Thursday, March 29, 2007

Crawl Before You Walk

An interesting thing came up as we scored math assessments these past two weeks. Time and again, we saw that the good teaching practices we all use to help students learn the vocabulary in our content areas was working. Students are able to provide the witty sayings or the clever acronyms we teach them to remember the vocab - but they don't know it.

For example, in working with a graph where students were asked to give the coordinates of a point - most of them got it. When they were then asked to explain how they got that answer - things went downhill quickly. The students could repeat "crawl before you walk" or "throw up" but they couldn't give additional details to describe HOW they arrived at their answer in a way that showed they understood the concept. Without showing that understanding, students could not receive full credit.

It made me think about Mr. Bloom and his taxonomy of thinking. If we teach students to find the way to get the right answers - and it always works - do they need to understand WHY it works? I think the math teachers in the room would say "YES!!" And I think I agree.

This is where writing is so important in all content areas. Writing - and having the correct words to convey your thoughts and feelings - is powerful. Without knowing the vocabulary or being able to explain yourself well - no one will really know what it is you know. So it follows that those who write well are powerful and those who cannot write well are not.

Teaching writing is the responsibility of every teacher - not just English Language Arts teachers. In fact - writing is the responsibility of every teacher. If we are not practicing and modeling our writing with our students - how will they learn that no one creates a perfect draft the first time. That we need to play with our words and the order of our words before we publish our work. That there are glimmers of ideas for our writing everywhere - it is up to us to give them the unique slant and perspective that create our voice.

In a random sampling of asking teachers during scoring how many were teaching their students to write out the explanations to many of the problems we saw on the assessments - few were pushing their kids to do so. Those who were taught other subjects beyond math and were primarily elementary school teachers. We know these are the types of things on our assessments - why are we surprised that our students do poorly on them if we are not asking them to provide the same work in class?

Perhaps we need to all practice the writing crawl - introduce writing in small bits that the teacher and the student are comfortable with - so that we can model for students that writing has power and should be used in every subject. Teachers won't need a degree in writing but can learn these writing strategies from colleagues - which will open the door to the collegiality that our profession desperately needs. And slowly - they'll begin to toddle, then walk, then run with writing in their classrooms. And so will our students.

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