Response to “Writing Next” Report

Monday, we will be discussing the Writing Next Report, issued by the Alliance for Excellent Education. Here are my thoughts on the prompt, “How has reading the Writing Next Report encouraged you to rethink aspects of your teaching practice?”


Writing NextThe Writing Next Report, written by Steve Graham and Dolores Perin, issued earlier this year by the Alliance for Excellent Education as a report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, outlines 11 teaching strategies that improve student achievement in writing. The report is a meta-analysis of dozens of quantitative studies that allow for the calculation of an “effect size,” or “the average difference between a type of instruction and a comparison condition” (p. 13). More on the measurement process and research method in a moment, but first a look at the results of the study.The authors of the report suggest eleven writing strategies that “are supported by rigorous research, but that even when used together, they do not constitute a full writing curriculum” (p.4). This point merits particular attention as one reads the list of strategies and thinks about what good writing teachers do as well as how and why they implement those strategies. That said, the list of strategies reads like a “greatest hits” of instructional techniques that a teacher can implement in his or her classroom (hence the warning not to call this list a curriculum). Here is the list, taken verbatim from the report, pages 4 and 5 (and I have listed the effect sizes at the end, the larger the better):

  1. Writing Strategies, which involves teaching students strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions (.82)
  2. Summarization, which involves explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize texts (.82)
  3. Collaborative Writing, which uses instructional arrangements in which adolescents work together to plan, draft, revise, and edit their compositions (.75)
  4. Specific Product Goals, which assigns students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete (.70)
  5. Word Processing, which uses computers and word processors as instructional supports for writing assignments (.55)
  6. Sentence Combining, which involves teaching students to construct more complex, sophisticated sentences (.50)
  7. Prewriting, which engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition (.32)
  8. Inquiry Activities, which engages students in analyzing immediate, concrete data to help them develop ideas and content for a particular writing task (.32)
  9. Process Writing Approach, which interweaves a number of writing instructional activities in a workshop environment that stresses extended writing opportunities,writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, and cycles of writing (.32)
  10. Study of Models, which provides students with opportunities to read, analyze, and emulate models of good writing (.25)
  11. Writing for Content Learning, which uses writing as a tool for learning content material (.23)

These strategies, as a whole, represent most (if not all) of what I have come to understand comprises good writing instruction. To that end, I am pleased to know that my theoretical orientation towards the field aligns with the experimental evidence about “what works” in good writing instruction. In particular, I am glad to see that writing strategies and collaborative writing rank so high, although it makes me wonder why the process approach ended up toward the bottom of the list. This makes me wonder if they, unlike Katie Wood Ray, are making a distinction between the writing process and writing workshop, and I am guessing that they are not.

Even though Graham and Perin reiterate that this is not a curriculum, I have to wonder if some teachers, schools, districts, and states, could see it as such and “require” teachers to use each of the strategies in a writing program. Like the writing process/workshop distinction above, there are other parts of the report that do not represent the richness of discussions in our field (such as moving beyond word processing into other forms of digital writing or thinking broadly about writing to learn strategies), and I feel that the over reliance on only quantitative data may be limiting some of the implications and, in turn, potentially lead to implementation plans that are not complete.

All that said, the report is useful to me in my teaching in many ways. As a teacher educator, I think that this report can certainly offer evidence of the many practices that I use that stand up, for better or for worse, in a “scientifically-based” study. Thus, when I use these approaches in my teacher education courses and professional development workshops, I can point to the effect size data and suggest that these strategies have been integrated in a variety of contexts, yielding strong results. In other words, it can bring empirical merit to many of my theoretical practices, and the practices I share with other teachers.

As a writing teacher, this report encourages me to reconsider some ideas that I have neglected for some time. I do appreciate that Graham and Perin discussed the negative influence of explicit grammar instruction (p. 21) as it affirms my beliefs and synthesizes a number of good studies that have happened over the years, thus bringing (what we hope might be) a final curtain on the “should we teach grammar in isolation” argument. Also, the processes of summarization and sentence combining remind me — as someone who will be teaching a college writing class this fall — that not all students know how to do these tasks, or do them well. Modeling summary writing and sentence combining could offer some variety to my lessons as well as teach useful writing skills.

In sum, the Writing Next Report was useful to read as it confirmed many of my beliefs about teaching writing with statistical evidence while reminding me of the other aspects that I need to reintroduce into my practice. It also is encouraging to see these practices as the ones held up as “good” for writing instruction because, perhaps, those who works with assessment of writing might be able to think about how to measure these aspects of writing, not just the final product, which is so valued right now.

