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Having Students Write Before Diving Into All-Class Discussions

The article: “Until I Write It Down” by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Stephen Chiger in Educational Leadership, February 2017 (Vol. 74, #5, p. 46–50).
By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
In this Educational Leadership article, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Stephen Chiger (Uncommon Schools) describe the following classroom interaction: students read a highly engaging text (the lyrics of “Birmingham Sunday,” a Richard Fariña song about the 1963 church bombing), the teacher asks a well-framed question about the phrase “falcon of death,” and calls on three eager students who share good insights. Other students chime in, and the teacher has the class spend the remaining 10 minutes of the class writing independently about the song’s use of figurative language.
“By its design,” say Bambrick-Santoyo and Chiger, “this lesson placed the greatest amount of cognitive work not on the students as a whole, but on two or three students who happen to be both excellent readers and bold speakers. The other students didn’t have to articulate their own interpretations of the text until they’d already heard someone else do so. In effect, the three students who dominated the conversation put the jigsaw puzzle together. The others got to admire the big picture once it was complete, but they didn’t actually place a single piece.”
The problem in this scenario is that because discussion preceded writing, most of the class was able to avoid doing the intellectual heavy lifting, and when students did write, most were recording others’ insights, not their own. In addition, the teacher’s feedback wouldn’t come until hours or days later. In scenarios like this, say Bambrick-Santoyo and Chiger, “Writing becomes a tool for evaluation, not instruction. The reality is that people’s understanding isn’t complete until they can piece their own thoughts together and write them down.”
A better approach, they say, is for the teacher to have students read the text, pose a good question, and then ask all students to respond in writing before an all-class discussion. “This changes the whole experience,” say the authors. “Now every student has a crack at the puzzle, even the ones who wouldn’t normally raise their hands.” And while students are writing, the teacher can:
• Circulate strategically. It’s smart to start with students who get their thoughts on paper the most quickly, giving others time to get into the task.
• Give immediate feedback. Zoom in on a particular facet of the assignment rather than trying to read through everything students are writing.
• Plan feedback. Think in advance about the kinds of thinking students might use and how to respond.
• Keep it short. Whispering a comment or jotting a note can take as little as 15 seconds, making it possible to see more students.
While circulating, the teacher can also gather insights on particularly good thinking and what’s causing confusion. During the all-class discussion that follows, the teacher can focus on those, perhaps having the class compare two students’ responses and debate which was strongest.
Bambrick-Santoyo and Chiger note that many successful writers—Flannery O’Connor, E.M. Forster, Joan Didion, for example—discover what they know and feel as they write. “Our students are no different. Until we see what students can articulate in writing, we don’t know what they comprehend—and on some level, neither do they. To strengthen our students as readers, the place to start is with their writing… Give your students time to write during class, and give them feedback that responds to their craft and their comprehension. Great writing is a communication of great thinking, so strengthen reading and writing in tandem, not in isolation.”

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