Teaching Writing by Teaching Thinking: UC Irvine Teachers Conference Part 2

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My first post about the UCI Conference was all about Carol Jago’s keynote speech. I attended three other workshops that day:

  • Carol Jago’s Everything Is an Argument: Jago’s second session offered many ideas for teachers who want to build students thinking “muscles” so they can better tackle argument writing. She also gave insight into the new AP College Board exams in which students will be asked to analyze a published author’s argument, not to write one of their own.
  • ReLeah Cosset-Lent and Barry Gilmore’s Common Core CPR: What About the Adolescents Who Struggle…Or Just Don’t Care? Gilmore and Cosset-Lent have written a book with the same title as their presentation. Their idea is that Common Core should have a separate section to address student motivation. Students who aren’t motivated aren’t learning, so let’s do something about it. Cosset-Lent and Gilmore created a list of standards they wish were part of the Common Core: relevance, autonomy, technology, differentiation and scaffolding, active-learning, collaboration, multiple learning styles, and feedback on authentic assessments.

    Amy's Superhero via Marvel.com

    Amy’s Superhero via Marvel.com

  • Heather Wolpert-Gawron and Mary Widtmann’s Writing Project Project Based Learning: Wolpert-Gawron and Widtmann, two full-time classroom teachers, gave practical advice about how to actually get started with project-based learning. In writing-project style, each teacher shared their own classroom projects and the student work that came out of it. Wolpert-Gawron’s superhero project keeps her eighth grade students engaged over a whole semester. They write numerous academic pieces, including narrative, problem statement, advocacy, infographics and more. The superhero theme keeps students interested and motivated. Also—and this is my favorite part— students can you to Create Your Own Marvel Superhero at Marvel.com. I created Space Cadet (see above) just now. So fun.  Mary Widtmann, who teaches fourth grade, shared an equally compelling project, in which her students become interior designers, working in teams and with strict budgets. Students keep track of accounts using spreadsheets; create presentation boards with layouts, colors, and furniture plans; and share their finished designs in a celebratory final presentation with parents and the school community.

What I’m Thinking About

Ever since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, argument has been the writing type to teach. In fact, the CCSS has a subsection titled “The Special Place of Argument in the Standards” (Appendix A, p. 24). CCSS authors explain, “While all three text types are important, the Standards put particular emphasis on students’ ability to write sound arguments on substantive topics and issues, as this ability is critical to college and career readiness.”

So, we teachers have to figure out what exactly the CCSS authors mean by argument writing. How is it different than what we used to call persuasive writing? For that matter, how is argument different than what we used to call response to literature?

Side note:  Appendix A of the CCSS states, “Informational/explanatory writing includes a wide array of genres, including academic genres such as literary analyses…”(p.23). This is confusing to me because I always thought the traditional response to literature essay was making an argument. Apparently the CCSS doesn’t agree.

During Carol Jago’s talk on argument writing, an audience member asked a question about the difference between the various writing forms mentioned in the Common Core. Jago’s answer: “Don’t get caught up in the explanatory vs. argument vs. narrative conversation. Real writing does it all.” Hooray! She put words to what we have felt in our hearts all along.

Jago makes the case for giving students many opportunities for evidence-based thinking in addition to or sometimes instead of writing. The thinking practice will help students build the “muscles” that will assist them as writers. She suggests using images, infographics and evidence-based discussions to help students strengthen their skills.

Mainly, I like the idea of teaching kids to think while we teach them to write. Good writing doesn’t happen without good ideas.  Student writers need a real purpose, a strong understanding of audience, and the ability to back up opinions with evidence.  If we just keep our focus on that, the rest will follow.



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