End of 21st Century Literacies Meeting Reflection

The questions that we have collectively explored the past two days leave me with many thoughts, which I will get to in a moment. First, I need to synthesize this weekend with the other working retreat that I recently attended — the CEE Leadership and Policy Summit in Chicago.

Having had two weeks to reflect on that meeting, I think that its essential purpose was two-fold:

  1. How do we, as a professional organization of English Educators, induct new members into our field and give them the material and emotional support that will help them succeed?
  2. In what ways is the nature of our work changing and how can we respond to as well as be at the forefront of those changes?

What I took from that meeting — and am still working on from it — is that we, as a field, need to begin articulating our positions on what have previously been controversial or taboo subjects and, whether we all completely agree on the position or not, have something to rally around and begin focusing our attention towards. Issues like the achievement gap, restructuring doctoral programs, addressing globalization, teaching literature, and others are all broad enough that we could gain some consensus and need to do so.

In many ways, I think that this weekend is similar to the work of the CEE Summit in that we are trying to capture the state of the field related to wrting with technology (nature of the work) and figure out how to share best practices in the teaching of digital writing with other teachers (induction). There is at least one significant difference between NWP and CEE that I need to address first, and then I will explain how I think we might mobilize in a similar way.

My understanding of the NWP is that we can not, by our very nature as a federally funded program, take a specific advocacy role on issues in the same way that NCTE/CEE can as a non-profit organization. That said, I think that there are many things that NWP can say, definitively, about the nature of digital writing in K-12 classrooms and teacher professional development (based on the work represented here this weekend) that NCTE (or, to my knowledge) any other network of teachers can make claims about.

In other words, we need to use the momentum from this weekend to clearly and concisely say something to all the sites in our network, the field of education, policy makers, and the general public about the nature of writing, how it is changing, the roles that literacy can play in empowering youth, and why the work that we have done in this tech initiative matters.

If NWP was willing and able to produce a book entitled “Because Writing Matters” or “Writing For a Change” — and those books are seen within the scope of our mission and not stretching our advocacy role — then I think that we need to begin thinking about a book such as “Because Digital Writing Matters” or “Learning Multiliteracies and Enacting Change.” We have the case studies, research, and capacity to do this. All that we need to figure out now is how to get started.

