Writing Instruction in the Secondary Classroom: Surviving School Reform
“That writing workshop stuff sounds like pie in the sky. I have to teach my students the five-paragraph essay for MCAS.”
—Massachusetts middle school teacher
The beginning middle school teacher quoted above was describing how her colleagues had told her to teach writing—present a prompt and a five-paragraph graphic organizer for each week's day or two of writing—all in the name of better performance on the state test. When I asked who had issued the order, she checked and found it had been the principal. I was working on a state standards committee at the time and asked a person writing the test items if such a mandate were state policy. She winced. “No, Jay,” she explained. “In fact, we wish we didn't get so many five-paragraph essays. It's all they turn in now.”
The bad news here is that our schools are shooting themselves in the foot. The good news is that the state will be happy if we stop. Ravitch (2008) writes, “All of this test prep … leads to higher scores but worse education” (p. 5). As teachers of english we must, and can, change this condition. Graham and Perin (2007) in Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools have conducted an analysis of selected research on teaching writing. They spell out principles of instruction found to be “effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well” (Graham & Perin, 2007, p. 4). Unfortunately, they also describe unduly prescriptive methods for teaching to those principles. We can adopt their principles, but do so in a less narrow way than the report's authors, and the principal mentioned above, suggest. Specifically, we can teach students writing strategies, incorporate specific product goals, incorporate the study of models, use collaborative writing, use inquiry activities in writing for content learning, and follow a process writing approach (Graham & Perin, 2007).
Instructional Practices That Work
Perhaps because Graham and Perin (2007) specialize in educating students with learning difficulties, their meta-analysis of research about writing and their suggestions follow a scripted, clinical model. In many settings over the years, good teachers of writing have taught using the principles on which the Writing Next suggestions rest. Therefore, this chapter will demonstrate ways to incorporate these principles, not scripted models, into their daily work.
The Writing Next report calls for direct instruction in strategies that writers use. In the report, Graham and Perin (2007) note success for teaching brainstorming, collaboration for peer reviewing, and writing persuasive essays. The following paragraphs describe brainstorming strategies and persuasive writing strategies that I've used successfully in my classroom. I discuss collaboration at length later in the chapter. The Writing Next report cites Graham's own 2002 study of self-regulated strategy development (De La Paz & Graham, 2002) with six stages: (1) develop background knowledge, (2) describe the strategy, (3) model it, (4) memorize it, (5) support it, and (6) use it independently. Of course, these are the steps of direct instruction used by many of us in the gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983; Routman, 2003), with the exception of drilling the steps into memory.
The following teaching ideas meet some of the suggestions from Writing Next, but they are techniques that teachers have used successfully in classrooms intended for all learners, not simply those thought to learn only through rigid drill.
Brainstorming. I suggest a procedure I call Write with Me (Simmons, 2000) for brainstorming. It is based on Murray's (1985) First Hour of the First Day and mimics what he did with a teacher workshop I attended in 1976. I have done this lesson as an assessment with students who have never received useful writing instruction; that is, students who have never been taught what writers do.
Simmons, J. (2009).
Writing Instruction in the Secondary Classroom: Surviving School Reform.
In S.R. Parris, D. Fisher, & K. Headley (Eds.), Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested (pp. 21-33). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.