Writing Curriculum

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog entry on curriculum design for students in my English Teaching Methods and Materials course. Because I have a meeting on a class day soon, I decided to update that entry, focusing more specifically on teaching writing. Although this blog post is written for my students, I hope that it will be useful to all teachers.

Teaching is a creative act and writing curriculum should be just that–an act of writing. One of the first things to consider about developing curriculum is that it involves a cognitive process; just as Flower and Hayes taught us about writing, developing curriculum involves planning, translating, and reviewing. Brainstorming and revision should be part of your curriculum design process–and getting feedback on your work can be just as useful as it is when you get feedback on an essay or creative piece.

Over the last 10 years or so, local districts have moved to “teacher-proof” the classroom, adopting curricula they expect teachers to use by rote. There are many problems with this, chief of which is that commercially produced curriculum (or even units teachers can find on the web) are not designed for our students. Students in the Central Valley are unique–and their teachers are in the best position to know what their students need. Our students deserve curriculum that responds to their situations, interests, experiences, and needs–teachers should write curriculum with those needs in mind.

Curriculum design requires teachers to think globally, identify their purposes (otherwise known as objectives or outcomes) for a unit, scaffold carefully, check student understanding, and reteach and rethink curriculum based on student learning.

Today, there are a couple of things that I’d like you to think about:
1) What have we learned thus far that we can apply to teaching writing?
2) How can we teach structure and organization?
3) What other elements of writing should we be concerned with?
4) What is scaffolding?

Let’s tackle each question. What follows focuses on more formal writing assignments, not the every day writing that we ask students to do in class.

1) What have we learned thus far that we can apply to teaching writing?

We’ve been studying how to develop inquiry-based units that focus on an Essential Question. Formal writing assignments allow students to reflect on their learning, synthesizing their thinking in ways that are reflective and personal. That’s not to say that every formal writing assignment needs to be a personal narrative–rather, teachers should design writing assignments that allow students to express their opinions and ideas. In other words, don’t create prompts like the one I mentioned in class (write an argument against smoking) where it’s clear what position the student is expected to take. Develop prompts that allow for exploration and the expression of different ideas/opinions.

Prompts for writing should grow out of the conversations we have with our students during the course of a unit. During the early part of the semester, we studied how to teach reading comprehension and literary analysis. The strategies we discussed should move students towards deeper understandings of the Essential Question (EQ), fostering thinking and growth that will enable students to be successful at the writing prompts we generate.

We’ve also talked about “backwards planning“–the method teachers use when they decide on the final assessment first and then plan curriculum that move students towards mastery. The Common Core standards play a role in helping us identify reasonable expectations for our grade level in the area of writing. Moreover, The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing points us towards goals that will help our students be college and career ready–it also identifies habits of mind that we want to foster in our students. Grant Wiggins offers a number of questions teachers can use during the planning process:

  • What enabling knowledge (facts, concepts, and principles) and skills (procedures) will students need to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  • What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills?
  • What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of performance goals?
  • Is the overall design coherent and effective? (Wiggins)

These questions can guide you as you consider how to best teach writing.

2) How can we teach structure and organization?

This is a big question, so what I’ll be writing here is just the beginning of our discussion. An important thing to remember in this area is that if students don’t have ideas, they are going to have difficulty organizing and developing effectively. They’ll likely need your guidance as they explore the EQ and come to a place where they feel ready and excited to write.

As they learn, process, and think, you also will need to make sure that students are familiar with the genre conventions specific to the kind of writing you’re assigning. This familiarity comes through experience, but also through direct means–our unit can include pieces that address both the EQ and the genre we’re asking students to produce. If we want students to create an argument, then include examples of arguments and study how they are constructed. Kelly Gallagher and other writers have called these “mentor texts,” suggesting specific ways to talk about and use mentor texts within the classroom.

We also need to help students understand units of thought such as the paragraph. Analyzing and imitating examples can help students make decisions about, for example, what belongs in a paragraph and what doesn’t. Helping students develop familiarity with modes like comparison/contrast, definition, and the like can give students possible ways of structuring their thoughts. Imitating structures can be part of our explorations of the EQ at the heart of our units. Writing instruction should be embedded throughout the unit, not just something we tack on at the end.