Opening Thoughts, Day 2

Opening Thoughts – Day 2

  • Dixie Goswami – Bread Loaf
    • Think about a follow up conference in 2009 that would invite the young people with whom we are working to attend as well. The literacy that our young people are learning is collaborative; every talk that I have heard shows that the students are the primary source about technology tools and making meaning with one another.
    • We need to figure out how we, as professionals, can invite our young people into this work so we can learn from them. Shirley Heath used to remind us that students are resources to be developed, not problems to be solved. The conversation is shifting, and we will move that shift and critique the technology tools that we use.
    • The next time we convene, we will have young people who will be able to be “advocates and activists.” We need to think about students as co-researchers by reinventing the mission of teacher research so we work closely with students to find out from them and with them the meaning of what they are doing with technology.
    • Years ago, we brought boxes and boxes of student work that took us the whole summer to go through. yesterday, in Renee’s sessions, she went through interviews, transcripts, videos, and other materials that made it instantly possible to see what was happening.
    • Also, we don’t have to find publishers that demand certain formats for scholarly work. The only limit for sharing your work and calling it scholarly research is your own time, creativity, and ability to get it on the internet.
    • There could not be a more exciting time than now. The presentations that we have watched in the past two days represent the tip of the iceberg. The school, community, colleagues, and other factors makes the ecology of technology is something that we need to look at more as well. There is a huge base of research that must be done to show how classroom practice happens, how it is formed, and what allows it to happen.
    • Five, ten years ago, we would have been talking about technology tools. We don’t define the digital divide in terms of who has access to tools. Now, we are looking at which kids have the kinds of opportunities to network in school and how we are intervening in those process. The infrastructure is important, but you are asking the hard questions that culminate in the hard questions. It is not a question of whether we teach, but how we do it well.
    • The big digital divide is not looked at as equipment, but opportunities for students to participate in a participatory culture. What does this mean? The challenges, risks, ethical perspectives that need to be brought to all of this mean that we can not afford to have increasing numbers of young people to be media makers only through popular culture outside of schools. Thinking about this is an incredibly complex task.
    • What do classrooms look like? How do we intervene in policy?
  • Karen McComas – Marshall University WP
    • Starting with Renee’s first graders yesterday reminded me of what is important about what I do. I teach far more than content and I try to create an environment in which change can happen.
    • Yesterday, Jackie’s list of truisms reminded me of another set of truisms that I found a few years ago from a 1998 keynote from Neil Postman. Five things:
      • All technological change is a trade-off. As I bring in something new, I leave something out.
      • The advantages and disadvantages of technology are never distributed evenly across the population. However, if we wait until everyone has it, we will stand still for an eternity.
      • In every technology, there are two or three powerful ideas. My task, as a teacher, is to identify an utilize them.
      • Technology change is additive. All things change, not just the technology
      • Media tend to become mythic. We need to research it.
    • Katie Wood Ray tells us that writing workshop is not easy, and not everyone can do it. I feel the same about technology and teaching with technology.
    • I left my SI people with a prompt on Friday, and I wanted it to affront them. “Given the demands of the modern age, and the demands on our children’s future, is it really OK to as whether or not they can use technology in their teaching?”
  • Liz Davis – DC Area WP
    • I completed the institute in 1995 and was worried about technology in the classroom. In 1999, I attended a conference on the digital divide that focused on race, gender, and power. I learned a few things at this conference as I prepared to present at it.
    • As I read Damico’s article, I thought more about new literacies and the way that we are moving from an ideological model to a multilitercies model. For my students, seeing the differences from home to school were not always seen as assets, but as deficits.
    • Our classrooms and the ways in which we see students have been a hindrance in my ability to teach at the highest level of expectations. I teach the poorest students in Washington DC. Asking them to bring their lives into the classrooms has been something new for me.
    • Yet, from bringing their lives out of the margins of my lessons has made a difference in the way I teach. When we talk about multimodal meaning making, we have to think about all the risks in doing that. Whose language has the most power? Whose literacy is valued the most, defined as standard?
    • This brings into your classroom and teaching many questions that are difficult and you may not be ready to deal with.
    • Damico’s article brings many questions about the technology and the ways the students learn. Yesterday, as I listened to Renee’s students, I recall the conversation that happened at my table. We automatically began thinking about why students were worried about the story’s plot, and we began looking at issues of race, class, and power. At some point, the students may have derailed the lesson, but maybe questioning what we teach is a good thing as they critically analyze what they are learning in school.
    • Learning is about liberation (Friere). If students are able to take what they learn in the classroom, in the long run they should take what they have from their home, community, and streets, and then move it to a level of application that is real and applicable to them, then do we need to teach other R’s? Resistance? Revolution? Rising Up?
    • I am quite excited about the direction the local and national writing project that are going. We need to take control of how we design the language of what they learn, then corporations will make it happen for us.
  • Janet Swenson – Red Cedar WP
    • An Old, Slightly Sea-Sick Messenger Looks at a New Media, New Literacies World
    • Clifford Geertz — Tacking near, tacking far
      • We need to look very closely at the phenomenon, yet then move back and look at the larger social, economic, political systems in which they are embedded.
      • When the problems are very complex, we should do this often, hence the “sea sickness” of tacking in and out so quickly
    • Now that we have a shared understanding of the case studies, we need to look at the common and uncommon aspects of the work.
      • New tools: MP3 recorders
      • New sites: social networks
      • New compositions: Google Docs
    • I think that now we need to tack even further away from the shore and think about the larger implications of schooling.
    • Derek Bock, Our Underachieving Colleges
      • As a result of participating in college, are we giving them an opportunity to acquire a meaningful vision of life, develop their character, improve their minds, address important questions about who we are and what we should become, become more critical and reflective individuals, lead full lives and complete human beings?
    • How do we contextualize what we are seeing in this broad landscape?
    • Some things that technology offers is a rebottling (digital scrapbooking) but Potin of MIT is worried about whether our students are only skimming the surface and not doing the deep diving that transforms lives and communities?
    • Share a video: Hero in the Hallway
  • Will Banks – Tar River WP
    • Freewrite from a few nights ago about how what we have been thinking has challenged us. Courtney has asked us to be careful with our language.
    • Paul used the term “blog” and Cessi used “electronic exchange” and there are social networks. Is what we are exploring hte confulence of things?
    • Literacies are becoming relational in that things are hypertextual, and not always evident. They are much more complex and chaotic than even HTML of just a few years ago.
    • This emerging set of literacies has to do with engaging chaos.
    • Can these textual events be taught? What do we learn from them? Can the texts give answers to the questions we have?
    • These literacy events and our occasioning these events seem to emerge rather than exist? How do you teach this?