Writing for Engagement with Natalie Wexler
Laura: Hi everybody. Thank you for joining us today. Welcome to the webinar. We're here today with Natalie Wexler, education writer and senior contributor at forbes. com. She's the author of The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America's broken education system and how to fix it. And also the co- author of The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. Her articles and essays on education and other topics have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and other publications. She has spoken on education before a wide variety of groups and appeared on a number of TV and radio shows, including Morning Joe and NPR's On Point and 1A. She lives in Washington D. C. with her husband and has two adult children. Before we get started, I just want to remind you that this is being recorded and will be sent to all registrants afterwards. Please submit any questions you have in the Q& A box in your tool bar along the bottom of your screen and if we have time we'll get to them at the end. Closed captioning is available by clicking on live transcript in your toolbar. With that, Natalie, please take it away.
Natalie Wexler: Okay, great. Thank you very much, Laura. And I am going to try to add a lot to cover, but I'm going to try to leave time for questions at the end. So I will plunge right in. Middle- schoolers and writing for engagement. How can writing engage middle schoolers while also boosting reading comprehension and analytical ability? Well, there are a lot of potential benefits of writing. So I'm going to tell you about those and some obstacles to achieving those benefits. Today we're going to talk about why standard approaches to writing instruction haven't exploited its potential. Why is it important to begin writing at the sentence level, if that's what students need regardless of their grade level? And why it's important to ground writing activities in a curriculum that is rich in content. I'm also going to show you some examples of effective writing activities that teach writing skills and build all important academic knowledge and vocabulary at the same time. So why is writing... First, put the potential benefits of writing. Let's go into those a little bit more clearly. Writing can familiarize students with the conventions of written language, boosting reading comprehension. It's important to bear in mind that written language is almost always more complex than spoken language. And if students are going to ultimately read and understand written language, they need to become familiar with that more complex syntax, subordinate conjunctions and complex sentences and the passive voice and vocabulary like moreover and despite. And if students learn to use those things in their writing, they're in a much better position to understand them when they come across them in their reading. Second, writing can develop analytical abilities. When you write, you're connecting different pieces of information, you're deciding what's really important, what else is connected to that. Writing can also build and deepen knowledge, and I'll talk more about that in a minute. And it's actually so powerful that it can compensate for even significant gaps in background knowledge. Why do I say writing is potentially so powerful? Well, it has to do with how our memory works. And as you can see from this diagram, there's a lot of things we just forget. The first box there sensory memory, we don't have to worry about that too much. Basically, if you don't pay attention to something, you're not going to remember it. But then working memory, that's crucial. It's crucial for understanding learning in general. Working memory is about our consciousness where we're taking in new information and trying to make sense of it. And the important thing to know about working memory is that it can easily get overwhelmed if you try to juggle too many things. The best estimates are that you can juggle maybe four to seven items for no more than 20 seconds. I've seen estimates like 10 seconds. So things can easily get forgotten if you're trying to juggle too much in working memory. You don't have the capacity while you're juggling all those things to really think about what you're trying to make sense of and to absorb and retain that information. So the way to get around that problem is to have information in long- term memory, which is potentially infinite, but you have to get those things transferred from working memory to long- term memory. And how do you do that? Well, basically by really thinking deeply about them, talking about those things, explaining them to somebody else, teaching or writing about those things. That's a very powerful way to get things into long- term memory, but then you have to get them out of long- term memory when you need them. That's the retrieval part. And writing is also very powerful in helping to practice that kind of retrieval, to make things easier to retrieve from long- term memory when you need them. Here's a graph taken from an experiment that was done about 10 years ago on retrieval practice and comparing it with other learning methods. This experiment took a bunch of college students actually, and asked them to read an article about sea otters and then told them to do different things to study at... One group was told to study at once. One group was told to study at twice and maybe they highlighted some important things. Another group was told to do concept mapping. And then this group on the far right, they engaged in what's called retrieval practice. So what did that consist of? That consisted of writing about the passage they had read. If they read it through once, they were asked to write about it for five to 10 minutes. Then they read it again. They wrote about it again for five to 10 minutes. And then their recall of the information was tested a week later. And as you can see the ones who wrote about it, who engaged in that kind of retrieval practice, remembered a lot more than the others. So writing is so powerful because it helps both with transferring information into long- term memory and getting it back out of long- term memory when you need it in working memory. But most students aren't getting these benefits from writing and they're not learning to write well either. These are the results from the most recent NAPE writing test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Well, every