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In my work with the Write for Texas initiative, I go to two San Antonio middle schools to facilitate academic writing in English classes as well as Science, Social Studies, and Math classes.  The book we use to guide our work with content area teachers is called Content Area Writing: Every Teacher’s Guide.  Authors Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman, and Nancy Steinke have filled this great text with wonderful ideas to promote student writing in all subjects.

One of the suggested activities is called a Write Around. In a write around, students read an academic text, and then work with a small group to have a focused written conversation about the text.  When one of the teachers I collaborate with tried the write around in her classroom, she said the students didn’t have much concept of what to write about the texts they had just read.  As a result, she found their writing to be an unfocused regurgitation of textual facts.  She stated her desire to have students move to a deeper level of understanding based on their written conversations. I told her I would think about some ways to support deeper understanding of the texts when students engaged in the written conversation.

After she and I talked, I developed a model lesson based on the conversational moves in Zwiers and Crawford’s book, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content UnderstandingsWhile the book is about classroom talk, I thought that the framework would apply equally when asking students to write.  The authors created some visual and hand symbols related to different ways to respond to texts, and I showed the students these symbols and taught them the hand motions to go with them. We then completed the write around, in which they wrote responses to a text by elaborating and clarifying, supporting with ideas or examples, building on or challenging ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing.

I modeled this lesson in an 8th grade Social Studies classes, 2 6th grade Social Studies classes, and a 6th grade Science class.  After I taught an example class, three of the teachers then used the graphic organizer and presentation material to continue the work with the rest of their classes.   One of the teachers told her students, “You know how you always like to pass notes?  Well, this is a way to pass notes that won’t make your teacher mad.”  The students really responded to this, and many of them stated that they liked the legal note writing in their reflection on the activity.

Here are some of the other things I noticed in my examination of the student’s work:


“How can potential energy store a lot of energy?”

All of the students generated interesting questions, but the students in the science class asked some high-level questions about this text related to kinetic and potential energy.  One student asked, “I wonder if when assuming its usual position, there is no energy stored in bow.”  Having this question in writing gives both the teacher and the student group a great venue for topic exploration.

“How potential energy stores a lot of energy.  Like a bear.”

Many students made the connection between the scientific concept of potential and kinetic energy to human or animal energy.  I thought this was noteworthy because analogy or metaphor building is an opportunity for the teacher to shape conceptual knowledge; knowledge that is fluid enough to be remembered and applied to multiple contexts.  In the Social Studies groups, many made connections to movies they’d seen (one student compared our text on WWII to the movie World War Z), books they’d written, and to their own lives.

Student 1: “It was a sad story.  Because kids died.”

Student 2’s Response: “You need to think about is what you think if it happened to you.”

Students responded to these texts with emotion, especially in the Social Studies classes.  When looking for mentor texts to use in my work with these students, I follow a couple of criteria.

  • I try to find texts about kids their age. I want them to be able to see themselves in the place of the children in the text.
  • I look for texts that speak to real life, either in the historic era, or in the contemporary society of a certain country.

I want to find text that will spark an emotion in students, because emotion and memory are tied.  If students know that in Bolivia, a law was recently passed allowing ten year olds to work, they are more likely to have an interest in the economy, geography, and important historical facts related to that country.  I constantly ask the question, “Why is it important for students to study this?”

I never saw that there for (an) example.  I think you are getting confused.”

girls sharing secrets

Finally, students encouraged and corrected one another gently and with great respect.  Anyone who has encountered a twelve year old knows that children this age display primitive levels of diplomacy and tact.  However, when given a framework to politely disagree with one another based on evidence within the text, they were able to do so in socially acceptable ways.  Perhaps this is the greatest reason to support conversations around texts; they learn the skill of holding one another accountable without tears or trauma.

“I know what you mean and I agree with you my friend.”

The children that I work with constantly surprise me with their generosity, openness to new ideas, and desire to learn.  I’ve said this before; when we give students the support they need, they will flourish.  This support is what will lead to happy times and happy talk in your classroom.