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.

Blast from the Past (Or, the More Things Change…)

Earlier today, an RCWP colleague – Marcia – invited me to lunch to celebrate my graduation. She also brought me a unique gift: a collection of four books ranging in copyright date from 1888 – 1918, all a part of her personal collection of antique educational artifacts.

There is a guide to the district schools of Michigan from 1908, a “Teachers Manuals No. 9: How to Train the Memory,” and “The Vitalized School,” written by the state superintendent of Ohio. The fourth book is the one that is most interesting to me, and is one volume in the International Education Series (which includes, among others, Froebel‘s Pedagogics of the Kindergarten) called Teaching the Language-Arts: Speech, Reading, Composition by B.A. Hinsdale.

While I can’t go into a complete review of the book here (as I have not read it yet), I have skimmed and found some interesting quotes to note:

On composition: “While we may cheerfully concede that the great writer, like the poet, is born and not made, we need not hesitate to say that the ordinary writer is made and not born. It is a matter of practice rather than of talent or genius.” p. 115

On examining literature: “It is so difficult for many minds to believe that any valuable educational work is being done, unless it can be measured out in examination papers!” p. 139

On teaching Language Arts: “… to teach English successfully requires a combination of cultivation, taste, judgment, and practical skill not found in the common teacher.” p. 199

There are many more gems in here that I look forward to reading about, especially the chapter on rhetoric. Yet, I though just a taste of the field from over 100 years ago shows us the foundations of where we are at now. I would have to read this more closely to get a full understanding of the argument that he makes about what ELA is and how it should be taught, but it seems pretty progressive at first glance (although I could be wrong once I read it more closely).
All the same, this is a great gift and begs the obvious question: Would Hinsdale have ever imagined that a book review of his work, or a digital copy of the book itself, would be available over 100 years later? And, more importantly, that the discussions he was engaged in then still engulf us now?

Thanks, Marcia. What a thought-provoking gift!

Notes on Timothy Shanahan’s “The Role of Research in US Reading Policy”

Here are notes from a talk today:

Timothy Shanahan, Current President of the International Reading Association

Tim Shanahan is a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of the UIC Center for Literacy. He has played a leadership role at the federal level in making connections between literacy research and educational policy. Dr. Shanahan served on the National Reading Panel, chaired the National Literacy Panel on Language and Minority Children and Youth, and chairs the National Early Literacy Panel. His research interests include: the relationship between reading and writing, the assessment of reading ability, family literacy, and school improvement. Dr. Shanahan has published numerous research articles and written and/or edited several books including Teachers Thinking, Teachers Knowing (1994) and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Literacy Research (1992).

Notes from the session, “The Role of Research in US Reading Policy”:

  • Understanding reading in the context of US policy; having become a combatant in the “reading wars”
    • I had been invited to be a part of the National Reading Panel and served on it for two years trying to synthesize research through a meta-study
    • The real upswing of all this is that it led to $5 billion infused into reading education
  • An Ideological History Lesson
    • Governmental role in education
      • 1600s: MA, CT, and NH establish public schools for religious reasons
      • 1788: US Constitution ratified, no mention of education
      • 1791: Amendment X for state’s rights
      • 1791: 7 states make constitutional provision for public education (e.g., establish school boards)
      • 1800s: Freedmans‘ act for curriculum for freed slaves
        • First time that feds intervened in local schools at such a large and systematic level
      • 1900s: Increased centralization, immigration
      • 1950s and 60s: ESEA and focus on science and technology
      • Current: More centralized curriculum
  • Current forces in education
    • Explosive growth in informational technology
    • Internationalization of economic markets
    • Changes in the relationship of literacy attainment and well being
  • Current changes in the economy
    • Growth of service sector and decline of manufacturing
    • Transformation of low education blue collar work into skilled labor
    • Free trade movember of low-paying jobs and workers
    • Outsourcing of middle-income jobs and immigration of high-income workers
  • Changes have led to:
    • More jobs that require reading
    • Increased correlation of reading achievement and economic success
  • Current status of education
    • Since “A Nation at Risk,” US education is continually in “reform” mode
    • From 1971 to 1994, there has been no improvement in reading for 4th graders
    • Cost of education has risen in real terms
    • Public dissatisfaction is still there because the fundamental problems have not changed
    • Educators have not been sure footed (neither convinced of the need for reform nor clear on how to make things work better)
      • Where are the experts at the table in most of these debates?
  • What’s the Point?
    • The politicians aren’t crazy — reading has to improve
    • Their “solutions” are frequently wrong, but they deserve credit for making serious attempts to solve a real problem
    • They are deeply frustrated by educators who don’t seem to recognize the problem (or who want to respond with the union shop kinds of solutions)
  • Context for NCLB
    • Low NAEP scores and the reading wars in the 1990s
      • As it got bigger and bigger, politicians decided to do something that they hadn’t done in education before: appoint an expert panel
        • I had become a member of the National Reading Panel
          • They didn’t want our opinions; they didn’t want opinions, they wanted a determination of fact
          • We can’t make recommendations except for recommendations on more research
          • Can’t tell how well we thought things would work, or not
    • Changes during the Clinton administration
      • focusing Title I money on poorest schools
        • This hadn’t happened before, and the dollars were focused a little bit more on poor districts
      • Reading Excellence Act (SBRR)
        • Some direct money is given to states for reading education, given on a grant basis, although this was done before the NRP was finished
        • Every state was able to decide what they wanted to call; “research” and there were no standards on it at all
      • Pushing adoption of proven curriculum
      • Move from professional development to volunteers
        • Big fight on money for teachers vs. volunteer tutors
  • National Reading Panel
    • Appointment process began in 1997
      • How do you build authority and trust?
      • Took 300 nominations and the Secretary of Education created the panel
    • Open meetings with transcripts
    • Public hearings around the country
    • Explicit methodology: replicable searcher, pre-established inclusion criteria, research had to be consistent with questions, meta-analysis
      • Some things we were not able to find conclusive evidence about things, so we didn’t include it
    • Findings on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, professional development
    • Controversy
      • There was a very real chance that this would have all ended up on a shelf, but we had a new president come in and he made it the cornerstone of federal literacy policy
  • No Child Left Behind
    • 2001 reauthorization of ESEA
    • More Title I funding, but more accountability
    • Reading First ($1 billion a year for K-3 PD, curricula, materials)
    • This allows Congress a way out of the unholy bargain. We can control quality without being a part of local decision making since the NRP did it
      • Congress keeps its hands clean of the controversy
  • Results of all of this…
    • Higher 4th grade achievement on both the NAEP and the NAEP trend items (reduction of achievement gap, sizable gains, highest trend performance ever)
      • What’s indisputable is that 4th graders are reading better now than they were 12 years ago, despite how you spin the politics on how the gains have been made and by whom
      • With all the state and federal focus on K-3, there has been some improvement at 4th grade. But…
    • No improvement for older students
      • 8th graders are not moving up, so we are losing the gains between 4th and 8th grade
      • What you see in the whole body of ed research is that Reading Recovery, Head Start, and other programs is that we know how to raise achievement early but that we don’t know how to sustain it
        • For instance, the difference between kindergarten full and half days had their gains erased by the end of first grade because all the same students did all the typical first grade curriculum.
      • We need to reform the system at all levels from the ground up. We need to keep all day kindergarten and then do PD for teachers in first grade to work with these higher achieving students.
  • NCLB/RF Problems
    • Accountability of goals of NCLB are unreachable and fail to reward success
    • The costs of testing are burgeoning in terms of lower morale, corruption, mistrust, etc.
    • States are encouraged to reduce standards
    • Peculiar corruption of Reading First
    • Subtle shift of NRP to WWC
    • Problems with the newer panels (NELP, NLP)
  • What is needed to make research-based policy work?
    • Substantial public support for research
    • Open way of determining specific research priorities
    • Benefits for researchers who choose to do this work
    • Is this likely? No:
      • We don’t see evidence so public support for research.
      • The feds are maintaining power over priorities.
      • There is no real infrastructure for carrying out recommendations for policy into practice.
      • There is likely to be evidence soon of the effectiveness of the Reading First policy.
      • There is no increase in university commitment.
  • Question and answer session
    • Shifts in thinking: Clinton and the Democrats wanted national testing in the 1990s, but the conservatives didn’t want to lose local control; now it is vice versa because all the states have their own standards.
    • Reading First: There is survey data to show that Reading First teachers actually feel better now that they “know how to teach reading” and have books in their classrooms. Part of the reason for this success is the Reading Excellence Act.
    • What is dividing the field is not methods, but thinking about the social and cultural aspects of what counts as evidence.
      • What grad students need to do is set aside the rhetoric of whether things are “good” or “bad,” and look at the field as a whole. It doesn’t mean that there are times when different questions demand different kinds of evidence, especially as it relates to policy.
      • There are people in medicine who do anthropology, but they don’t move into the policy debate.