two years, they test kids in reading and math. Every once in a while, they test them on other things. Unfortunately, they haven't released any more recent writing results than this, but there's no reason to believe things have really improved. And what we see here is that only about a quarter of students test proficient or advanced on these writing tests at grade eight and 12. And then we also see that many of them are testing basic or below basic, about 75% of all students. These figures are actually worse than the figures for reading, which are pretty bad. About a third of students test proficient or advanced in reading as compared to only about a quarter in writing. And for some students subgroups, these figures are even worse. I think for those students who qualify for free and reduced meals, so lower- income students, the number below proficient, the percentage is about 87%. So obviously whatever we've been doing to try to teach writing has not been working very well. So what have we been doing? Well, the traditional approach is to focus on grammar rules and sentence diagramming like this. And there are those who say that's what we need to go back to, but the problem is that about a hundred years worth of studies have shown that for most students, teaching grammar rules and this kind of sentence diagramming in the abstract does not carry over to their own writing. Sometimes it even has a negative effect. More recently, a very popular approach has arisen called writer's workshop. And that really tells students and teachers don't worry too much about grammar rules, just develop voice and fluency and writing stamina. And it's mostly focused on personal narrative. So maybe write about a small moment, going to the beach, and then you really dig into the details of building a sand castle. This is the approach associated with Lucy Calkins in her Units of Study. And as many teachers may have discovered, a lot of students don't actually pick up writing conventions just through writing and through their own reading. And so in reaction to this kind of approach, the Common Core came along and introduced a different approach, especially in terms of genre expectations. The authors of the Common Core wanted to get away from all of this personal narrative because they felt with some justification that it didn't really equip students for the kind of writing they would be expected to do in high school and beyond, which is more expository or persuasive or argumentative writing. And so they changed the genre expectations to look like this. So even at grade four, students are expected to do much more persuasive and explanatory writing than they used to do. And generally, that gets more and more emphasis as the grade levels go up. And that makes sense, but the thing about the Common Core is it doesn't really explain how to make this happen, how to teach this kind of writing. And in fact, as you may be aware, a lot of teachers don't get much training in how to teach writing at all. So the Common Core provided examples of what writing should look like. For example, kindergarten, this is an exemplar of an opinion essay by a kindergarten about my inaudible book. That's supposed to be my favorite book. And then by eighth grade, the exemplar writing is supposed to look like this. And I'm not even showing you what it's supposed to look like at 12th grade, but it's even more sophisticated than this. And again, there's no explanation of... It's nice to know that this is what students are supposed to do, but the Common Core, of course, doesn't tell you how to make this happen. One thing that all of these approaches to writing have overlooked is that writing is really hard. I'd say it's the hardest thing we ask students to do in school. Why is it so hard? Again, it has to do with working memory. Remember, working memory can only hold a limited number of things for a limited period of time and reading imposes a large heavy burden on working memory, because especially if you're dealing with decoding or if you're not fluent, you have to juggle a lot of those things in working memory and it's harder for you to understand what you're reading. But writing imposes an even greater burden. So inexperienced writers may be juggling letter formation that's really more true at the lower end of elementary school, but spelling continues to be an issue. Word choice, organization of one's thoughts, and then of course, there's the content you're writing about. And so if you're an inexperienced writer, you can quickly get so overwhelmed that you don't have the cognitive capacity to either learn to write well or to think about the content you're writing about and get all of those knowledge- building benefits that you could potentially get from writing. So all of this creates what cognitive scientists call cognitive load. That is the burden that is placed on working memory when you're juggling things in it. An open- ended or complex writing prompts can really be overwhelming for inexperienced writers. I'm going to show you just a couple. These happened to be from second grade, but for inexperienced writers at any grade level, this could be overwhelming. So this one was a prompt that just asked students to write down everything they could remember that they'd learned about slavery over the past couple of days, which could be a great oral brainstorming activity. But when students are juggling how do I spell this, it can be overwhelming. And then there's also... This is an exit ticket, which the students were learning about the civil war, but this contains a fair amount of text for them to go through. Obviously as second graders, that's not necessarily easy. And then this fairly broad question: what did Lincoln and the Union soldiers plan to do to end the war quickly? This can really be a difficult thing for struggling writers at any grade level to deal with. There's another thing these standard approaches overlook as well, which is that writing should be tied to the knowledge we want to build. It can be very powerful for building knowledge, thanks to that dual effect of getting things into, and then out of long- term memory. But in a lot of classes, in a lot of schools, there's a separate writing curriculum or a separate writing block, or kids are just writing opinion essays about things that really they may know about from their personal experience. For example, this is one I just came across online. 