Justin: Welcome everyone to the May meeting of the Instructional Leadership Directors’ Roundtable. This month our honored guest is my good friend and literacy expert Steve Peha and we’re here to talk about his philosophy and framework and approach which we call writing first so Steve, welcome to the Roundtable.
Steve Peha: Thank You, Justin, it’s great to be here.
JB: I wonder if we could start by just having you describe some of the work that you’ve done in schools and in partnership with teachers, and in partnership with leaders over the years to promote literacy instruction to help teachers improve their practice—as well as any of the work you’ve done outside the field of education that gives us the context for your work.
SP: I’ve been working with schools for about 25 years. Prior to that I had about 10 years in tech and in addition to the work I do in reading and mostly in writing now I’ve also had some good experience in EdTech. I worked on a large Gates Foundation project about 6 or 8 years ago building a reference system for student longitudinal data systems.
So I’ve had a lot of experience in education, in tech, and I’m a professional writer I’ve written a writing book called Be a Better Writer and generally has had a lot of varied experience. Probably the best thing that I’ve ever done for me—and often for teachers—is in addition to providing traditional professional development training, I also go into classrooms every chance I get. And teaching, I probably taught 10,000 lessons if that’s where your 10,000 hours comes from. That’s probably where I put them in and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done is just to show up and work with your kids on a given day, doing whatever it is we need to do, has been the biggest learning experience for me.
JB: Yeah absolutely and, you know, I’m a big proponent of administrators getting into classrooms. I think as an author and as a partner to schools and improving their literacy practice, it makes a little sense that that would be your best PD your best first-hand experience as well to be in classrooms.
So let’s just jump right in and talk about that that you know a kind of literacy consulting work. What are some of the quick wins that often you see that that you can help teachers make? And maybe we can talk about a couple of different grade levels. Hopefully, everyone who has responsibility for teaching reading has training in literacy, training in teaching writing. But there are always big opportunities when you get into a classroom and start working with a teacher to do a model lesson to be as part of some kind of embedded PD. What are some of those big wins and opportunities that are just right in front of us that you often help people take hold of?
SP: I think some of the wins are right available to us very easily we just don’t think of them that way. Kids are very used to doing reading every day and they’re used to doing math every day. And even if they’re not very good at it if they don’t like it they still sit down and do it. So one of the biggest wins that we can all get is to be doing writing every day. So that’s a scheduling issue—I know there are challenges but it is a huge win when kids come to school every day knowing they’re going to be doing some writing.
The second big win which is relatively easy is teaching kids how to choose their own topics for writing. When kids have their own topics, they tend to be a lot more motivated and take a lot more ownership. And again this is something I have a couple of strategies for, but it’s not terribly difficult to do. And again just comes with that expectation I’m gonna be writing about something that interests me.
Technically, I’ve found that one of the biggest wins is teaching kids how to write good beginnings. It’s easier than a technique for almost anything else because there’s nothing on the paper yet and kids can write just about anything. The other thing that I’ve realized over the years is that essentially everything we write is the beginning to the next thing, so teaching kids how to write beginnings doesn’t only help them with the beginnings of a piece of writing, it actually helps them with the beginning of any part of a piece of writing. And so there’s a big win there in just teaching that one skill which seems to sort of cascade through the rest of the writing process.
JB: Absolutely! Thinking in terms of that kind of opportunity that we have to just simply do more writing simply set the expectation with kids that they are going to do writing every day—in the same way that they expect to do math and expect to do reading every day—no matter what—how common is it for students to write every day? Or how often do students typically write? It strikes me as a parallel to the question of how often do principals get into classrooms. Obviously, principals should be in classrooms every day, but the reality is you know most teachers report “oh yeah my principals fine like maybe once or twice a year give you some feedback and we do the formal observation that’s kind of it.”
Obviously like I don’t think anybody would argue that we don’t need to be doing writing every day, but what’s the reality on the ground in your opinion?
SP: The reality is extraordinarily varied. Obviously, there are many elementary teachers who do in fact do writing 4 or 5 days a week. And it’s not surprising that they have the most success. I have actually been hired by a school—this is the strangest experience in my career I’ve been hired by schools to do training in writing for schools that don’t actually have any writing time listed in the schedule. So you could go as far to the other way possible and find some schools that don’t actually have a writing component per se they feel that they can somehow get writing in by writing across the curriculum. And while that’s a great thing to do, it doesn’t actually do much for kids getting better at writing across the curriculum. I would say that at the elementary level I would hope that we see kids writing at least 2 or 3 days a week the goal really is 4 or 5 and it makes an extraordinary difference.
