Friday, May 31, 2013

Disciplinary Writing

Dear Dr. Shanahan
I am writing to you for some suggestions and recommendations concerning working with science and social studies teachers in light of the writing standards in the common core.  I am a former English teacher with 35 years of experience and have, for the past seven years, worked to develop and present workshops and classes for content area teachers in reading – focusing on both disciplinary and content literacy.  

I have been asked by a school district to provide professional development for secondary science and social studies teachers in implementing the writing standards in the common core.  Their suggestion was to start with a grammar workshop – which I think would be the best way to drive the teachers in the opposite direction as well as provide the wrong focus.  However, I have not found any resources to guide in the best way to involve these teachers in their ability to incorporate these standards in their classes. 

As a proponent of disciplinary literacy, I believe that the writing should be approached from the perspective of the disciplines and not from the perspective of an English teacher.  One idea that I had was to start with sample papers to evaluate and introduce them to the standards through a rubric and the actual evaluation of the papers.  Specific concerns about grammar, diction, sentence structure… then could be addressed through mini-lessons as needed.

I just cannot seem to find any literature to give some guidance. 

Disciplinary Literacy Proponent:
I agree with you on this one. Starting with basic skills is not going to pull in the teachers, and, if it did, it would not pull in the students. You really have two choices: (1) disciplinary writing which means inducting kids into the actual writing of the discipline—focusing on having students write up experiments so exactly that they can be replicated, summarizing observations with all of the hedges and temporizing of science (what were the limitations of the observations?), synthesizing information from multiple conflicting texts in history, writing stories with themes in English, etc.; OR (2) writing to learn by which I mean focusing on getting kids to summarize, analyze, and synthesize information they are studying using writing to help them to remember the information or to understand it better. Either or both of those in some kind of combination will give you a good basis for developing writers (and they will entail some attention to grammar, but not in the way being recommended to you). 

There is very little written on this that I am aware of. I would strongly recommend that you seek out an old book (really booklet) by the late James Howard—Writing to Learn. It makes some really valuable contributions in this area and it will make a lot of sense to the content teachers. Howard, like you wanted to start with disciplinary writing and quality rubrics that the content teachers could easily use. I’ve never found anything better in that category. The guidance he provided was great and the examples of writing assignments, evaluations, and kids’ work are very informative. I know that is no longer for sale (the Council for Basic Education that released it is defunct). However, I think some library collections still have it and these days you might even be able to find it online (it is short enough to download or to photocopy if you locate a copy). I have done some preliminary looking to see if I could locate a copy for you, but with no luck so far.



linda said...

that book is nowhere to be found

Helen Teague said...

I found Writing to Learn by James Howard on Google Books. Perhaps it is the same book you recommended?

Helen Teague

Helen Teague said...

OOPS! The Google Books link I gave in the previous comment is a dead end. :(

Joan Cansdale said...

What do you think about the work of the Literacy Design Collaborative?

They have created "template tasks" along with rubrics for content-area literacy.

Tim Shanahan said...

I'm not very impressed with the work of the Literacy Design Collaborative. It starts from the premise that content teachers need to adopt English language arts standards and build their lessons around those standards. The idea is that by focusing on what the ELA teachers are supposed to teach, the content teachers will be more likely to bring reading and writing into their classrooms. As attractive as that is, it is not consistent with the common core or with the research on disciplinary literacy, and, of course, there is no research on the LDC framework. Getting science teachers and history teachers to teach English instead of their subjects. The idea of disciplinary literacy is to focus specifically on the reading and writing used within those disciplines (rather than imposing general study skills on them).

literacy said...

I am very interested in this booklet by James Howard and "Writing to LEarn" How can get a copy???

Tim Shanahan said...

This is a tough one. The Council for Basic Education is gone, James Howard has passed away, and I don't know of any online source. Perhaps you can find a copy in your library. I would love to have my copy scanned and posted on line, but I don't want to violate their copyright (and have no idea who to ask for permission). Sorry.