By COURTNEY BROWN
“Writing to learn” is a powerful concept that has long been espoused by literacy educators. In practice, writing to learn includes low-stakes writing assignments that generate authentic responses to prompts on a variety of topics. The goal of writing to learn is simply to unpack a subject, and the primary audience is the writer him/herself.
Some of the most powerful writing to learn practices include personal, expressive writing that allows us to reflect on how we are feeling and thinking. This may take the form of quick-writes in response to a question, journal entries, or letters to ourselves and others.
Although personal, expressive writing is not necessarily a measurable outcome of learning, it is possibly some of the most important writing that we can ask students to do. Personal writing not only helps students develop their voice, but offers them precious space to reflect and process their feelings and thoughts, in order to feel emotionally strong and balanced. James Britton adds that expressive writing helps students academically, to “discover, shape meaning, and reach understanding.” As we plan instruction, whether remote or in-person, creating space for expressive writing is crucial, especially during times of crisis or change.
During the remote learning period that has surfaced due to the COVID-19 crisis, teachers and schools across the world have worked overtime to reach and engage their students. Yet, even in cases where students appeared to have adequate access to digital devices, attendance was often lower than usual, particularly in middle and high schools in low-income neighborhoods.
Prioritizing mental health
When Principal Dr. Charles Gallo and his team at the New York City Charter High School for Computer Engineering, and Innovation in the Bronx — where I partner as an instructional and curricular coach — questioned students and their families about their low attendance, students reported feeling isolated, unmotivated, and in some cases, depressed, despairing, or scared. Dr. Gallo realized that his students’ social-emotional health and well-being needed to be tended to first. His students weren’t learning if they were not engaged, and they couldn’t engage if they were scared, depressed, or lonely.
Swiftly responding, Dr. Gallo encouraged teachers to use their professional judgement to deviate from their planned units and lessons to prioritize students’ mental health and engagement by offering students opportunities to reflect and process their emotions and experiences around the pandemic.
Encouraged by their principal, AECI faculty incorporated journal writing into their classes, which eventually evolved into plans for a schoolwide interdisciplinary project, grounded in personal, reflective writing. Students would craft responses to relevant essential questions, such as: How has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? How has it had an impact on society? What do you propose to solve or address the crisis?
In a digital world, where distance may make it challenging to interface with each student and check in about how s/he is doing, online options — such as Google Docs and Padlet — offer valuable asynchronous opportunities to read and respond to student writing with advice or supportive words.
While sharing personal writing online demands trust and confidentiality, some students have shared that the experience of writing into a Google Doc (as opposed to a notebook) makes them feel braver. For students who don't have access to devices, journaling in a notebook or on paper is a terrific low-tech option for reflection.
Incorporating these practices into your lessons can be as simple and informal as asking students to respond to a prompt that connects with the day’s topic. If you want to dig in further, consider some of these ideas:
An entrypoint to abstract thinking
Dr. Gallo and his faculty first incorporated journaling into their instruction as a way to help students process and express their complex and troubling feelings. Expressing oneself through writing (whether on paper, by typing a note on a phone, or working within a Google Doc) allows us to identify and understand our thoughts, which in turn, helps us become more confident, calmer, and balanced. When we reflect on and process our thinking, we can also start to make crucial connections to comprehend more abstract concepts and ideas. This is how learning begins to happen.
At AECI, students’ responses to how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on your personal life? became an entrypoint into an exploration of the more abstract second part of the essential question — how has the COVID-19 crisis had an impact on society? In Math and Science classes, students used their writing as a springboard for interpreting data that showed how COVID-19 affected their communities. In History classes, students connected the current pandemic to the Black Plague and the 1918 Spanish Flu, using resources such as historical journals, information from the New York Times, and the Smithsonian.
A call to action
Following their investigation of the connections between personal experience and the societal impact felt by COVID-19, AECI students began to address the final essential question: What are your recommendations for addressing or solving the COVID-19 crisis? In keeping with the stages of Karen’s Hesse’s Depth of Knowledge framework and CPET’s Rigormeter, students moved from exploring their concrete realities to analyzing data and evidence, developing their own theories, and, finally, proposing a call to action.
The project at AECI will culminate in a schoolwide portfolio of student writing and artwork, as well as letters to politicians that will incorporate supporting evidence from each discipline and propose solutions to elements of the COVID-19 crisis. Although AECI is focusing specifically on COVID-19, this type of interdisciplinary project can work for any relevant topic that’s applicable to your community.