60 persuasive writing prompts for middle school and high school. So convince your parents to raise your allowance, should at least two years of foreign language classes be required for high school graduation, et cetera. Now, students may have things to say about this and they may be able to construct a good argument, although argumentative persuasive writing is really the hardest form, the hardest genre is to write. But even if they can do a good job with convincing their parents to raise their allowance, that's not necessarily going to carry over to writing about the civil war say, if that's what they're learning about. So if students are learning about the civil war, they should be writing about the civil war. That's going to be more difficult because in addition to juggling the mechanics of writing, you're also having to deal with all of that relatively unfamiliar content. But it's also going to build your knowledge if you deal with that content. And that's what we want. So it's important to bear in mind though, that writing can only build knowledge if the curriculum is focused on content, not comprehension skills and strategies like these. And the elementary ELA curriculum is really dominated by this skills and strategies approach. I think that's less true in middle school, but it also in many middle schools, this is often the way instructions organizing might be now let's focus on the skills and the content is deemed to be less important. But if students are jumping from topic to topic, because really what they're supposed to be learning is skill, and by the way, that doesn't actually work to boost reading comprehension. It also is not going to equip them to write, even a few sentences about any one topic because they probably won't have enough information. So in order to exploit the potential power of writing, we use it to engage students writing and use it to build their analytical ability and academic knowledge and vocabulary. We need to have a curriculum that goes into depth in topics in social studies, science, and the arts. These are the subjects that have the most potential to build the kind of academic knowledge and vocabulary that students need to acquire yet more knowledge and also to boost their knowledge through writing. So how can we make writing easier and use it to build students' knowledge? Well, there are two basic principles that we need to observe. One is, begin writing instruction at the sentence level to modulator cognitive load so that students are not overwhelmed by being asked to do too much at one time. And second, embed writing activities in the content of the core curriculum to build the kind of knowledge we want students to acquire. And there's only one method that I know of that combines both of these principles. And that is laid out in this book called The Writing Revolution of which I am a coauthor with Judith Hochman. Judy Hochman is a veteran educator. This is her method that she developed over many years and I've seen it in practice and it really can work. The Writing Revolution is also the name of an organization that Judy founded to train teachers in the method. I want to point out, I said, begin at the sentence level to modulator cognitive load, not eliminate cognitive load. We don't want to eliminate cognitive load because not all cognitive load is bad. What's bad is excessive cognitive load and extraneous cognitive load that interferes with learning. For example, if there's a diagram in a textbook but the explanation of that diagram is on a different page, that's not helpful. We want students to be able to devote their attention to what's actually going to help them learn. So some cognitive load is necessary for learning. Cognitive scientists have found there is no learning without some effort, without some load on working memory. The goal then is to eliminate or reduce extraneous cognitive load that interferes with learning and leave space for what is known as desirable difficult. Good kind of cognitive load that promotes learning. So how does this apply to writing? Well, one way it applies is that students need to engage in what cognitive scientists call deliberate practice. That helps embed writing skills in long- term memory. So just as if you have decoding skills embedded in long- term memory, you don't have to juggle them in working memory when you're reading. If you have certain braiding skills in long- term memory, again, you don't have to juggle them. You have more cognitive capacity for higher order thinking. So how do we do that? Well, deliberate practice means giving students practice with manageable chunks of the process, then providing prompt, targeted feedback. And when students have grasped one chunk, it's time to move on to another one that's harder. So what chunk of writing, which is a very complex process, should we begin with? I'd say the sentence level. So why beginning writing instruction at the sentence level makes sense. Several reasons. One, sentences are the building blocks of all writing. If you can't write a good sentence, you're unlikely to be able to write a good paragraph or a good essay. Second, sentences make it easier to teach grammar and conventions. It's true that teaching grammar in the abstract doesn't work, but that doesn't mean we don't need to teach grammar at all. We do. And what does work is to teach it in the context of student's own writing. And it's much easier to do that if you've got one or two sentences to deal with rather than page after page of error- filled writing. And lastly, of course, sentences free up space in working memory for those desirable difficulties. What are the kinds of sentence level skills that can be stored in long- term memory through this kind of practice? Well, the most basic is the concept of a sentence, like the difference between a complete sentence and a sentence fragment or a run- on sentence. And this is very basic, but it's something that even a lot of older students and adults have not been taught. And it doesn't work necessarily to say," Oh, well, the definition of a sentence is a subject in a verb and it expresses a complete thought." That's too abstract, but practicing distinguishing complete sentences from ones that are not complete sentences or run- on sentences, that does work. Repeatedly doing that. Secondly, learning about different sentence types. Teachers may say," Well, you need