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Of Photography and Five Paragraph Essays

For the past two Mondays, I have been attending a photography class. This was a Christmas present from my wife, and a much-needed break from the regular weekly routine in this cold, cold mid-winter stretch. The award-winning photographer teaching the class, Ron St. Germain, shares a number of tips and tricks while also teaching us the basics about how to operate these fancy (or what we thought were fancy until we realize all the things they can’t do) digital cameras that we’ve owned and never really known how to use.

In the first two sessions, he has basically told us to stop doing everything that we are doing with our cameras. Or, should I say, what they are doing for us. Point and shoot with auto focus? Turn it off and use your shutter and aperture settings. Automatic flash? Turn it off, too, and use a detachable, multi-directional flash. Saving in JPEG? Stop it, and switch over to TIFF or RAW formats because the JPEG may be space-saving, but is also taking out details in your pictures that you may want later. In short, take control of your camera so you can take better pictures. Otherwise, you will continue to get the same type of pictures that you have taken for years on auto pilot and that have never turned out.
As I was processing all these tips on the drive home tonight, I began to recall a conversation that I had with a group of high school teachers during a professional development session a few weeks ago. The topic of the session was “writing with purpose,” and we discussed a variety of reasons and genres for writing. Towards the end of the session we began a discussion about the five-paragraph essay (5PE). While I thought that showing them a video from the Annenberg Foundation and discussing reading a Jim Burke book would open up a conversation about essay writing that would critique the 5PE, what I found was exactly the opposite. Teachers in the session offered all the usual thoughts on why and how the 5PE works for them:

  • The kids don’t understand what an essay is at all and this gives them a model
  • You have to know the rules of essay writing before you can break them
  • When kids are in a testing situation, they need a model that they can rely upon

While I would like to believe that all of these are palpable reasons for teaching the 5PE, I simply can not buy it. As an amateur photographer, my instructor is basically telling me to throw out all the automatic settings on my camera and learn how to shoot manually. As a teacher of writing, I think that I should invite my students to throw out the automatic settings, too.

Instead of talking about a particular form, the 5PE, — just like relying on the settings that come installed on my camera — we need to talk clearly and carefully about audience, purpose, and situation of a writing task. Just as I no longer point my camera at a subject and let it do all the work, I don’t think that a writer should put a mold into place and then try to fill it.

This will only become more important as students compose multimedia texts. Beyond the many connections to composing that I could make with this digital camera example, I want to keep thinking here about the ways in which I should control the camera (or the form of the essay), and not how it should automatically do things for me.

Perhaps I am extending the comparison between my camera and the form of the 5PE essay a little far. Yet, I do believe that writing teachers need to consider the ways in which they frame the writing tasks in their classrooms. I want to make sure, especially with digital writing — which is by its very nature non-linear and multimodal — that we do not offer templates or pre-set notions of what a digital story, blog, wiki, or other composition should be (having X many links or images, for instance). Like the automatic settings on my camera limit me as a photographer, these preconceived notions of what a composition can be limit what a writer can attempt in his or her essay.

Engaging Writers with Interactive Genre Samples and Peer Review

The folks at UofT are at it again, and this project looks to be quite useful for writing teachers who are beginning to think about how technology can be useful for more than just web searching:

iWRITE is web-enabled courseware developed at the University of Toronto by Margaret Procter and colleagues to support the use of written assignments in courses across the disciplines. Each iWRITE site is course-specific so that it reflects the expectations in your discipline and your emphasis in teaching and grading. Thus its advice is relevant and credible.

By showing samples of past student papers along with detailed instructor annotations, iWRITE sites demonstrate the qualities of structure, coherence and style expected in written work for specific courses. The course grading criteria are included for viewing at any time. An interactive module (the Prompter) can be created to take students through the process of planning and drafting their next papers. A Peer Review function is also available for online exchange of papers.

iWRITE Web-Enabled Software

This kind of reminds me of the Model Bank examples, although the depth and breadth of classes and genres represented here seems much richer (mainly because this is college writing, not middle school). Moreover, I find the explicit focus on looking at other writing as models a great focus for this site, especially since so much concern about writing on the Internet is about copying and plagiarism. For the iWrite site, the focus seems to be on examining author’s craft in order to make one’s own writing better.