One of the most challenging things for many writers is to understand how to build an argument (not just a list of topics related to a thesis). Joseph Harris’ book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts can offer students ways to engage with arguments that other writers make; this, in turn, can influence better organization and development because it helps writers understand rhetorical moves they can make in their own writing. Mini-lessons on specific features of organization and development is another strategy teachers use in writing instruction. The Writing Fix website can give you some mini-lesson/content ideas; though many of the examples are for younger writers, there are ways that secondary teachers can adapt these ideas for older students.

Overall, teaching organization and development is about helping students analyze texts, providing them with broad and deep exposure to how writers organize and develop their ideas. It isn’t an easy endeavor–but then I frequently hear complaints from teachers who teach the 5 paragraph structure–that in spite of the “easiness” of this method, students still don’t seem to be able to master it. Using a formulaic approach to writing is no guarantee that students will produce well organized and developed writing, so why not try an approach that will deepen student understanding of the flexibility and power of writing?

3) What other elements of writing should we be concerned with?

There are many more things that can help students become better writers: how we structure prompts, the means we use for assessment, treatment of grammar and punctuation, using reflection to improve writing, and the possible use of portfolios to inspire reflection and showcase growth. We’ll be exploring all of these in class. However, I’ll focus on one of these in this section: as teachers, we need to create good writing prompts that allow some kind of student choice, perhaps in genre or in how they frame their response to the EQ. The prompt should also help them imagine and engage with the rhetorical situation (exigency/purpose, audience, context, writer) they are entering. Prompts should specify a real audience and meaningful reasons (purposes) for writing. Here are some reminders about creating strong prompts:

  • Identify audience for essay
  • Be specific about the form of discourse/genre): expository essay, autobiographical, short story?
  • Make clear the subject or topic of essay
  • Be sure that the assignment is purposeful and relevant

Once you develop and distribute a prompt, have students analyze it and summarize it in their own words. Revisit the prompt, connect instructional activities to it, and scaffold instruction to help students write the assignment . . . which brings us to the last question.

4) What is scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a way of focusing on how you organize your unit, how you help student understanding and competency grow. It’s based on the work of theorist Jerome Bruner. Here are some principles related to scaffolding:

  • Reduce the size of the task and the “degrees of freedom in which the child has to cope”
  • Concentrate the child’s attention on something manageable
  • Provide models of what is expected
  • Extend the opportunities for practice
  • Ensure that the child does not “slide back” but moves to the next “launching platform”

[Note: these are taken from Carol Booth Olsen’s The Reading/Writing Connection.]

Scaffolding writing instruction, then, means that teachers help students engage with ideas, lead them through the development of a response to a prompt, provide instructional moments related to the writing the teacher is asking them to do, create curriculum that allows students to practice, provide opportunities for exploration and feedback, pay attention to students’ needs, develop mini-lessons in response to these needs, and reteach when necessary.

Teaching writing is a complex but ultimately rewarding process. It’s something that you can continue to work on and explore. One place you could learn more about writing from experienced classroom teachers is the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project‘s New Teachers Writing Collaborative. Student teachers and teachers with up to four years of experience can participate–since each year there are changes, you can also retake it each summer.

Consider commenting on this post to ask questions and give your own ideas about how to teach writing. If you are a classroom teacher, what has worked for you in writing instruction? What resources have helped expand your ideas about writing?

2 Comments

  1. Teacher Kristie Leyba from Edison HS just tweeted several ideas about how she teaches structure in her classroom:

    “identify structural options in mentor texts and imitate plan with these options in mind.”

    “also talking about the function each part of the writing. What is the job of an intro? How do writers build that bond to readers?”

    Follow her on Twitter (https://twitter.com/diadelakristie) to partake in her awesomeness!

  2. I would say that from my own experience, that learning to write from a model is an important step in developing confidence as a writer. For example, when I took two grant proposal writing classes, I was literally instructed to refer to the model for the structuring of the proposals I was making. The same applies to fiction; when considering how to craft fiction, referring to the examples of some established professionals is way to begin the process, to help the author keep in mind the structural processes at play. When we work with students, we should similarly consider how and to what depth we should provide them of examples of what we wish to see from them. Then, as a teacher, we need to take care that they are following structural models and not directly mimicking for effect. The difference may be gross or subtle but as teachers we need to be aware of it all the same.

    Writing to a model style, or genre style, cannot cause a student to develop their own voice, I would argue. That is a separate process based more on the development of the self, consciousness, and individual agency. We can only that in an indirect fashion, by giving assignments which promote this growth. It is difficult or even impossible to explicitly require such development from anyone and any writer.

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