Magazine article District Administration

New Wave in Writing: Teachers Use Games and New Tech Tools to Produce Powerful Prose

Magazine article District Administration

New Wave in Writing: Teachers Use Games and New Tech Tools to Produce Powerful Prose

Article excerpt

For a few weeks in early 2016, a computer program helped educators teach the finer points of writing to students in a Fort Worth ISD high school.

Like so many schools nationwide, R.L. Paschal High School-under pressure from new state standards--has been working hard to improve writing instruction so students can express their ideas and share information fluently. And as in many schools, Paschal educators feel overwhelmed by the challenge.

Technology can help administrators bridge the gap between the need for high-level writing instruction and the reality that many teachers don't feel prepared to teach the skill.

And most importantly, the best writing teachers compel students to explore their ideas for a story first before ever putting pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard, says Terry Roberts, co-author of The Better Writing Breakthrough.

"If you want kids to write about something challenging, you really need to put them in a position to discuss it first in an active, open-ended sort of way, because then they have something to write about," Roberts says. It introduces them to the language they might use and the ideas they need to be able to manipulate to write with sophistication, Roberts adds.

When students understand that the purpose of writing is to share ideas, they perform better than do students who are asked to write just for the sake of writing.

Here's a look at some of the strategies and tools innovative districts have deployed to build teacher competence and to increase students' writing proficiency:

An ocean of reasons

When Kate Campbell first started as principal of Anna Ware Jackson Elementary School in Plainville School District in Massachusetts, teachers would hand out paper and say '"OK, you're going to write for the next 20 minutes,' and then count that as a writing lesson," she says. "That's not teaching writing."

Campbell needed to help her teachers learn to teach writing to improve student proficiency. Teachers and students, for example, need to learn that a strong beginning may include a thought, memory or feeling. "The writing process is such an overwhelming task that you have to really break it down," Campbell says.

Campbell introduced Empowering Writers--an approach created by former teachers Barbara Mariconda and Dea Auray--to develop teacher and student proficiency. Empowering Writers in part uses graphics to teach the components of good writing.


Teachers and students, for instance, study the "narrative diamond"--a graphic illustration that shows a good narrative needs an entertaining beginning, elaborative detail, suspense, a main event and a well-constructed ending.

The "expository" and "opinion" pillars teach that powerful expository and opinion pieces include an introduction supported by at least three main ideas that are each supported by at least four details.

So, during district-led PD sessions, educators at Jackson elementary were taught to emphasize the communicative purpose of writing. "Kids need to know, 'Who am I writing to? Am I writing to teach and inform? To entertain? To give you my opinion?'" Campbell says. "They need to know that there's a reason why we write."

Now, rather than being asked to write about a vacation, a student might write a letter to their parents, using detail to convince them to take them to a dream locale.

Paschal High School in Texas jumped at the opportunity to pilot Revision Assistant, a computer-based program from Turnitin that augments teacher-led writing instruction. It reviews students' writing and gives them feedback in four areas--language, focus, organization and evidence. Students can then revise their work.

When students submit writing projects, the program measures "signal strength" in each of the four categories, with a graphic that looks like bars on cell phone screens. …

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