Mad Scientists at Wordprocessors

Last Friday was a good one, indeed. Not because I’m Catholic or because it was the last day of work before spring break started. Instead, I had the opportunity to work with our science department on issues related to their implementation of writing stemming from new Common Core standards.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a workshop I call “Thinking Like an English Teacher” and given that workshop to history teachers at a local Advanced Placement workshop. I’m branching out here into a new subject area, one where the traditional approach to writing is to say, “English teachers teach writing,” or “That’s not my job,” or “My course doesn’t fit with those standards.” At least history teachers perceive themselves to be providing writing instruction, however narrowly done, so with science teachers it was an interesting morning. As you’ll see, I soon found these perceptions about science teachers and writing to be false.

As  statistics and research emerge illustrating the importance of such partnerships between Science teachers and their English counterparts to have any real effect at improving students’ skills, we need to spend more time interdepartmentally in discussion about what we do. Additionally, job studies show that STEM education is essential as STEM jobs are one of the largest growing employment sectors of the economy. If our kids are going to compete, they are going to have to have paired skills in communication and in STEM arenas.

For me, the morning was a learning opportunity. First, I saw a true desire on the part of my science colleagues to do this. There wasn’t any “I’m a science teacher and not a writing teacher.” They really want to have kids become better communicators. However, I really had no idea how little our science teachers knew about teaching writing, and if given the opportunity again I would go about my workshop from a completely different perspective. In terms of my comments on my science colleagues, I mean no disrespect and no criticism. Some of the core issues and decisions that we’ve dealt with as English teachers are brand new to these people. English teachers, staff developers and workshop leaders—we’ve got to take it slow. Here are some of the elements of writing instruction that I attempted to address and that science teachers need to know as a foundation:

  1. Writing instruction doesn’t mean research papers. My science colleagues thought that the way to teach writing was by assigning a big research paper. A very complicated thing to do. And, quite likely, without a serious helping of writing instruction to go along with it, a frustrating experience for teachers because they are most likely going to read a lot of crap. Writing can be taught in discrete chunks. Focus on writing better backgrounds in laboratory write-ups, or framing better hypothesis statements or better conclusions. If you’re doing a series of labs in a unit, afterwards write a synthesis of those as you would for a textbook or an wiki article. Or, in a unit test, have a brief question at the end which students have to respond to an issue that was discussed in class.
  2. Common language with the English department. Our science chair wanted the rubric we use in our department and a list of instructional vocabulary that we use that we could all be on the same page. I told her no. Mostly because we don’t have one. In our department, we’re all over the place, and I hope to continue to be (although, the new New York State learning modules scare me bad, and those that support them scare me, too. That’s a blog post for another day).  It’s nice as teachers to think that we could make our lives better by creating standardized systems. However, I think we do a disservice to our kids in that way. Kids need to work with a variety of audiences and through a variety of different tasks, modalities and levels of engagement. They need to learn how to shift through all of these different, complicated rhetorical maneuvers. That’s what we do as adults on a daily basis as we navigate partners, bosses, children, and neighbors who all require us to employ different styles of communication in order to have meaningful, successful discourse.
  3. Who are you writing towards? Give them audiences. Tests pervert students’ skills and ability to function in the real world. Because the only writing experiences kids are being given is to respond to tests, they struggle with the rules of writing. On top of that, when kids only write for the teacher, they also get a false sense of audience and purpose. So, establish audiences in writing assignments to give them rules to follow in their writing.
  4. Rules. Who sets them? Teachers do. If there’s something that troubles a teacher in a student’s writing, call the student out, instruct, and then make the student accountable. If they’re taught well, they’ll do it. Then, they’ll probably forget and need to be taught it again. That is not the problem with the teacher. That’s the nature of students.
  5. “I was never taught this, but I still figured it out.” Me, too. I was never taught proper research skills, or how to do MLA. My teachers said go do it, and I did. It was an imperfect process for me, but I came through it. However, as teachers we no longer live in an era where kids will do things independently. They need their hands held and to be spoon fed. If something isn’t taught to them, it isn’t their problem, it’s the teachers. We can cry and complain all we want about the failures of our society and the problems with today’s youth. You still have to teach them exactly what it is you want them to know.
  6. Go slow. Teach writing. Yes. But don’t take it all on.

I’m also finishing a another post about integrating writing on a daily basis with some practical, straightforward and simple ways to do it. I’ll have it up soon.

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