The Origins of Come to Class
Click here to view printable PDF of the Origins of Come to Class.
The writing lessons in Come to Class originated and have been perfected during my long career as an English teacher. Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica, California, has been a professional home for me the past 27 years. I have been surrounded by extraordinary colleagues who put students first and never stop trying to figure out how to make this a place where no one is left behind. Our efforts are not always successful, but we refuse to give up—either on kids or on ourselves. We believe teaching is an art rather than a science and each lesson a work in progress.
Come to Class grew out of a learning environment that puts students first.
Most English teachers at Santa Monica High School have between 35 and 38 students in every class and meet with 150 to 170 students every day. This is a terrifying prospect for anyone responsible for teaching writing. For the past 30 years the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has recommended that no English teacher should be responsible for more than 80 students. And that doesn't mean 80 students on Mondays and Wednesdays and another 80 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Santa Monica High School students come from a wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Over 45 languages are spoken on campus. It is common for a third of my class to speak a language other than English at home. Approximately 40 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Children of UCLA professors sit next to homeless students, teenage mothers rub shoulders with teenage actresses. We are a large school with 3,500 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. To address the needs of students who feel isolated and anonymous, a few years ago we divided the school into six houses. Unfortunately even our "small schools" include over 600 students. As a small-schools expert told me when we were planning to restructure, a school of 600 students is not a small school.
Still, we never stop trying to personalize the learning experience for our students. I begin this by giving a Language Survey to every student in my class early in the school year. I am careful to assure students that this is not intended to determine if they are "ready" for the class. They are free to ignore any questions on the survey they don't want to answer.
After evaluating the responses to the survey, I schedule individual conferences with students. The survey gives me particular questions to ask and tells me much more about my students than simply their language backgrounds. It opens the door to talking about educational background, personal interests, and attitudes toward language, the grist for all writing. The survey also smoothes the way for a conversation about what I expect from them this year. I have learned from these meetings that no two students come to us with exactly the same experiences. Teachers need to be alive to the strengths and needs, occasionally unique needs, of individuals.
Come to Class grew out of a public mandate for and personal commitment to teaching writing well.
Abraham Lincoln called writing "the great invention of the world . . . Great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, the unborn, at all distances, and great not only in its direct benefits, but its great help to all other inventions." I had never thought of writing as an "invention," but given the essential role writing has played in our exercise of the invention called popular democracy, I was struck by Lincoln's observation. Democracies depend on a literate citizenry. Teaching students how to write provides them with a critical tool for participating in a democracy. Their participation strengthens our democracy.
Everyone agrees that students should learn to write well. The rub is that almost everyone wishes someone else would teach kids how. It is easy to see why. Reading student essays is much less of a chore when ideas are clearly organized and coherently expressed. And circling spelling errors and correcting misplaced modifiers is nobody's idea of fun. At the same time, there is little chance of success in school unless students learn how to write. Students who don't write well founder when they go to college and struggle on the job, forever hiding their poor composition skills. Teaching writing is too important to leave to somebody else.
Teaching writing has traditionally been the responsibility of middle and high school English teachers. We accept this role in theory but in practice struggle to keep up with the paper load. Look at the numbers. A teacher responsible for 150 students a day who assigns a paper every three weeks and spends 10 minutes on each essay must devote over eight hours each week (an extra work day) to reading student essays. One solution is to lower class size in classes that are writing-intensive, a practice commonly followed in college composition classes. Another is to spread the responsibility for teaching writing across the curriculum.
The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges issued a report called "The Neglected R" whose critical message was that "writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many." The commission specifically recommended that:
- The amount of time students spend writing should be at least doubled.
- Writing should be assigned across the curriculum.
- More out-of-school time should be used to encourage writing.
- Standards, curriculum, and assessment must be aligned.
- Assessments of student writing must go beyond multiple-choice items. Assessment should provide students with adequate time to write and require students to create a piece of prose.
- Common expectations about writing should be developed across disciplines.
- States should provide the financial resources necessary for the additional time and personnel required to make writing a centerpiece of the curriculum.
I fervently hope that these recommendations will be acted upon immediately and that legislators will find the political will to make the final bullet point a reality. I'm not holding my breath. The report was issued in 2003, and I have yet to see any reduction in my class size. But using the dearth of financial resources in the public schools as an excuse for not teaching writing will only shortchange the students who need us most. I can't wait for ideal conditions.
In 2007, the National Writing Project (NWP) conducted a survey to discover what the American public thought about the state of writing instruction in our schools. While a large majority believes that writing is an important and abiding skill, many feel that high school students do not write as well as in the past. My first reaction was defensive. How could it be otherwise in a society that parses news into sound bites? When was the last time this "large majority" corrected student papers until midnight? Once I calmed down, I began to see the results as hopeful. If the public values writing, it should be something we are willing to invest in. Judge for yourself from the results of the NWP survey:
- A broad majority of Americans believes good writing skills are very important (74% say "greater need to write well to succeed than 20 years ago").