Something happens in secondary that we’re all aware of, but I don’t think we think about it very much. Kids lose half their language arts time. They go from roughly 2 classroom periods down to one, and that one period is dominated by literature at the secondary level. Nothing wrong with a lot of literature—it’s great—but kids may go down to almost no writing time as they hit the secondary grades.
JB: Yeah let’s talk about the secondary level a lot because certainly, you know we don’t call any of the subjects that are taught in middle school or high school reading. Typically it’s language arts it’s literature its composition you know and the idea, of course, is that we’re not teaching reading explicitly sometimes we’re teaching we’re theoretically teaching writing—we’re calling it a composition class or whatever or maybe we save that until college. But yeah there’s this idea that writing should be just kind of embedded in everything else and because it’s embedded in everything else it should be happening enough. What is the state of the union kind of, you know, what’s the norm in secondary writing? Are kids writing in other subjects are they writing in science? Are they writing in social studies? Are they writing about literature in their ELA classes? And how much of that is taking place in your respective opinion?
SP: I think that we do more writing today than we used to. We go back 10 20 30 years we’re doing more. But I’m not sure that it’s helping as much as we wish it would. In most language arts classrooms at the secondary level, I would say writing is chunked or blocked as a unit. The kids might read a book and that might take four to six weeks or so and then there might be a two-week unit on writing. And the unit based or assignment based or assignment driven approach to writing is really what’s most common. The downfall of that or the negative of that is that the emphasis is on kids completing an assignment not necessarily improving a skill.
So you’re gonna find in most cases that writing gets less than half the time and that it’s often simply done in reference to an assignment. Across the curriculum, it really depends entirely on the teacher. I’ve seen some teachers do quite a bit and I’ve seen some teachers of course not do any at all.
So a lot of kids could end up entering secondary years and not actually doing a lot of writing that would help them become better writers. I really try to distinguish between writing and writing instruction. If you ask me simply to write I’m going to write I’m gonna write as well as I write. And if I don’t get some instruction let us say if I just get a final grade, I probably want to learn to write any better. I think that’s the real issue as we get into secondary grades is kids get bigger—they tend to know some bigger words and they develop bigger knowledge—but they may not actually learn to write much better in that secondary time period because they will have effectively lost the instruction time they might have had an elementary for writing skill.
JB: Yeah. And I feel like there’s this tendency at the secondary level to you know assign writing and to grade writing but to basically take it as a given you know this student writes at this level, you know, I wish I could expect more—and I’m speaking mostly as a parent of a recent high school graduate— that often we assign the writing, but we don’t really see there being a ton of either opportunity to improve the writing or a ton of value in spending time on that if we could be spending time on the content instead. Does that give students kind of a pass to just kind of you know barf out whatever they’re going to on their paper, turn it in, and kind of get away with it? I don’t know do you feel like there’s an accountability for quality that goes along with that intention on the teacher’s part to actually improve students writing? What’s going on there?
SP: Well, I want to be fair to teachers. I think it’s really important just to consider just that simple thing that we just talked about—that a kid is gonna have gone from kindergarten to fifth grade having effectively enough time in the day for two language-arts periods—a full reading period and a full writing period—and then they’re going to go to secondary—and it isn’t anybody’s fault but there’s going to be half the time. And the orientation for secondary language arts teachers is more heavily on literature. So we simply have a large traditional structural challenge there. It can be changed but it doesn’t get changed in most places.
The second thing and I don’t think we think about this much either—and again to be fair to teachers about this—if I’m a fifth-grade teacher and I have 25 students, I get to know them really really well. Writing is a deeply personal and individualized thing. It’s the only subject we have where every kid has to come up with a different right answer. And that really depends on how well a teacher knows the kids and how well kids know their teachers. So you go from a kids who’ve had one teacher who’s known them really well for year after year after year and all of a sudden they had six or seven classes. And a teacher may have 125 150 sometimes 200 kids and so the individual attention that writing requires simply can’t be put into place.
And so I think I think if we want better writing at the secondary level we need to look at some structural changes that may not be easy, but they do make sense. And that’s what I’m trying to encourage people to do is to ask those questions. Do we really want kids who write well? I think we do. So let’s make the time and the structures for it in our schedule that we can.
