Spinning my new Prince tennis racquet in my hands, I tried to hide my shock and rising panic. I began to question this decision to go out for my high school tennis team, like… maybe this was not such a great idea? I quickly glanced around at the large number of boys populating the upper level of the gym. “Okay, guys!” I heard the coach trying to simmer the rising chatter echoing off the gym walls. There must have been fifty kids. Yikes. “Let’s just hit some balls against the wall,” continued the coach. “Get warmed up. Try some topspin, okay?” Topspin? What’s that? Immediately a percussive cacophony of yellow tennis balls being whacked against a gym wall filled my ears. Tentatively, I watched for a minute. These guys knew what they were doing. I could just tell. And I remember that was the moment I realized… I had no idea what I was doing.
Many years later, while participating in an advanced study group at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Summer Writing Institute, our instructor Mary Ehrenworth made this statement: “Knowledge problems quickly begin to look like writing problems.” To illustrate this notion, she asked us to complete a few quick flash drafts. If you have a few minutes while reading this post, I invite you to try this exercise along with me. Your directions are to compose a fast draft that respond to the following prompts. Please time yourself for each individual prompt (four minutes each). If you need to go grab some paper and pen, please do so now.
Here we go:
- Write a quick draft providing an argument for or against handicapping horse races.
- Next, write a draft that answers the question, “Is there an alternate universe?”
- Finally, compose a draft addressing the value of teaching writing to students.
Which prompt did you find was the easiest to address? As you can surely imagine, this exercise sparked a lively conversation in the room about what it actually felt like to try and write about something for which we had little to no background knowledge. I can remember my blood pressure rising as a silent panic overtook me, not all that unlike the feeling I experienced in my high school gym that first day of tennis tryouts. If you tried this out yourself just now, you may have felt a similar ineptness. And I would argue that this feeling of incompetence likely arose from the simple fact that your knowledge levels of some of those topics just were not where they needed to be in order to write well. This begs the question: How often do our students feel this way?
Authors Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke (2011) suggest that reading comprehension is affected by three factors : background knowledge, interest, and choice. I would argue that writing proficiency and/or strength is affected by these same three factors. If we do not possess a good amount of background knowledge, if we are not interested in the topic, and we were not given a choice, our writing typically suffers. Lack of knowledge in particular, as Ehrenworth suggests, manifests quickly as writing weakness and writing problems.
So as writing workshop teachers, how can we address these issues? After all, students cannot simply write narratives all year, nor is it likely that we can allow our students to write about whatever they want whenever they want all the time (though, some may argue this would be a fine course of action). There are times (called for by the common core and other standards), for example, we usually want to devote some effort to the teaching of, say, informational writing.
Teachers College Staff Developer Emily Strang-Campbell, while teaching about 6th grade research-based informational writing at a Saturday Reunion last year, offered the following ideas for helping to address the issues of background knowledge, interest, and choice.
First of all, Emily suggests that if students are new to informational writing, allow them to write an expert topic book. “Expert topic books allow [student writers] to write about what’s in their brains and hearts,” Emily suggests. Incidentally, as I have worked with teachers around the country, I have sometimes heard some say, “Oh, I told her to write about something else. She’s written about that topic before.” When it comes to open topic selection, I would recommend against such counsel. If students are passionate and knowledgeable about a topic, why not allow them to write about it? I caution against pushing students to write about topics about which they are marginally knowledgeable for the simple fact already stated: Knowledge problems quickly look like writing problems.
For some teachers, particularly in middle school, a class topic can be helpful, such as the Teen Activism topic suggested in the Writing Units of Study book by Calkins, Beattie Roberts, and Strang-Campbell, Research-Based Information Writing: Books, Websites, and Presentations (Heinemann, 2014). But in such cases, how can we navigate the challenges of background knowledge, interest, and choice? Emily Strang-Campbell taught the following steps:
- Teach note-taking skills.
If students are embarking on a unit in which they need to build some background knowledge based on sources outside themselves, it is important to teach them to take notes. Emily suggests the following “Power Note-taking Gems” as one possible idea for note-taking:
Notice these “gems” (exact names, places, numbers (dates, statistics, etc.), quotes, and observations) are transferable to most content area studies, as well as being applicable to both print texts and videos.
2. Sort, categorize, and title notes
After reading, viewing, and power note-taking, we can demonstrate how to color–code (sort/categorize) notes. In sorting and categorizing notes, writers group like ideas together (as seen below in the notes, taken from a short, high-interest Malala Yousafzai video). Color-coding notes can be a game-changer for some students, as all the names, places, numbers, quotes, and observations no longer appear as a jumbled list of unrelated stuff, but rather a set of organized facts.
Notice in this image that the notes are not just sorted and categorized (color-coded), but each cluster of notes is actually titled. This titling step pushes writers to think inferentially, synthesizing their notes a bit and thereby setting them up for the next step.
3. Push writers from categorized notes to big ideas
Once students have read and viewed source texts, taken and organized their notes, we can teach them that writers push ourselves to grow a bigger idea. What do all these facts and notes suggest? Referencing the Writing Units of Study book, Research-based Informational Writing Book (Heinemann, 2014), Emily Strang-Campbell posed the question, “What is a bigger idea you have after reading about these teens?” See examples here:
4. Write long about ideas
A fourth step suggested by Strang-Campbell is called, “Writing Long.” In this step, students push themselves to think on paper. Language prompts, such as those listed here, push students into territory they would not discover naturally. As pictured below, some helpful language prompts might be:
- “What sticks in my mind . . .”
- “I was shocked by…”
- “I was struck to learn…”
- “To add on…”
- “All of this is making me think…”
Although these four tips perhaps may not address background knowledge problems, interest, and choice perfectly, they do begin to afford students an accessible and authentic way to strengthen their informational writing about topics for which they are not already experts. Selecting a high interest topic (such as “Teens Who Made a Difference”) and providing some meaningful choice along the way (such as what to and how to organize and title notes, how information is synthesized, etc.), likely assists in building interest around a topic.
Being a teacher and literacy consultant now, I reflect back on my experience trying out for the high school tennis team with a bit of amusement. After all, I had no real knowledge about tennis, and I certainly did not walk into those tryouts with any real skill. But I do reflect on the panicky, anxious feeling I experienced knowing I lacked those requisite qualities. And in so doing, I internally caution myself about labeling or regarding a student as a “poor writer” before asking: “What is his knowledge level about this topic?”
* I would like to extend a huge thank you to Emily Strang-Campbell for the permission and inspiration for this post!