The Problem With Writing

I recently had a discussion with other science teachers about the role of writing in our classrooms.  The discussion that ultimately emerged revolved around the idea that science shouldn’t be teaching students the writing process…that is the English teacher’s job.

I highly respect the opinions and views of my colleagues, but this belief blew my mind.  Perhaps I’m naïve (second year teacher) or an idealist, but I don’t see how we can “teach” writing without teaching (or at least reinforcing) the process as we go.  To me, this is the same as saying “Meet me at my house, but I want you to get directions from someone else.”

The problem with writing (or rather learning how to write) is that it is quarantined to the English classes.

I do agree that the bulk of writing is learned and practiced in the English class. But, if we’re trying to teach the whole student, why are we ignoring their other learning? Schools are always pushing teachers to make cross-content connections with kids and writing should be one of the easiest ways to do so. There are a multitude of tools teachers (not just English/Language Arts) can use to help students become better writers.

One in particular I like is the 6 +1 Traits of Writing, written by Ruth Culham. I had a college professor use this book in a class called “Reading and Writing Across Curriculum” and I instantly fell in love with the model.

Ms. Culham’s premise is that writing is not a static process and that all writing can be broken down into 6 [+1] traits that are easily taught, improved, and assessed. The traits cover “Ideas” to “Sentence Fluency” to “Voice,” and the teacher has students focus on one trait at a time until students have developed that writing skill and they are ready to add another layer. The book includes rubrics that help us assess their writing in quick, effective manner and students can get meaningful feedback on their work. Do note, that this is not a summative process…this is formative and should be used to build their writing skills.

In science, we like to “focus on the content” rather than the actual writing and I am challenged by teachers to show how I effectively teach writing without sacrificing content.  Well, I use 6 +1 in AP Chemistry all the time because readers want clear, concise answers to questions and this is an easy way to improve student word choice, organization, and ideas while still communicating the content.  In General Chemistry, I can tell students to focus on the idea of the paper (how chemistry has changed over time) or the voice (passive voice of a lab report vs active voice of a persuasive essay).  Again, the content is there and at the same time (with minimal “extra” work) I can require them to improve their writing in an applicable and meaningful way.

We can teach students to use good writing habits while assessing the content. If we are teaching students to make connections between content, we should be modeling that with our teaching and our assignments.

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