JB: Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about that writing first philosophy, because we’ve been talking about this for, I don’t know, a year or two now—this idea that rather than see writing simply as instrumental–you know as basically just part of the pencil—I need your answers from you so you need to write them, or I need to know if you understood this book that we just read, so I need you to write about it. Rather rather than see writing as just a means to an end, what happens when we do put writing first and see it as a primary target of our instruction that we deliberately and directly focus on.
SP: That’s a great way to put it—the primary target of instruction. I’ll use that let’s call it a PTI. Again. a lot of this—obvious is the wrong word but it is sort of out there in an obvious way. Writing is the most minute for a minute writing is the best brain workout kids can get. It requires all skills of reading, some of the logic of science and math, small motor skills for little kids, basic computer skills for big kids, and social-emotional skills too. So if we thought about how precious our instructional time is we thought about how to best use that time to further learning, we would naturally choose writing as our most common subject. It gets more done.
The second thing that’s really important and it’s a big part of the philosophy that I have is that writing has the highest correlation with general academic success. The way I look at that or the way I explain that to people is we’ve all known kids who are very good readers but who are not good writers. That’s fairly common. I’ve never met a kid in the world who was a good writer who wasn’t also a good reader.
JB: I think that’s really key right there. Yeah, the opposite is not true.
SP: The correlation only goes in one direction—it goes from writing to everything else. Kids who write well, think well. And because writing requires all the skills of reading, the logic of science and math and all those other things kids who can write well can do a lot of things really really well.
The third thing that I think is really important and you touched on it briefly but I think there’s probably a better way to think about it is, writing is really a great way to express knowledge. It’s sitting there at the end of your fingertips.
And it’s not just the way to express knowledge but it’s a great way for kids to collect and organize knowledge—there’s always a big I don’t know exactly what it is but there’s always a big thing about kids taking notes. Yes, we want kids to take notes. Yes, we want them to do Cornell notes. Yes, we want them to do these notes and those notes and to study their notes and it’s always seemed to me to be somewhat, not counterproductive, but less effective if we have kids taking notes who can’t write. Kids can not only express their knowledge very well in writing, but they can organize their knowledge very well in writing too. And I think that’s sort of the third obvious piece.
For me, as I’ve developed you know when I started out writing was just another thing we did and the farther and farther I’ve gotten into it, the more I’ve realized wow those years when I’ve worked with kids who’ve had great years in writing suddenly magically they’ve all had great years in just about everything else. And so to some degree that’s causal— obviously there’s a lot of correlation. I think perhaps the one thing we don’t think about very much that maybe makes the difference is something that a lot of my Australian friends call student agency.
Writing does require you to write something original that is yours and yours alone. Reading we hope kids read this book and get the same about the same things from it. Math, we hope kids follow the curriculum to get the same answer. Science, social studies, these are all areas of school where we really hope that all kids come back with the same information that we once we’ve given it out. Writing is completely the opposite. What that means is the kids have to develop their own individual agency and once they do that however they’re a lot more confident about all the other things they do in school.
JB: Heather, you had a question about finishing writing and the idea that that may be perhaps we overemphasize finishing. Why do you pose that for us?
Heather Bell-Williams: Yeah I’d be intrigued to know what you’re thinking is around that idea of having to finish all of the writing that we start or the writing that we assign. I think I’m probably dating myself, but you think through Writer’s Workshop and process writing and all of the stages of writing a good story. For instance, we do a rough draft and then we do whatever we go on to call a good copy. I’m thinking, “whoa, I kind of thought my original was a good copy.” And you know I love the language that we’ve historically used around that but that notion we’ve been pretty fixated on following that process through to completion and I wonder if there’s merit—I believe in my own work as a teaching principal with elementary kids I’ve seen merit in terms of you know we’re going to write for a particular purpose, but we didn’t all finish all of our pieces and somehow I felt like I was breaking rules. What are your thoughts on that?
