“Preparing students for college, career, and the workplace means giving students opportunities to write the multifaceted and diverse forms of writing taking place in the real world, and it also means finding ways to place writing on ‘center stage’ at their school” (Early, 14).
In Jessica Singer Early’s “Imagining the Possibilities: Improving the Teaching of Writing through Teacher-Led Inquiry”, how a curriculum informed by “teacher-led-action-research” can better meet the “real-life” needs of students is explored. A group of seven teachers from an ethnically and linguistically diverse, low-income, and urban K-12 charter school are the participants in this research. Over the course of six months in 2013, this group met once a month in person in an informal and egalitarian setting to discuss strategies and challenges in implementing different activities meant to help students develop “real-world” writing skills and practices. The members of the group also contributed regularly to an online forum. It was the hope of this group and its work that working together would assist them in creating writing curricula that better prepared students for the “next stages of their lives” as well as taught students how to tackle the “diverse forms of writing” they would encounter in college, the workplace, and their communities. Participants engaged in a kind of “collaborative teaching” in which ideas shared with the group could be remixed, expanded, or otherwise tweaked until a kind of “best practice” seemed to emerge and was identified via student engagement and responsiveness.
Early states early on
(haha) that, “We [educators] must find ways to give students opportunities to learn and adapt to different genres of writing, especially those that may have an impact on their later lives” (12). The point of Early’s research and of the group of teachers’ work in the study itself seems to be about facilitating transfer. How do we, as educators of writing, best assist students in developing skills that will allow them to write effectively and, even, passionately across genres? Where in the current curriculum is there space for writing to not only grow but flourish? Answers to these questions seemed to be what Early and these other educators were pursuing–to rather effective ends, if I must say myself. While I have my doubts about empathy being a “teachable” trait, I found the methods many of these teachers used to help stimulate the development of transferable skills to be relatively sound. Incorporating resume writing and proposal work seem tasks as good as any to assist students in connecting what they learn about writing inside the classroom to how they can use it outside the classroom. At least, working on those kinds of assignments seemed to engage students actively in their learning as they could see the “real-world applicability” and thus, motivated them to improve upon themselves. One of the teacher participants remarked, “Students were motivated, engaged, and eager to learn about resume writing. It is incredibly unusual for me to get nearly every student to turn in an assignment but with this resume for a summer job, a lot [of students] were using them for summer internships” (Heather as quoted by Early, 15). Essentially, providing students with an assignment with clear applications to the “real-world” in the classroom inspired greater student participation. In fact, it seemed to inspire transfer itself as students were already using what they were learning and applying it to other areas of their lives such as applying for summer internships.
The question for me becomes how can the overall curriculum be broadened to include activities that ensure transfer is not just a concern but something actively being pursued? Because, it seems to me, that educators striving for transfer of classroom learning to real-world application is not the norm but the exception. I mean, these educators had to incorporate these activities themselves into the curriculum. More, some educators had to get “creative” about making writing visible to students as it seems they couldn’t necessarily find the space to otherwise include it in their classrooms. One teacher hosted an after-school workshop for students to write to their local newspaper and another couple got billboards to hang outside their classrooms for students to hang their own work, establishing a collaborative writing space as both part of the learning process but still outside the classroom (13-14). Another teacher made a Google Group to allow students a public forum where they could upload their work and here back from their peers, another example of collaborative writing being used as a tool to assist in the development of writing skills via group discussion but also of collaborative writing being something that occurs outside of the classroom. Presumably, this is because either 1) the teacher wanted to utilize technology as means to facilitate learning or because 2) there simply was no space to devote to this activity in the classroom.
For me, I found it perturbing that resume writing is not a key component already of the curriculum for a 10th grade English course. How is that knowledge, which has such strong, “real-world” applications, somehow less important or less deserving of focused attention in the classroom than, say, writing a five-paragraph essay about Cambodian agriculture? This research seemed to emphasize the places in contemporary curricula that are lacking–places where educators must decide themselves to “pick up the slack” or else they will not be addressed. To me, the educators in this study provided writing spaces (defined as “‘places highlighting, inviting, publishing, or supporting student writing'” (14)) that should already exist. They made writing visible that should already be visible. At least, more recognizable to students than a five-paragraph essay format for no other reason than because knowing how to write an essay or how to construct a letter to a newspaper editor about a community issue or how to work collaboratively with other writers towards a shared goal is arguably more relevant to what needs students will actually have outside the classroom. The idea of having Writing Centers, places where peer-review of written work can occur in a non-evaluative way, too, should not fall on teachers alone to execute. Why are supervisors and members on boards of education not more interested in having these resources available to students? Universities have Writing Centers. Wouldn’t it be beneficial, though, to teach students early on that receiving assistance from such places can be integral to best writing? Personally, as a Graduate Assistant in my own university’s Writing Center, this is something I wonder about often.
Of course, it all comes down to money and funding.
Even this study takes place at a charter school instead of a regular public school. Charter schools can have, perhaps, that little more “leeway” that allowed the teacher participants of this research to incorporate the few additional writing activities they did. There’s more support to facilitate it than many public schools can provide. Also, it is my understanding there are typically fewer students in charter school classrooms which can allow both for the students to receive more individual attention and engage in more individualized learning such as taking part in online class-forums (as the classes are smaller and allow for more manageable contact–on both the students and the teacher’s part) and for teachers to participate in outside research such as this study. Fewer students = fewer responsibilities = more time to participate in additional work opportunities. Somehow, I highly doubt a public school English teacher with say 150-200 kids could find either the time to participate in this study or the time to develop outside the curriculum and implement meant them in the classroom. Of course, this all speculation as I do not know how many students each teacher participant in this research had but, still, these seem valid concerns to keep in mind for anyone who wants to expand Early’s research.
That said, I found the whole idea of collaborative teaching to be interesting and to have some very possible beneficial applications. As Early states, “Teacher inquiry work on the teaching of writing is a tangible and empowering way for English language arts teachers to expand access for all students to gain the real-word writing experience necessary to succeed in college, the workplace, and the community” (15). While I hold my reservations about how effectively this kind of teaching can be applied to more public settings than a charter school, I think the few provided results of it show potential and, more, show students are receptive to it. As engaging students in the classroom seems an eternal uphill battle for most educators, pursuing any small way to lessen the struggle seems worth the effort.
Early, Jessica Singer. “Imagining the Possibilities: Improving the Teaching of Writing through Teacher-Led Inquiry.” English Leadership Quarterly, April 2014, pp. 11-15.