to vary your sentence structure." But if students don't know how to do that, that's not going to be enough. So teaching them, and this is again, not something that all students pick up just by osmosis, through their reading and their writing. It has to be explicitly taught to many students. So what's a statement, what's a question, et cetera. And then teaching conjunctions, even simple conjunctions like, because, but, and so, and then getting into more complex sentences, like using subordinating conjunctions, like although; using appositives, which are phrases that describe a noun. With these skills in long- term memory, then students are going to have more space and working memory to think about content and build their knowledge. But sentence- level activities can also build knowledge while they are getting those skills into long- term memory. Has this dual effect. Not all sentence- level activities, but many of them. For example, say you're teaching about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. And by the way, this approach to writing instruction is not just for English class or ELA. It's really designed to be used in any subject and in any grade level. And social studies content is a great medium for developing both writing skills and knowledge. Let's say you're teaching about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. You can give students this activity that is known as because, but, and so, which is to give them a carefully constructed sentence stem that they need to finish with those three different conjunctions. For example, Abraham Lincoln was a great president because, but, and so. Each of these sentence stems is requiring students to retrieve information from long- term memory that they've slightly forgotten and then put it in their own words. And that's a really powerful way to build and deepen knowledge and to develop analytical abilities. And each of these conjunctions calls for a different kind of information, but it's going to be more difficult than because, because it calls for contrasting information. So is going to ask for cause and effect. Now there are different ways students could complete these sentence stems, but here are some possibilities: Because he kept the north united during the civil war, but many Americans didn't like him while he was alive, so more books have been written about him than any other American leader. That's just a taste of what that can look like. As I mentioned, this method should be used across the curriculum, even in math where it can be used to build knowledge. Let's say you're teaching about decimals and fractions if you're a math teacher. You may not think you're a writing teacher, but once math teachers see how effective this is at getting kids to really understand and remember math, they generally really embrace it. So you could give them this sentence stem: fractions are like decimals because they are all parts of inaudible, but they are written differently. So, they can be used interchangeably. That's an idea of how this could be used in math. And then their science. And here's a different activity in science. Sentence expansion, that means giving students a very bare- bones minimal sentence, they make good barriers. Obviously they're going to need some knowledge of this topic in order to begin here, but if they know what you're talking about and they have some knowledge, then they can fill in these things three lines. What, where and why lipids around cells, non- polar. And then they can create their expanded sentence: lipids make good barriers around cells because they are non- polar. Again, building both sentence construction skills and knowledge at the same time. And again, social studies, this time with appositives. Suppose you're teaching about ancient Greece. You could give students appositives around which they need to build a company sentence. So a Greek city say, Athens, and they can tell you what they know about Athens, a great philosopher. They have to think of who is a great philosopher they've learned about. Oh, Socrates. And what did he do? Created a method of questioning. That's how this can work in that context. And then transition words. Again, these are all things that students are unlikely to know from spoken language, from conversation. These words like therefore, as a result, consequently, they need explicit practice in using these. And at the same time, there'll be building their knowledge in this case about colonial times and the American colonies and the American revolution, Thomas Jefferson, et cetera. And then there are summary sentences, and this is in the context of literature. So Johnny Tremain. And again, there are these question words that provide guidance, provide guard rails, prevent students from getting too overwhelmed with all of the things they're trying to juggle in working memory. They've got these notes that provides a roadmap for constructing the sentence. And they begin the sentence, they're told according to this method, with the win part. Because that again is not something that we generally do in spoken language, but we often find that in written language to start with something like: during the battle in Lexington. I know that sometimes when I talk to teachers at upper grade levels beyond elementary school, about the sentence- level activities, they feel that these worked on sentences is really just for kids. It's something you do in elementary school. And that's actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Constructing a sentence can be a very rigorous activity. It all depends on the content. It's not just for elementary students. Let's pose. I'm going to give you a sentence stem about this guy, Immanuel Kant, who was an 18th century philosopher. Immanuel Kant believed that space and time are subjective forms of human sensibility, but obviously not for elementary school students. I cannot finish that sentence stem. Just an example of how difficult it can be to complete a sentence stem all depends on the content, but I also don't want to leave you with the impression that this method ends at the sentence level. It goes beyond that and sentences are sort of the basis, but then it goes through outlines for both paragraphs and essays, all the way through argumentative essays. And the cognitive load that writing imposes on students' working memories also doesn't go away. That continues beyond sentences as well. In