SP: I’ve got two thoughts on that the first is probably again the simplest. To make sure that kids learn how to do all the different types of writing and develop all the skills they need, they obviously have to finish some pieces. Because there are simply things that go into finishing that they wouldn’t do otherwise. The corollary to that is that if you’re writing regularly. And this is the advantage of writing every day or at least four days a week you don’t have to finish everything you start, because you’re going to get enough opportunities to finish just for the amount of writing that you’re doing. The way I look at it is this—the big breaking point or the point – to get past if we’re going to finish a piece of writing is to get through revision and do a real revision pass. There’s a lot of writing we do in our lives—almost every email I write, every text I send—is largely considered a prewriting a draft. And so there’s an extraordinary amount of writing we do in our lives that does not go to revision so the difference for me is when I’m taking kids into a piece of writing are we going to go into revision? And what I’ll often do, especially at the elementary level but I would do this at the secondary level too, is I give kids some latitude to decide whether or not a piece is one that they want to take through to the end. They all have to finish a certain number of pieces just to get better at it, but I don’t want a kid to take a piece that they struggled with whether they don’t like or that just isn’t a good topic and spend all the time it takes for them to finish. I’d love it for them to abandon a piece, in fact, one of the big moments—there are two big moments for me when I’m working with a class and hopefully they happen within the first four to six weeks. One is when a kid comes in and tells me they have a good topic that they’ve been thinking about writing and it actually is a good topic. That tells me they’ve taken home something that we’ve been doing and they’ve essentially brought it back the way I’d like to see it.
The second is whether they can tell me “Mr. Peha, I don’t want to finish this one anymore I don’t think it’s working out very well I’d like to start another piece and take that one to the end. That’s a really big moment and I’m always really glad when that happens. Does that address your question in a reasonable way?
HBW: Absolutely, I love that you know here choice and going back to that student autonomy and student agency so I love that. Yeah, we have to finish some but ultimately, for the most part, you can make good choices about what you’re going to finish and what you’re going to abandon.
SP: Right and that’s exactly is a choice autonomy agency we should be honest about that but those are all nerve-racking. Those are hard it’s hard to give kids a lot of autonomy and agency especially when they’re very little or if they’re far behind in school. And one of the things that again we have to think about is that writing is a fundamentally different act than all the other subjects that we teach. It absolutely does require choice kids have to choose their own words and their own ideas. I often get up in front of kids this way and I say you know kids if we were in math this would be really easy because you’d all have to do is come up with the same answer to every question and turn in the same sheet I grade it everything would be fine. But if we do that in writing it’s called plagiarism, so in fact, we can’t all write the same words. We can’t all choose the same ideas I don’t even like kids all working on the same topics when I’m working.
And I know Justin you talked about sort of the assignment driven nature of writing at the secondary level. I think one of the biggest hang-ups with that is that if kids are all writing the same assignment, they’re going to be incentivized to write the same thing. And the big problem comes when there are kids who are very high and very fluent who are writing their work and kids who aren’t. And it’s so easy to compare and it’s so easy for kids to struggle to want to copy the work that they see other kids doing that’s more fluent. That may help them produce this better piece at a certain moment, but it doesn’t actually help them learn very much.
So I’m a real big believer in what I sort of called guided choice, which is giving kids a range a small range of choices within it tightly conscribed area so they always have some choice but they never really have free choice. And I learned very early on in the first couple years of working with kids that if I let them choose everything completely, I would end up with a lot of stories where monster A is killing monster B and then space-alien C comes down to shoot monster B, and we go on and on. That’s mostly boys in that regard. Girls tended to have different kinds of stories that just went on and on and on. So I’ve learned over the years to give kids a small range of choices, usually off a couple of lists we may have prepared where I know they probably got 10 or 12 really good topics to work with.
HBW: Thank you for that. You mentioned revision and the need to have that skill developed do you have any sort—if I’m a principal doing and walking through writing classes what kinds of things would I love to see around that act of revision?
SP: You know, when I talk to principals about walking through their classrooms this is true of all subjects but it’s especially true of writing— ideally, I’d like you to talk to the kids I’d like you to ask the kid what they’re doing and see if they can tell you why they’re doing it. So one of the things that you would see ideally is that a kid is in the act of revision. They’re looking at a piece of writing they’re working on, they’re making changes, they’re telling you, “I’m working on a different beginning, I’m working on a different ending, I’m adding details to support an idea that the kids in the class didn’t understand when I shared it, I’m trying out this new lesson that my teacher gave me about using strong verbs.” If you could hear that from kids you’d know that they were not only learning something new, but they were applying it and that it was indeed an explicit revision task.
HBW: Thank you, I love that—explicit revision task. Gonna write that one down.