- Nearly everyone agrees writing should be introduced in school before the fifth grade (96%), and one-half says writing instruction should begin in the first grade or earlier (49%).
- More than 7 in 10 say giving all students daily writing assignments (71%) and teaching writing in all subjects (74%) are ideas that should be put into practice now.
- More than four-fifths (84%) say students should learn to write well as a requirement for high school graduation. This puts writing below reading (94%) and math (94%) and ahead of American history (73%), algebra (56%), biology (48%), and foreign language (31%).
- Americans fear our children are falling behind. Many (47%) say that today's high schools are producing students who do not write as well as students in the past. Just 20% believe today's students write better than those in the past.
- Half (50%) of the public believes students are writing less frequently today than a generation ago and fewer than one in four (23%) believe today's students write more than when they were in school. When asked about the importance of writing in the workplace and higher education, the survey found that:
- Americans tend to believe writing is key to succeeding in the jobs similar to the ones they themselves perform, regardless of what type of job that is. Writing is not just a skill needed by "the other guy." Both blue-collar workers (80%) and white-collar workers (93%) say writing is important to success in their careers.
- Americans say students need writing skills to succeed in college (67% "essential"), expressing a belief that writing is more essential for success in college than it is for any occupation.
- A large majority of the public (79%) understands that reading and writing go hand in hand-rejecting the view that reading skills need to come first.
- Further, learning to write well is perceived as a key ingredient for students to acquire other skills such as effective communication (66% "essential"), grammar (63%), and critical thinking (52%). Best of all from my perspective as an English teacher, I was encouraged to see that the public understands what will be required to improve the teaching of writing.
- By a margin of two to one, the public sees more benefit in putting resources into helping teachers teach writing than in putting those resources into testing students to see how well they are learning to write.
- Americans want to see teacher-training programs include courses on teaching writing (79% "good idea") and professional development for current teachers (75% "good idea").
Writing to Explain
Expository writing is one of the most versatile yet least understood types of writing. Its principal task is to explain. Yet this simple task poses a challenge for teachers, for expository writing can take many forms at its finest and is anything but formulaic. These lessons illustrate methods I use for teaching my students how to write engaging, focused, and, most important, clear expository essays. An explanation that lacks clarity fails to meet its communicative purpose.
There is urgency to this work. Students must produce expository essays for many state and national writing assessments as well as for almost every college course they will take. University instructors often fault high school English teachers for failing to prepare students for the expository writing demands that are so commonplace in college assignments. Rather than back away from this challenge, I embrace it; and I find that some of my most reluctant writers prefer to explain what they know and have learned rather than write about literature.
Presented here as consecutive days of instruction, the unit can also be spread over several weeks according to your school calendar or the length of your teaching period. I offer these lessons as an intense writing workshop to help you see the interdependent nature of the unit as a whole and how the teaching builds on what has gone before.
About Writing to Explain
Expository writing can be divided into many subcategories: how-to essays, comparison and contrast, extended definition, cause and effect, problem and solution, the reporting of information. In these lessons I do not attempt to cover each of these approaches but rather offer students guidance for writing to explain their own chosen topics. Once a student has mastered the basic moves for writing exposition, writing to the particular demands of an assignment will come more easily.
I find that by ninth grade, most students are sick of the how-to essay. They have been writing a version of "how to bake chocolate chip cookies" or "how to hit a curve ball" since fourth grade. (Most teachers I know are also sick of reading such papers.) It is important to teach students how to construct logical, step-by-step instructions; however, my students are more engaged when I raise the bar and challenge them to write an expository essay- not about what they already know, but about something they would like to know more about. Of course, this means they will need to conduct research.
One reason student expository essays are often so dull is that teenagers don't know enough about the subject to make the paper engaging. It is concrete detail that captures a reader's attention. Exemplary expository writing requires extensive expository reading and research.
According to the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, the writing of term papers has become an educational curiosity. I understand why few teachers assign research essays. The project devours too much curricular time, and it requires an enormous investment of additional teacher time to grade papers. But what if, instead of investing 6 to 8 weeks on a term paper, you assign a three-page paper that includes a research dimension? Such an assignment will meet the research requirements in your state standards as well as enrich your students' expository writing skills.
Writing to Persuade
Different types of writing place different demands on students. These lessons focus on persuasive writing and demonstrate how I teach my students to craft effective essays. Presented as seven sequential days of instruction, the lessons could also be spread over two weeks or longer according to your school calendar or the length of your teaching period.
