Using real-world prompts in teaching writing

Take a bite out of the Better Answer Sandwich with this article from author Ardith Cole, who argues that “sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards” and shares her ideas for teaching students to write authentic, real-world responses. Her book, Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart is full of methods, references, prompts, and other resources. The Better Answers process is easy to grasp and uses a gradual-release instructional framework that begins with teacher modeling, invites increasing amounts of student participation, and eventually moves students into independent response writing.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

Is it possible to eliminate our national testing system? Maybe. In the meantime, let’s find some sugar and make lemonade!

Believe it or not, sugar can be found inside the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). For instance, ELA guidelines say response writing is a needed skill. Is it? Students do need response experiences to participate in a democratic society, don’t they? After all, if we eliminate all experiences in response writing, we’ll contribute to silencing our next generation’s voices. Why not replace testing’s lifeless prompts with authentic living prompts. Don’t even mention the word tests until an important one is looming!

Consider this ELA guideline: “Standards call on students to practice applying mathematical [or scientific, artistic, literary] ways of thinking to real-world issues and challenges.” Standards such as this one feel less fake, more akin to the “organic sugar” that we’d prefer to use. When curriculum is organic, it doesn’t pollute the classroom or the world. However, it does have the potential to effect change.

So let’s do it! Let’s invite students into projects where they will use written response inside an authentic task. My book Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart, Second Edition (Stenhouse, 2009) was initially developed by referencing those living responses and their prompts. The accompanying CD is full of such references, live links, methods, and structures. You’ll find prompt-and-response examples from newspapers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ira Flatow’s NPR interviews with scientists, World Wildlife Fund’s website, and so many others. Wouldn’t Common Core want students to make those inspiring world connections?

It’s good to know that the organizational structure of Common Core’s Writing Standards is in synch with my book’s protocols, steps, and lesson plans. Yet missing from Common Core, but included in Better Answers, are an abundance of explicit methods, strategies, and examples.

My book even offers a key prewriting step that CCSS omitted! It’s a step that those of us inside the real world—including most employees—know is an absolute must. I discuss that overlooked step at the end of this article.

The Better Answers protocol supports writers who are responding to a friend’s request for directions, an opinion on a blog site, their boss’s e-mails, an Amazon book review, dissatisfaction with merchandise purchased, as well as test prompts. Do any of those writing experiences sound familiar? Many of us compose some kind of response several times a week! So why not begin right there? Use a real response that you or one of your students recently needed to write.

Suppose you’ve been asked to write a newspaper ad for your local community garage sale or maybe an ad to encourage adoption for a homeless dog. Would you know where to begin? What would you say? Would you worry about how it would be perceived by friends and family? What would you do first?

I’d ask myself, “Now where would I find this kind of written response? What does it sound like, look like?” It seems best to experience one. Brain researchers say that’s how we learn: we mirror. Whose real-world responses would you like your students to mirror? You’ll find some inside Better Answers. Share some of those text-based and self-based responses with your students using my book’s CD. The Internet, too, overflows with examples—but select carefully.

Common Core’s Writing Guidelines suggest we teach informative, persuasive, and opinion texts and writing. Better Answers shows how. For example, to begin a response, CCSS advises writers should “introduce the topic or text . . . and create an organizational structure.” This CCSS structure matches that of the Better Answer Sandwich, whose first step (the top bun) is: “Introduction: Restate the question or prompt and add a gist.” Restating guides students toward a prompt’s acceptable answer. The gist sums up the details into one main idea. Those details are explained in the middle layers of the sandwich. This structure helps writers to assemble the pieces of their thinking into a cogent whole.

The Better Answer Sandwich

sandwich

For their next step, CCSS says response writers need to “provide reasons that support the opinion [or gist].” Accordingly, Better Answers directs writers to “provide detailed evidence for your answer.” This section describes how to do this.

CCSS tells writers to “use linking words and phrases to connect” sentences and paragraphs. My book and CD have charted lists of all the transitional or linking words/phrases (e.g., conjunctions). The handy Transitions Sandwich even groups these linking words to their most appropriate placement within a response structure. For example, some transitions call the reader into the introduction (e.g., first, a major factor, in the beginning). Others connect the middle layers more fluently to one another (e.g., next, then, whereas, on the other hand). Still others transition the reader of the response toward a finalized-sounding conclusion (e.g., finally, therefore, in conclusion).

sandwich2

Common Core’s final suggestion for informative, informational, and opinion writing is to “provide concluding statement or section,” which is identical to Better Answers’ bottom bun. Lesson plans for all sections are included on the book’s jam-packed CD. PowerPoint slides, visuals, lists, and other references support teachers and their students along the way.

CCSS does add one more genre, narratives, “to develop real and imagined experiences.” Some parts of Better Answers will be applicable to some narratives—for example, narrative nonfiction. Within this subgenre, “research, real world, and review all come together perfectly” advises Lee Gutkind. However, narratives often involve a more creative approach in which writers follow their imaginations rather than a map or a tight structure.

And what of that newly soured subject, assessment? Better Answers includes that, too. It offers assessment rubrics with easily understood descriptors, as well as student/writer self-assessments, such as Sign-off Response Checklists for each response section. It also has Class Monitoring Spreadsheets, indicating whole-group progress in each area. And the entire implementation is steeped in group and partner sharing—and remains rooted in the real world.

Responding to teachers’ cries for help, I’ve added an entire section to the books’ second edition, aptly titled “What to Do When . . .” So if you run out of support ideas, try this section.

Now, what about that important piece CCSS omitted? Marsha Ratzel, a middle-grades math and science teacher who reviewed Better Answers, Second Edition for the Teacher Leaders Network, described it this way: “Here is where Better Answers really shines. Students in the first step tear apart the prompt so they can figure out what it is asking . . . This step transforms the prewriting stage into an analysis stage that helps students understand what kind of response they need to produce and gives them strategies for crafting the beginning part of their answer.” Whether it’s an e-mail from our boss or a challenge from our teacher, we should always do one thing before beginning our response: analyze the prompt. It’s so crucial for response success that I devote an entire chapter to it.

Some of that same sugar we constructivist teachers have used for decades to sweeten our curriculum can be found in the CCSS Standards. So let’s continue to invite small groups and partner collaboration, project learning, writing for a variety of purposes, reading all kinds of exemplary writing, and researching exciting ideas—but let’s use living prompts from the real world. I bet CCSS would celebrate right alongside us as students self-publish, offer passionate responses to leaders, present TED videos, and even use this genre to submit successful patent grants. It’s amazing what we can learn from our students themselves! Let go and invite the kids into the real world of prompts and responses. Let them help sweeten those sour lemons we’ve been handed.

 

1 comment July 30th, 2014


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