fact, even if you are familiar with different ways of constructing sentences in different sentence- level skills, I know as a writer that writing at length can impose a very heavy cognitive load. So what can we do about that? Well, the best thing to do is to enable students, to teach students how to construct an outline and a linear outline, not one of those bubble maps, because that doesn't tell you what you should do next. And it's very easy even with a single paragraph, if you're still an inexperienced writer. It's easy to lose your train of thought, to repeat yourself, to go off track. If you've got an outline that tells you where to go, you don't have to juggle all of that in working memory." What was I going to say next? Did I already say that?" Et cetera. So teaching students how to write a topic sentence and possibly using a question. That in itself, by the way, is a very powerful knowledge- building activity that also builds analytical ability. We spend a lot of time with reading comprehension instruction, trying to get students to learn how to find the main idea. It doesn't really work when we do that in isolation from content, which is often what we do. It does work when the content is in the foreground. And it really works when you have students, not just doing this in terms of reading, but in terms of writing. It's harder, but it's more powerful. They really do have to find the main idea to construct a topic sentence. And that's something that can be explicitly taught through this kind of writing instruction. And then supporting details. One of the things this method helps students learn is how to take notes. Again, not all students just know how to do that. So it teaches them abbreviations. And these dotted lines are indication to students that this is not a place for a complete sentence. This is a place for their notes. And again, when they're writing these notes, they're having to retrieve information from long- term memory that they may have slightly forgotten and put it in their own words, process it. So this is an extremely powerful way of getting that knowledge to really be sticky and also to be relatively easy to retrieve. And then a concluding sentence. Some people say this is so formulaic. The thing is when students are dealing with this really difficult task, writing, it's very helpful to have a formula when you're beginning, just like when you're beginning as a cook, it's really helpful to have a recipe. But then when you get more confident of your cooking skills, you can depart from the recipe and add your own little twist. Same with writing. This is where students need to begin. And ultimately, they won't need to do this exactly this way. They won't need to have four supporting details or three or whatever, but this is really helpful to students who are trying to figure out," Where do I begin?" And once they have this outline... Now, even just constructing this outline without turning it into a written paragraph is a powerful activity and it can be done orally and collaboratively when students are first learning how to do this, it really helps build knowledge just to do the outline. But if they do have the sentence level skills to transfer this to a finished draft, then they have this roadmap and they can go right ahead and do that. And they can use their sentence- level skills to make this writing flow. For example, you see the word however there. That's something they've learned. That's a transition word signifying a change of direction. So they can bring in those sentence- level skills at this point to make their writing smooth and coherent. To implement all of this effectively, I came up... This is my own invention. I don't know what Judy Hochman would think of this, but it just occurred to me. I think that sometimes it can be hard for teachers. This is kind of all unfamiliar and teachers may be used to having a separate writing block that's not something that's integrated into the curriculum. So maybe to help teachers remember how to implement this effectively, I came up with this idea of the three Is. The first I is introduce new writing strategies orally, collaboratively, and in a familiar context. And again, this is because we want a modulator cognitive load. Let's say it's appositive. When it's unfamiliar and kids are trying to juggle in working memory, now what is appositive? How do you use it? They'll have more cognitive capacity for that if they're not also trying to write at the same time. And if they're doing it as a group, that will be helpful as well. It's also going to be helpful if the material that they're writing about is something that's familiar to them. So they don't have to also be juggling new information. So it could be a holiday, let's say Halloween, a much loved holiday in October. Is a time when children dress in costumes and go trick or treating. So it could very familiar from life experience like holidays, or it could be some academic material that students really are familiar with. That will act as a way of reminding them of that material and helping to build their knowledge even more. That's the first I. The second I, integrate writing activities with instruction. So rather than a separate writing block, again, this approach really should be seen as a way of teaching, not just as a way of teaching writing. So the sentence- level activities could be do nows. They could be quick reviews or basis for discussion, quick comprehension checks, exit tickets, or doing the outline of a paragraph, or even a longer piece of writing. Could be an oral group activity that really helps students think about this content, and they're not having to do it necessarily on their own. Or you could pause and say," Okay, now I want everybody to try outlining a paragraph about all these things we've just been discussing." But it would relate to the content you've been discussing, the content of the curriculum. And then the third I is to interleave different strategies that have been covered. That interleave, that is a term that's used by cognitive scientists. Interleaving has been found to be a very powerful form of basically retrieval practice. And what it means is mixing things up. So varying what you're asking students to do. In math, that could be not just one kind of math operation, and then we move on to another, but:" We learned about long division last month. Let's bring that back in now, and here are a