You may also wish to intersperse your writing curriculum with literature lessons. I have presented the lessons as an intensive writing workshop to help you see how the entire unit fits together and how the teaching builds on what has gone before. As always, you will want to take your cue from your students and not ask for more than they can deliver.
That said, I believe that we often spread out due dates over such a long period of time that we build in too much time for procrastination. For me, focused work on improving students' writing skills has always seemed best.
Why Teach Persuasive Writing?
Most young people are masters at the art of persuasion. The teenagers I work with have been convincing parents and friends to behave as they would like since they first could talk, some with remarkable finesse. This collection of lessons will help you build upon that innate skill as you develop your students' facility for crafting a written argument that can persuade others to think as they do.
Some writing instructors argue that all writing is fundamentally persuasive. Others view persuasive writing as the construction of a pro or con argument that must conclude with a call to action. I believe persuasive writing is more defined than the first view but less constricting and more interesting than the second. Writing to persuade is a subtle dance between reader and writer during which the writer makes his way of thinking so attractive to the reader that, as night follows day, the reader completes the essay fully convinced by the writer's argument. Nothing else would seem to make sense.
According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress Writing Framework, "Human beings communicate as a means of accomplishing goals or meeting needs. Writing, then, can be thought of as a relationship or negotiation between the writer and reader to satisfy the aims of both parties. In a complex society with a plurality of perspectives and opinions, students need to be capable of expressing their viewpoints clearly and logically in many forms, such as essays, editorials, or position papers. Therefore, one purpose of the 2011 NAEP writing assessment will be to assess the ability to persuade in order to change the reader's point of view or affect the reader's action" (2007).
Most ninth- and tenth-grade students have already been exposed to persuasive writing in middle school. Although I recognize the need for reteaching the fundamentals of writing to persuade (thesis, counterarguments, supporting evidence, conclusion), I let my students know that they are ready to write about more complex issues than the arguments for and against the school dress code or a longer school year. It is time to tackle the issue of influencing how other people think.
Writing About Literature
Most children receive more instruction in writing about literature than in any other genre of composition. English teachers-myself among them- have argued for many years that if students can write about Hamlet, they can write about anything. As this collection of writing lessons demonstrates, I have changed my mind. While the best and brightest may be able to make the transition from writing about literature to writing persuasive, expository, reflective, and narrative texts, most students benefit from instruction that helps them meet the specific demands of each writing type. It is wishful thinking to assume that students will be able to intuit the particular characteristics of each type and then apply them.
That said, writing about literature continues to be an essential part of every English class and for good reason. Writing about what they read helps students probe for meaning and challenges them to look deeply into themselves for understandings. It invites them to construct personal interpretations supported with evidence from the text. Most important, writing about literature forces students to pause and think hard.
Presented as sequential days of instruction, this unit also could be spread over a longer period of time. I offer these lessons as an intense writing workshop to demonstrate how the entire unit fits together and how each day's instruction builds on what has gone before.
Writing About Literature
Students rarely have a deep understanding of the literature that they attempt to write about. In a familiar scenario, the teacher develops a series of lessons coaxing students through challenging literature like To Kill a Mockingbird or Romeo and Juliet. Once the final page has been turned, the teacher assigns a paper, usually focusing on an aspect of the text that has been thoroughly presented and discussed. Why, then, are we surprised when all the essays sound alike?
This is not to say that we should stop teaching difficult literature. Anyone who knows my work, With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students (2000) and Classics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons (2004), knows that I am an advocate for teaching challenging literature to all students. However, I invite you to reconsider the wisdom of expecting students to construct coherent essays on such books. And aren't you tired of reading papers about the symbolism of the mockingbird or characterization in Lord of the Flies?
I teach students how to write about literature, drawing on their reading outside class. Together the class reads a text that is well and truly inside what Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)—a range between work students can do independently and work they can accomplish, but only with help. Most students would not be able to read this literature on their own. At the same time, students choose a book from a cluster of literature circle titles to read and discuss with peers.
We have all heard the argument that assigning students to write an essay based upon a book read for pleasure ruins the reading experience; I fundamentally disagree. Knowing that they will be writing about their literature circle book often lends urgency to students' discussion. It also helps me solve the problem of assessing their conversations. Most important, students write more coherently about these books because they understand them more easily.
Once students leave elementary school, they are rarely required to write stories. Instead, the essay assumes a dominant position in their writing classes; writing stories is for children, and in high school they are taught to put away childish things. Consequently, the narrative genre tends to be overlooked in ninth-grade and tenth-grade classrooms. This is a shame for several reasons. First, students love writing stories. By ignoring the genre that brings teenagers the most pleasure in writing, we reconfirm students' expectations that schoolwork must be joyless, difficult, dull work.