In other words, the teachers here want students to be looking at other writing, analyzing it, and learning to write better because of it. The interface allows them to do this in an interactive way, thus taking advantage of the technology to move beyond simply sharing a piece of writing but actually being able to engage with it.

I already emailed them for my temporary login and password.

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(Re)Imagining the Writing Workshop

Today, I invite you to think about what the writing workshop model offers for teachers and students and how it relates to Michigan’s ELA High School Content Standards.

Differentiating Writing Process from Writing Workshop

  • Quick write: What is Ray’s argument that she is trying to make for teaching writing? Do you agree or disagree with it?
  • Pair and share: Discuss your response in relation to your own experience as a K-12 student. What is your experience as a writer in school?

Examining the Writing Workshop in Action

As you view the video, please take note on how you see Ray’s “essential characteristics” of the writing workshop and what the teacher and students are doing:

  • Time for writing
  • Teaching
  • Talking
  • Periods of focused study
  • Publication rituals
  • High expectations and safety
  • Structured management

As you see the writing workshop enacted, and realizing that this is just one lesson, to what extent do you see these essential characteristics coming in to play? What did the teacher do? The students?

Examining Michigan’s High School ELA Content Expecations

Get a paper strip with a single content expectation. On the back of this strip, please write a one-sentence description of what you think this would look like in a classroom. What would the teacher be doing? What would students be doing?

Understanding the expectations: As you walk around the room and network with your colleagues, discuss your expectations in light of Ray’s “essential characteristics.”

To what extent do Ray’s characteristics and the content expectations:

  • Overlap and support each other?
  • Oppose or contradict each other?
  • Seem completely unrelated? Why?

Combining Theory and Practice

Get a full version of HS ELA Writing Expectations.

  • Where do you see evidence of a “writing process” approach in the content expecations?
  • Where do you see evidence of a “writing workshop” approach?
  • What specific skills do the content expectations demand that may or may not align with Ray’s vision of teaching in the writing workshop?
  • How do the different genres and media (especially media related to technology) map on to Ray’s understanding of the composing process?

Exit Slip

Begin to draft a response to Ray that takes the new HS expectations into account. You may respond by answering any of the questions that we have explored today or one that you now have in your mind. Please post the final draft of this response to your blog.

Visions of Technology In English

Tomorrow, I will be working with a colleague’s class of pre-service English teachers. He asked me to “offer this group is a vision or several visions of what is possible regarding technology and writing” and I can think of a few, but there are two rolling around in my mind right now.

First, I return to a post that Will had about a month ago introducing us to Mogopop. I downloaded the software and tried to get it to work, but with the holiday rush, I gave up on it. Well, this weekend I finally got back around to it as I began to think about the talk tomorrow. I am glad that I did. This seems like a simple, yet highly effective and web-based tool for producing multimedia content. Some of the examples on the site are very simple — just pictures in a slideshow, basically — but some of them are really elaborate. Moreover, Mogopop basically allows you to use the “note” feature in a video iPod to create an interactive, hypertextual and multimodal text. In short, it seems to be the most user-friendly multimedia creation tool that I have seen in a long time. Now, I haven’t made my own yet, but the possibilities seem quite engaging, with some examples on their site incorporating public domain and open source content (like all of Poe’s poems) into a Mogopop project. To me, this seems like a natural extension and publication tool for student work created in blogs, wikis, podcasts, and digital stories.

The second thing on my mind is one of Paul‘s most recent podcasts: Self-Assessing Blogging. He asks a series of timely questions to his middle school students, all of whom have been blogging all year:

Here are the questions I asked my middle school students to address today.

  1. What makes for a really good blog post — one that others want to read and respond to? * Is it something you care about? Is it about something important? * Is there enough writing? Is there too much? What keeps the reader reading? …

He asks many more questions and, in his podcasts, reads a number of students’ answers. One of the main themes? Audience. All of the students addressed the fact that they felt a real sense of audience in their blogging. I know that Paul has been using a blogging matrix to invite his students to write, and from his podcast it sounds as if this intentional scaffolding of student bloggers is paying off.

So, those are the two places that I will probably start talking tomorrow after a little bit of prefacing. I have other sites to show, but these are the things on my mind this weekend and both seem to be pertinent to our discussion tomorrow about visions.

It’s always nice when the vision can be grounded in reality.