. Fisher and Frey also agree that the time and length do not need to be long to get the results and information we need from these assignments and assessments.
As teachers we need to give ourselves the permission to not make it be so formal. I love the way fellow blogger Alisa Louie put it in a previous post, teachers should have students write less… more. We should be asking students to show their thinking in writing daily. The recent conversations I have had with my students enter the realm of meta-learning. I want to be explicit and transparent in my methods. I have told them multiple times in the last week that writing is thinking. I have even referred to the graphic organizer for their latest LDC task prompt as their thinking sheet. One strange wonderful outcome was that many of my writers who struggle with longer pieces felt more comfortable and free to dive in if I was just asking them to think instead of write, even though they wrote all over the page.
Fisher and Frey give some examples of writing-to-learn prompts and perspective writing to help teachers think about ways to get kids doing shorter writing pieces more often. One thing that I have done differently since reading this article are the weekly objective sheets. This little bit of writing has been so useful for me as a formative assessment and to really gauge their thinking for the day. It has also made my objectives something they are suddenly interested in and thinking about. Prior to this, even though we discussed them orally and I was sure to keep referring to them, and they didn’t really think about them until they reflected on them in writing. They needed to compose, as mentioned in the article, and not just copy even if it’s just a sentence or two at a time.
In the last part of the article Fisher and Frey encourage teachers to give students an invitation to write. They suggest we do this by saying, “write as well as you can right now.” Instead of getting overly concerned with spelling, punctuation or other details of the assignment.
I would like to give this same invitation to myself and all teachers. Assign writing as well as you can right now. What do you need your students to be able to do in your class to show their thinking? It doesn’t have to look like it does in their English Language Arts class. What kind of thinking do you need to see to evaluate learning and plan for future teaching? I believe that teachers will become more and more confident with their own ability to assign and assess writing the more they do it. I believe that every teacher in every classroom should figure out a way to include writing every day. Whether it be an end of unit essay, a quick write, or just a two sentence reflection on an objective. Put those pens to paper, or fingers to keyboards and let the kids think.