Connecting the Dots: the power of cross-disciplinary conversations about writing

Assumptions can be a dangerous thing; in fact, they oftentimes go a long way towards killing collaboration within a school. Just stop and think for one minute about your perceptions (or assumptions) about what goes on in disciplines other than your own. For some, those perceptions might actually be reality because they have sought out conversations with teachers outside their disciplines; however, for many of us, those perceptions are assumptions grounded in nothing more than our own experiences in those disciplines when we were in school.

That is why I was so excited when my district granted me the time and money to run a half-day, cross-disciplinary workshop to discuss writing at Downers Grove North High School. For almost four hours, teachers from math, science, and English, combined with an instructional technology coach and a literacy coach, met to talk, to share, to learn, to grow, and even to create. What transpired was some of the best professional learning I have been part of in a long time because walls were knocked down and bridges were built all in the name of providing a consistent and connected writing experience for all students in all classes. Sure this one four-hour workshop with only about 10 total teachers isn’t going to change our culture or curriculum on its own, but it was a hugely important first step because of what we learned.

So, I would like to share with you the top five lessons learned about writing across English, math, and science classes.

1. Students struggle with analysis.

To those English teachers reading this, like myself, this is something that doesn’t surprise you, but what surprised me was that this is an issue in math and science, too. Whether it is having students justify their answers for a Calculus AP test or explain the why inside of a lab report in science, students struggle to take evidence and directly explain how that evidence supports the claim. The discipline nor topic do not matter.

2. The “so what” still escapes them.

As most teachers would agree, this is at the core of the learning. It is that part of the paper that only occupies 5% space on the page but is worth (grading or just its actual value) 95% when it comes to driving home one’s point. Yes, students struggle to explain why what they are arguing matters; whether it is through making connections to previous learning or larger life concepts, this is something that needs much more practice.

3. Too much? Too little? They just aren’t sure.

One of the most consistently shared areas for student growth revolved around concision. The commonality was that students either write way too little, therefore failing to make their argument, or they write way too much, thereby actually unintentionally revealing holes in their own argument. Again, it didn’t matter the discipline or assignment, students struggle with knowing just how much they need to “say” in order to make a solid argument.

4. They just don’t know about it.

In other words, students in all disciplines have issues with pronoun usage. They are not sure if it matters that when they talk about things that they know it should be more specific (see what I did there…).

5. Collaboration is a powerful tool for helping students.

What was so great about this workshop was that we didn’t just share all these issues, realize that students struggle with the same things in all disciplines, and call it a day. We used the last hour of the workshop to collaboratively attempt to solve some of these problems. What resulted is a six-week series of mini-lessons that we are all going to try, collect data from, and then discuss in June.

So What?

When it is all said and done we came away with this working question: how will students respond to the same writing lessons delivered in different disciplines? Will they take it more or less “seriously” in one over the other? Will they benefit more from the way in which a math teacher or science teacher teach these skills over an English teacher? Will students transfer the lessons learned better if the lesson revolves around something outside their discipline? The bottom line is this — we don’t know the answers to these questions, but we are very excited to find out. If this is interesting to you, please look for my follow up blog which I will write after we analyze all this data in June.

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