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Writing to Learn Revisited…Again

Education Week published an online article called “Writing to Learn” on August 27. Since I write about writing, and believe strongly in writing as a learning tool, I was interested in what the article had to say. My guess was that it would explain that writing to learn is a common strategy used in today’s classrooms—and that it is proving to be an effective learning tool for students.

After all, “writing to learn” has been around a long time—at least 30 years. I came across the concept more than 20 years ago in a local workshop, and I still have my well-worn copy of Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines (copyright 1985). We’ve included writing-to-learn strategies in our writing handbooks ever since the late 80s.

Well my guess was way off—to say the least. The article focused on a group of Oakland teachers attending a summer workshop to learn about writing to learn. What? We’re still introducing this strategy, after all these years? Can’t we safely move on to something else? Isn’t it ironic that the setting of the workshop is Oakland, the home base of the National Writing Project. You would think that, of all places, Oakland would be a writing-to-learn hot spot.

Now I know that there are teachers who use writing to learn in their classrooms, but, after reading this article, I guess there may be far fewer of them than I would have thought. I also understand that there are factors that impede meaningful changes in classroom practices: underprepared teachers, curriculum constraints, and budgetary cutbacks. And, of course, the pressure to teach for the Test is a big-time impediment. But still, it would seem to me that after 20 or 30 years a proven approach like writing to learn—one that is so easy to implement—would already be used in school after school.

If nothing else, this article has raised a number of questions for me to consider:

  • How successful have the various writing projects been?
  • What innovative writing practices have truly taken hold within the past 30 years?
  • What does it take to make a significant change in writing and learning pedagogy?
  • How well have we been training teachers in effective classroom practices?
  • Am I naive to think that language arts teachers use the writing process, the traits of writing, and so on?
  • Do classroom texts reflect the current thinking in writing and learning?

Now a writing-to-learn activity: Complete an exit slip in the comment box below—summarizing, reflecting upon, or questioning something that I said in this blog. (An exit slip, in classroom practice, is a half sheet of paper on which students freely record their thoughts and questions at the end of a day’s lesson. Teachers collect and review the slips to see how well students understand the subject at hand. Exit slips are not graded.)

Teacher Support:

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21st Century Skills:

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.