Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tips for Adding Writing to you Classroom: From a Non-Writing Teacher

I teach Social Studies.

I took history classes in college.  Many of which required me to write papers instead of take tests.  Most of my professors (if not all) did not grade on writing conventions, they only cared about the content.  I didn't take ONE literature, English, or writing class in college (took Honors English as a Senior in high school so I could get that credit out of the way.)

I was NOT trained on how to teach writing.  At all.

So, when I was told a few years ago that I needed to start incorporating more writing into my Social Studies classes, I panicked. How can I require kids to do something that I'm not even sure on how to grade it?  Or what to actually require of them?  Or what to actually say?

I had two choices.  Refuse to change what I was doing and ignore the requirement, or figure it out.

Over the last few years, I have been working on figuring it out.  Here is what I have done.

These are tips for teachers who aren't trained to teach writing, from a teacher who wasn't trained in writing instruction.  I hope it helps calm some fears and make this writing thing a little more doable.

Collaborate with your writing teachers:  Do it now.  First thing.  Go down the hall and tell them that you want to add more writing assignments to your classroom and you would like to mirror what they do in their classroom.  Trust me, they will appreciate it!  Use the same language they do.  Our 8th grade teacher, Mrs. Rohloff, uses a fun method to get kids to write better paragraphs.  It's called Ninja paragraphs and it's awesome.  She teaches it, requires it out of the students, and that makes it easy for me to mirror.  All I have to do is tell the students they have to use the Ninja paragraph format and they know what to do!


Our 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Harris, started doing these really cool short "on demand writing" activities in her class in order to prepare the students for the new multidisciplinary writing state assessment.  Guess what I'm going to add to my class??  Yep.  Short, on demand writing prompts based on the content we are studying, using primary source documents,  and her template as a starting point. The kids are already familiar with the process, I just add in the content.

This is Mrs. Harris' On Demand Writing assignment.  See cool stuff!

Here is mine.  I took her form and adapted it to fit my content and requirements.  Notice how I only grade on the writing conventions that I can confidently pick out.

A HUGE shout out to Cheney Middle School's 7th and 8th grade Communications team!  They have helped me out SO MUCH the last three years.  I am becoming a better teacher every day because of them!
Melodie Harris and Holley Rohloff, my "Go-to Gals" for all my writing needs!

Start Small:  Don't freak out and think all of a sudden you have to include a 5 paragraph essay with introduction and conclusion.  Start with complete sentences.  Make students respond using complete sentences ALL THE TIME.  They will hate it.  They will ask why they have to do it in your class and some will protest by continuing to write one word answers.  Do it anyway.

Grade what you know:  Every teacher in this profession knows that a complete sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with punctuation.  Grade it.  If you require a complete sentence and they don't capitalize the first letter, count off for it.  I take a 1/2 point off EVERY TIME they don't capitalize the first letter or put punctuation.  And you know what??? All of a sudden my students started to remember to do this very basic skill.

Ask "Why?" or use the phrase "Provide evidence from the text."  These are some of the first things you should add to your questions.  Always make them explain HOW they know something and reference the text or provide details from a class discussion.  Hold them accountable for how they know the information, and make them back it up.  Other good questions..."How do you know this?"  "Explain your reasoning by using at least two specific details learned in class"  or my personal favorite... "write an adjective to describe this person and provide a quote to support your choice."

Use the acronym T.A.G.:  TAG stands for T - Turn the question into a statement.  A - Answer the question.  G - Give more detail.  This always requires the students to answer the question in TWO complete sentences.  They hate it at first, but eventually they become accustomed to the requirement and their responses are SO MUCH BETTER!

EXAMPLE: What was William Marbury's complaint in the case of Marbury vs. Madison?

Real example of student response NOT USING T.A.G. **No words have been changed**
  • Wanted the position he was promised 
Example of student response WITH T.A.G. **No words have been changed**
  • Marbury's complaint was that he was to be a judge, but Jefferson refused to give him this.  He went to the Supreme Court to get a "writ of mandamus" because he wasn't going down without a fight.

Tic Tac Tell:  I first got the idea for this from Glenn Wiebe's tip of the week post.  It is awesome.  Stop requiring students to only memorize the definition of vocabulary words.  Take the standard requirement of "use the word correctly in a sentence" to the NEXT LEVEL with Tic Tac Tell.


Mix it up:  You don't always have to incorporate writing by having kids write paragraphs or sentences.  Throw in some poetry writing...again, piggy-back off of what the English teachers do.  When they teach poetry, have your kids write a haiku over women's suffrage.  There are great resources out there for adding poetry writing to your classroom.  I personally love combining poetry writing with photographs as the picture below shows examples of 7th grade haiku's using the knowledge of our study of Women's Suffrage and a photograph I provided.




This hasn't been an easy move for me, it has been a challenge, but I love a good challenge.  I love to seek out ideas and strategies that will make me a better teacher and allow for more creativity in my classroom.

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