For many of us educators, the demands of content, testing, or curriculum can leave us feeling as though we don't have time to incorporate personal writing into our lessons. However, when we recognize the benefits that come from creating space for students to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, we can see how this work is essential to student engagement, and how it can support the introduction of new content. When students feel emotionally balanced, personally engaged, and connected to a topic, real learning can happen — during times of crisis and every day.
TAGS: COURTNEY BROWN, LITERACY, RESOURCES, WRITING
By CRISTINA ROMEO COMPTON
Student writing is often read by one person (a teacher), and for one reason (a grade). But what if it could be different?
Through our Student Press Initiative, we seek to engage students in writing projects that culminate in print-based publications. These publications are designed for specific audiences, shaped around specific genres, and become widely accessible to their school community and the general public. This process not only helps students to establish their voices as writers, but helps revolutionize education by advancing teacher leadership in reading and writing instruction.
Raising the bar for student writing
Though each publication is a unique reflection of its student authors, the five phases of our publication process remain constant:
Publication in action: personal narratives from the Bronx
This spring, we supported 9th and 10th grade Special Education students at the Bronx High School for Business (BHSB) through this process. Their teacher was eager to introduce a project that would provide her students the opportunity to share a meaningful experience through the writing of a personal narrative or poem.
With this in mind, our coaches worked alongside the teacher and her students to facilitate a conversation about the audience for their project. We asked questions such as:
After careful consideration and deliberation, these young authors felt strongly that they wanted to write to younger members of the Bronx Business community — primarily incoming students and siblings — in an effort to offer meaningful advice. Over the course of the project, students at BHSB were able to hone and refine their writing, particularly as it relates to communicating with their chosen audience. They were able to revise their writing to include more colloquial language and tone, which they recognized would be most effective for communicating with their young and familiar audience.
As a result, they published The Barriers We Faced, The Bridges We Built. This collection highlights the obstacles many BHSB students have encountered — moving to a new country, struggling in school, and disagreeing with family and friends. Though many of these obstacles seemed insurmountable, these young authors were able to meet them head-on with persistence and resilience, building the bridges necessary to overcome their personal barriers.
By BRAD CAMPION
Do you change the style, tone, and format of your writing depending on who the writing is for? Of course you do. Do you teach your students to do the same?
Whatever your answer, it’s important for student writers to truly analyze, discuss, and contemplate their audience. Thinking about the audience they are writing for can inject a different form of energy into students and subsequently, their writing. In addition, getting students to adjust their language and writing style based on the audience they’re interacting with is a transferable, life-long skill that will benefit them down the road.
I recently introduced a Student Press Initiative project in an 11-12th grade class at one of our long-time partner schools, the Bronx’s Morris Academy of Collaborative Studies (MACS). This class, which is labeled as a Peer Group Connection (PGC) class, consists of 25 junior and senior students that act as peer mentors for incoming freshmen. These 25 PGC students participate in weekly outreaches with freshmen to help support their transition to the academic and social challenges of high school. Peer mentors and mentees that participate in PGC express an increase in their academic achievements, developed social/relationship skills, and are more motivated to graduate high school.
Given the impact of this program, the staff and students at MACS wanted every high school in the Bronx to include a peer-mentorship program in their curriculum, and decided the book we would create would promote the PGC program to other principals in the Bronx. And thus, we had our audience.
Who is our audience?
Throughout this project, the students’ writing has been powerful, raw, and passionate. At times, the energy in their writing was so strong that it was challenging to harness and refocus that energy to address our specific audience. To help students keep their audience in mind when writing, we used a few strategies.
First, we (myself and the PGC teaching staff) organized the students into three writing groups: pathos, logos, and ethos. We created these writing groups to design an environment in which students could constantly engage with and think about their audience. In addition, these rhetorical devices helped influence students to produce persuasive writing from day one, which added another layer of excitement into the writing process.
Second, I designed a graphic organizer called “Who is our Audience?” for students to reference. This tool allowed students to explore their audience (Bronx principals) in multiple ways — what are their interests, their responsibilities, their goals? This activity proved to be influential for students, as it tested their interview skills, allowed them to receive direct feedback from their intended audience, and become more informed writers.
Lastly, we designed a Feedback Rubric that we could use with students while revising their writing. This rubric provides a checklist that writers can reference at any point throughout the writing process, and requires evaluators to reference specific examples from the text. See below for an example of the rubric and how you might complete each section.
Feel free to adjust our graphic organizer and rubric to your own needs, or use them as a starting point for your own project! If you’re interested in seeing the product of our collaboration with the PGC group at MACS, check back on our new releases page — we’ll be releasing our publication with MACS on May 31st. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writing included in this publication convinces you to introduce a peer-mentorship program at your school!