couple of problems on that." With writing, it could be," Well, we learned about appositives last month, but now let's do an activity about this new content using an appositive. And that helps students think about whatever this new content is. It also helps them remember how to use an appositive and makes it more likely they're going to be able to remember that when you say," Why don't you vary your sentence structure? How about maybe an appositive?" It makes it more likely that they'll think of doing that themselves. So this may help you remember how to introduce these things, integrate them, and then mix them up a bit to make this really effective. This is an individual student that I just wanted to give you as an example. This was a ninth grader named Danny at a high school in New York called Neudorf. This was a few years ago now, but they adopted this... It wasn't called The Writing Revolution yet. It was called The Hochman Method. They adopted it mostly in social studies, but eventually across the curriculum. And at the beginning of the year, this ninth grader, Danny, was given this writing prompt: Explain why we study the past. And as you can see, this is not very well sort of put together, not a smooth piece of writing, and he obviously was a struggling writer. Later that year, after having been exposed to The Writing Revolution method, he was able to complete on his own, this outline for not just a paragraph, but an argumentative essay on the conquest of the Americas. He has at the top, his thesis statement: While some of you the conquest of the Americas as a positive event, without question, it had a negative impact. And you can see he's outlined his paragraphs here. TS stands for topic sentence. So he's got this roadmap and he knows where he's going, and he can use this to construct an essay that looks like this: Throughout history there've been many controversies, et cetera. And here is that thesis statement, which becomes... And this is another thing that is taught. The thesis statement becomes the last sentence of your introductory paragraph. So this is the kind of transformation that writing instruction can have when it's done in a way that enables all students to benefit from it and not just those who are lucky enough to pick it up. Just to sum up, and then I'll be happy to take questions. Writing has the power to enable students to build their skills and knowledge in all subjects and grades, but to unleash that power, we need to modulate the cognitive load that writing imposes. We need to make sure that students aren't being overburdened, their working memory is not being overburdened by extraneous things that are going to just impede learning and that they have the cognitive capacity and working memory to think about what they're writing about and to acquire new knowledge and new writing skills. To ensure writing is building knowledge, we need to have students write about the content of the curriculum. And that curriculum needs to have rich content in it and spend at least two or three weeks on a topic so that students have the opportunity to acquire information vocabulary that they can use as grist for the mill of their writing. And lastly, effective writing instruction can boost students' confidence and change their concept of who they are and what they can accomplish. And this is something that teachers have told me that I've seen. That first of all, writing is not just about writing skill, important as that is. It boosts their reading comprehension, it enhances their speaking ability, boosts their analytical abilities, and it's a tremendous confidence builder. It makes students feel they can tackle some really difficult things and they'll be okay. I'm going to stop there and be happy to take questions if people have them.
Laura: Thanks, Natalie. That's terrific. And we do have some great questions coming in. As a reminder, if you'd like to ask a question, please look for the Q& A button at the bottom center of your screen and we will answer as many as we have time for. Natalie, first, a very fundamental question about The Writing Revolution. What grade levels and skills does The Writing Revolution work for?
Natalie Wexler: Well, the subtitle of the book is: Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades. And I think that's true. It can be adapted for the young children, kindergartners even. The recommendation at that grade level is to do things orally and collaboratively, but you can even do outlining a paragraph with kindergartners. I happened to walk into a kindergarten class where the teacher was leading the kids through outlining a paragraph about what a great toy Play- Doh is and why, but it can also be embedded in kindergarten content. So again, the rigor of this is going to change with the content and it really can be adapted to any grade level. I'd say the one limitation is college unfortunately, even though there are a lot of college instructors who would love to be able to use this, but you really at that level... Especially it needs to be implemented across the curriculum for it to work, and it's very hard to get college professors to do what you tell them to do. So that's an obstacle there, but at any other grade level, it can really be effective.
Laura: That's a really powerful, thank you. A couple of questions drilling down on the concept of deliberate practice and the ability to build up from the sentence level. It seems like that's really very doable to weave in whatever your curriculum?
Natalie Wexler: Yeah. And about deliberate practice, there are different kinds of knowledge. There's sort of knowing that and knowing how. And writing combines both of those things. That's one reason it's really difficult. But these skills like knowing how to construct a complex sentence, that is procedural knowledge, that is a sort of knowing how kind of knowledge and that's the kind of knowledge for which you need repeated targeted practice to get it to become pretty much automatic. I think it's true for all sorts of things. There was that Malcolm Gladwell book about the 10, 000 hours of practice. This is what he was talking about. It's not just practice, practice, practice, because if you just do the same wrong thing over and over again, that's probably going to be a bad thing. That's going to reinforce some bad habits. So it really, it has to be a little more controlled than that, but that's the same basic idea.