Narrative writing, moreover, plays an important role in virtually every other type of writing: persuasive, reflective, expository, and even writing about literature. Most literary analysis requires some form of succinct plot description. Anecdotes can be powerful supporting evidence in an argument and can make for compelling introductions. Knowing how to craft a story will serve students well every time they sit down to compose.
This unit on narrative writing could be spread over several weeks. I present it here as consecutive days to show how the lessons are interdependent. Setting aside a block of days to write stories makes particularly good sense. For a short, intense period of time, students can inhabit the fictional worlds they are creating and as a result produce richer, better crafted, and more readable work.
Why Teach Narrative Writing?
Narrative intelligence is the ability to perceive, know, feel, and explain one's experience and thus to re-create a reality through the use of stories. While the world does not necessarily need more short-story writers, it most certainly needs more people who can tell a good story. Journalists often speak of finding the narrative thread in the events they report. To diagnose, doctors listen to their patients' complaints and then organize the pieces into a coherent story of an illness. Police detectives compile evidence and clues to shape a case. The best historians and history teachers recount the past as a well-told tale. Corporations invest in expensive advertising campaigns to tell the story a company wants the public to hear about its products. Narrative skills are truly life skills.
The challenges involved in teaching narrative writing are not, however, inconsiderable. Student stories tend to go on for much longer than student essays, creating a tremendous reading burden for teachers. Carrying home a set of short stories, no matter how well written, means dedicating a daunting number of hours to grading papers.
And then there is the problem of student stories that scare us. What are we to do with the tales of horror and mayhem? It takes the wisdom of Solomon to steer writers toward fictional subjects within the range of what is acceptable for a school audience. It's no wonder that many teachers prefer to focus on essays.
I am forthright with students about my legal responsibility to discuss troubling work with the school nurse. I explain how some young writers use fictional stories as a call for help, and I emphasize that I could never forgive myself if I ignored the possibility that an account of abuse or self-abuse may be such a call.
Even given these constraints, the benefits of narrative writing far outweigh the difficulties. I predict you will have little trouble motivating your students to write stories or to share them with one another. The call of stories is primal and abiding. Take advantage of this call as you teach students to write.
Reflection adds an intellectual dimension to experience. It is a positive mental action that students need to practice systematically to make sense of the world around them as well as of the things that happen to them. Though reflective writing may contain descriptive elements, it should amount to more than simple description. It may include concessions to how others perceive an experience, but it is not primarily persuasive. Though it explains, it is not at heart an explanation or report.
Through reflective writing, students take an experience, hold it up to the light for examination, consider it from various angles, and in the course of writing, learn from it. Reflection can teach students to make connections between current experience and what has gone before. Ideally, it will help them make decisions about their futures.
Although this unit on reflective writing could be spread over several weeks, I present it here as consecutive days of instruction. My goal is to help you see how each day builds upon what has gone before. I organize my own curriculum in this manner partially to maintain my sanity. It seems easier to stay organized when I concentrate on teaching a writing unit over a short period of time. My students, many of whom are organizationally challenged, also seem to be more productive when we focus on a single aim with an intense burst of energy.
Writing with Reflection
For many students, what happens in the classroom is peripheral to what they perceive as their "real lives." I tried for many years to build a bridge between students' lives and their education. I had some successes; students always liked that I was making an effort; but often the lessons didn't result in much learning. The problem was that I was a middle aged, middle-class woman and they weren't. How could I possibly know what mattered most? One frustrating day—I had just executed an extraordinarily complicated lesson on olfactory sensory imagery, soaking hundreds of cotton balls with various smells to stimulate student writing-the light dawned. The reason why my Herculean efforts to engage students wasn't resulting in good student writing was that the bridge was always mine. I needed to get out of the bridge—building business and start teaching students how to create their own.
Reflective writing helps students build bridges for themselves. A simple event does not ensure empirical learning or bring greater wisdom. Without reflection, the moment may quickly be forgotten and its potential for teaching more may be lost. We begin with an experience from the past and reflect upon its significance. When students reflect on an event, they acquire a certain objectivity, which in turn allows them to describe more accurately the significance, if any, of that event. It would be naive to expect a cry of "Eureka!" from each such reflection, but the intellectual process is at once salutary and creative.
My most goal-oriented students see a clear path from today's assignment to a good grade in the class to graduation to college acceptance to a good job and a comfortable life. Other students have never seen this series of steps in action. It hasn't worked for anyone they know, so why should it work for them? Reflective writing can help students see how what they do today will affect them in the future. Adrienne Rich described master teacher Mina Shaughnessy as someone who knew "that education was not only a means of access to power, but a form of power in itself: the power of expression, of language." I want to help all my students acquire that power.