Laura: If I heard you correctly, then practicing at that sentence level, gradually builds up some stamina. You can continue to apply it to longer and longer writing. Is that right?
Natalie Wexler: Yeah, I would say that that's part of it, but I think we've seen stamina as just like getting kids to write at length. We have basically put a priority on length and when kids don't have those basic sentence- level skills under their belt, that's not going to really be effective. They may be able to sit there for half an hour and write something, but will anybody be able to understand it when they're done? So it's a combination of stamina and acquiring these skills in a very systematic way.
Laura: Excellent. And a new question, is it feasible to think that teachers can be masters of teaching both reading and writing? They're connected, but both are so complex. It can feel a little overwhelming.
Natalie Wexler: One thing after spending the last several years, observing teachers and thinking about teaching, I mean, teaching is just incredibly complex. It's almost a superhuman task. Unfortunately, I would say, yes, teachers do actually... And not just English teachers. I think all teachers need to consider themselves teachers of content, as well as reading and writing, because reading and writing are that difficult that students need a lot of reinforcement, a lot of deliberate practice across the curriculum to become good readers and writers. I think what we really need is better training for teachers in how to teach these things for all teachers. But I do think, I don't want to make it sound like this is an impossible task. It takes a while to get used to this approach to writing instruction, but teachers have told me that once they get it under their belt, then it actually makes teaching easier because the kids, they're learning better as a result of this. And it becomes easier once you get used to the idea... easier to integrate this into your classroom routine.
Laura: That's great. And then some questions about maybe putting the method into practice for a teacher who's wanting to do more writing in the fall. How long would you say it takes to train students in this method? First six weeks of school, more or less?
Natalie Wexler: It's hard to answer that. I would say definitely not just the first six weeks of school. I would recommend taking a look at the book beyond that if you really... I mean, I think some teachers can read the book and they're like," Okay, I'm good to go." But I think for many teachers, the book is a great starting point, but The Writing Revolution organization also offers online courses. And that I think... I mean, I'm told... I've taken the course, but I'm not a teacher, but teachers have told me it's really, really helpful. And it's not unfortunately, like there's a definitive answer for any group of students that's going to take six weeks to do X, Y... There is a scope and sequence included at the back of the book, but students are going to vary. Students in one classroom are not all going to be, of course, at the same level of ability. They're not all going to pick up these things at the same rate. But what's great about this method, this approach is that it does enable to teachers to differentiate, not the content. The content should stay the same, but to differentiate how students interact with the content. For example, one student... Let's say it's the civil war, which I keep bringing up, but let's say it's something about the civil war. One student could be writing an essay, another could be writing a paragraph, and another student could be writing one, two or three sentences or sentence stems, completing those sentence stems. All of those students are grappling with the same content and possibly even at the sentence level with quite a rigorous way if those sentence stems are well constructed, but none of them are being overwhelmed and they're all being challenged.
Laura: It makes a lot of sense. I'm glad you mentioned the scope and sequence in The Writing Revolution, because we did get a question about that. And just to clarify, The Writing Revolution is a lot more than only research, right? There's practice and prompts and recommendations in there as well.
Natalie Wexler: Yeah. And in fact, I mean, the subtitle is: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing. It is written very much for practicing teachers and there are examples at different... We didn't label them as grade levels because we know there are a lot of high school students that still have not been taught how to construct a good sentence. So we did like level one, level two, level... There might be a level three depending on where your students are. Again, I'm not necessarily going to completely equip you to put this into practice, but it is a very practical book in terms of examples and explanations.
Laura: Excellent. And then I'm just going to pause and pivot to another area where we're getting a lot of questions about collaborating with the content area teachers and teaching writing across all the disciplines and getting the buy- in from the content area teachers. Anything you can share with us on that?
Natalie Wexler: Well, that really just takes some support from the administration. One thing that Judy Hochman has told me is it's really essential for teachers to have common planning time and to be using a common vocabulary. So if the English teacher is talking about appositives, then the social studies teacher would be great if that he or she too is talking about appositives, inaudible for the science teacher and the Spanish teacher, and even in some schools, the PE teacher. Certainly, especially in science and math, there are teachers who have said," Well, I'm not a writing teacher. I'm a science teacher. I'm a math teacher." But as I said, I think once they try it and they see that this is not a hindrance to their teaching, it's actually a boost to their teaching, they usually get on board and become very enthusiastic. But in individual teacher, I'd say, try this out in your classroom as an individual teacher and seeing what you think, but to really unleash the power of this method, you're going to need some help from the administration to get it implemented across the curriculum.
Laura: And a related question. Thank you about how a co- teacher like an English language learners teacher in a gen ed class, how you can convince gen ed teachers that teaching writing explicitly is so important, how you can kind of spread the revolution.
Natalie Wexler: Well, I mean, they definitely should be able to see it if they try it. This method was actually developed with four kids with language- based learning disabilities. Initially, that was the community that was using this, but it's spread. And it spread even to elite private schools where the kids were not learning... they were not learning how to write. What happened was a kid who had been diagnosed with a learning disability at an elite private school might go to this other private school where Judy Hochman was working for a couple of years. That was the idea. Is that this private school for kids with learning disabilities would take them for a couple of years. And then they'd go back to the school they came from. And when they went back to their regular elite private school, the teachers were astonished to find suddenly this kid was their best writer. That's how it began to spread. It works great with English language learners, as it works great with kids who are really struggling with writing, but it also works wonders with all kids at any level of ability. And how to convince them, I wish I had some magic words that you could say, but I think just talking about it, explaining it, and maybe showing them the results that you are able to achieve with the kids that you're teaching is the way to do it.
Laura: That's great. Thank you. Just a couple more questions if you don't mind.
Natalie Wexler: Sure.
Laura: As either a teacher or a parent looking for more activities like, because, but, and so, are there resources you recommend, are there workbooks or other sets of prompts that you recommend?
Natalie Wexler: There aren't workbooks, but as I said, there are quite a few examples in the book. And if you buy the book, then you get access. In fact, maybe during the pandemic, I know The Writing Revolution organization opened this to everyone. There are resources online through The Writing Revolution organization, templates that we'll show you embedded in different content: here's how you can teach an appositive, here's how you can teach sentence expansion using this worksheet. And of course, you can adapt it to other content as well, but that's an additional guide to how to really put this into practice.
Laura: Nice. And then one really granular question. In my experience, students are having great difficulty taking ideas from outlines and putting them into sentences, and then paragraphs. Any specific strategies you might recommend?
Natalie Wexler: Yes. I mean, one of the trickier things is getting students to... They may have practiced those sentence- level skills, but then actually getting them to use them in their own independent writing is often a bit of a struggle. What Judy Hochman recommends is something called the unelaborated paragraph. I showed you that sentence expansion activity with a very bare- bones simple sentence that students then had to expand into something richer with more content. You can do the same kind of thing with a paragraph. And again, this needs to be embedded in content that students are familiar with, but you give them a very bare- bones paragraph and ask them to expand it. And you can give them hints like: using an appositive here, use a subordinating conjunction here. And if you get them to do that repeatedly, that should help them learn to start using those sentence- level skills in their own writing.
Laura: Fantastic. One final question. A couple of folks have asked if you could just show that last slide again and maybe walk us through it one more time.
Natalie Wexler: Sure.
Laura: And while you're doing that, I want to thank everybody for joining us and remind you that we'll get an email out to you tomorrow afternoon, including a link to this full recording and some additional excerpt, an excerpt from The Writing Revolution and some additional links that Natalie has mentioned. Thank you.
Natalie Wexler: This is that last slide that writing has the power to. Unfortunately on my screen, part of this is obscured, but you guys, I assume can see it. But to help students build their skills and knowledge in all subjects and grades, to unleash that power, we need to modulate the cognitive load that writing imposes so that that good cognitive load can boost the learning process. To ensure writing is building knowledge, we need to have students write about the content of the curriculum. And effective writing instruction can boost students' confidence and change their concept of who they are and what they can accomplish.
Natalie Wexler: I hope everybody got that.
Laura: What a wonderful way to sum it up. What a wonderful aspiration. Thank you so much for joining us, everyone. And thank you, Natalie, for sharing your wisdom today.
Natalie Wexler: Oh, well, thank you. It was my pleasure.
Natalie Wexler will discuss ways to incorporate writing and engagement in your ELA instruction.
She will examine what she’s learned throughout her experience in classrooms and what needs to be done to close learning gaps. She’ll also explain how to use writing as a tool for engagement in the classroom.
Natalie Wexler, education journalist and acclaimed author of The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America's Broken Education System—And How to Fix It, will examine what she’s learned throughout her experience in classrooms and what needs to be done to close learning gaps. She’ll also explain how to use writing as a tool for engagement in the classroom.
“Writing has the power to enable students to build their skills and knowledge in all subjects and grades.”