SP: That’s the way I teach revision. It’s not that revision always goes that way I can gear up and model a lot of explicit tasks and kids don’t do them right away. This again goes back to the notion of how much time or how many days we offer for writing. One of the things that that I’ve noticed over the years is if I know on Monday that I’m teaching writing on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I don’t feel the pressure on Monday for everybody to get everything the way I want it. If I know I’m going to teach 20 days in a month of writing and I want to get four things across, I know that I just have to keep bringing those things up and giving kids examples of them and modeling those things. And probably most of the kids will get around to doing pretty well.
I’ve actually at certain points written down small lists of things that seem to make most kids really successful like writing good beginnings and good endings. Early in my career, I did a lot of large-scale student assessments as largely with the six trait model or I would be doing the training and adjudication. And I would probably read 5,000 to 15,000 pieces of student work and one thing I noticed was if kids had a good beginning and a good ending the middle was probably pretty good too. And so I put a lot of emphasis in my teaching into beginnings and endings. Kids will know that I’m always always working hard for them to have a good beginning a good ending because that seems to set up the frame for them to kind of be accountable to themselves in the middle. So there are two explicit revision tasks that I teach more than explicitly, but they have such a high benefit that I think they’re worth doing all the time.
HBW: Thank you absolutely. I wonder if it’s appropriate to talk about the remote teaching of writing that we’re being asked to consider moving—well currently for many jurisdictions and looking at the next school year with some hybrid of remote and face-to-face teaching. What are your thoughts around that whole idea of remote learning as it relates to writing?
SP: I think I’m gonna see a couple of things. I think that we would all be surprised if kids somehow did a lot better in remote writing than they did in our classrooms that wouldn’t speak very well to our being in classrooms as teachers. So I think remote writing is going to be harder in a certain way, especially when it comes to things like developing a community in the classroom where kids want to hear what other writers have to write. So there might be a motivation issue that is very very hard to deal with. One of the other things and I’ve noticed this from a lot about college online courses is that some kids—especially those who might consider to be introverts—those kids may actually do a little better they may write a little bit more because don’t feel like everyone’s watching them. And something that the teachers have told me I don’t know how long they can keep this up but something that teachers have told me as they’ve switched over to online is that they do spend an awful lot of time answering kids’ emails. And college kids, in particular, are talking about all of a sudden having more access to their professors. And it’s true that if you send somebody a message and they send it back to you, that’s a pretty good one-on-one interaction. It’s not the same as conferencing in a classroom but it may just be that if we can handle the load of questions and answers, that we may be able to get some value from that we don’t get from a normal standard teaching situation.
So I think we’re gonna see some things get better I think we’re gonna see some things definitely not working as well. And my hope is that kids doing writing online—this is gonna go for kids who can type, I’m not quite sure how our primary kids are going to fare with this—but I’m hoping that what happens is that kids who can type pretty well are gonna have enough positive interactions that they will improve their writing despite not having that teacher with them in a say a writer’s workshop conferencing mode.
HBW: Thank you. I haven’t thought of the possibilities around some of those strengths for some of the introverted kids. Thanks for pointing that put.
SP: Yeah yeah you’ll see this a lot. I think we actually know a little bit more about this than we do because so many college courses have been done online and there’s so much online learning. So you know probably maybe there are two big things we’ve learned from online learning.
One is that it is possible for those students who work better on their own or without the self-consciousness of a large group—working online works better for them our normal classroom situation is a lot like our normal American culture—it favors extroverts. So introverts get a little more fairground in an online situation. But the other thing we know about online learning is the completion rate is really low. If you look at the stats from Coursera or you look at stats from online degree programs or online classes, you’ll see that the drop rate is really really high. And though it won’t be possible necessarily for our k-12 kids to drop a class, we’re likely to see levels of participation be very very low.
JB: Lots of things I want to run with if we can from that. And Heather thank you for those fabulous questions. There is—Steve I’m hearing come up here is that there’s an opportunity to actually give kids more feedback on their writing if we’re not with them in person. And I think about the structures that teachers at the elementary level especially have to put in place in order to create time for those one-on-one conferences—you know to just go to a student’s desk and talk with them about their writing look at their writing work with them one on one you know it’s kind of a whole thing to get the rest of the class to allow you to do that. Everybody else work independently, I’m gonna talk to this kid and I’m gonna get around to everybody hopefully over the course of the week I like that’s a significant challenge in an in-person classroom. And to me seems emblematic of a paradigm that we’ve moved toward over the last I don’t know 10 or 20 years toward talking about writing rather than doing written work in writing or talking about our thinking rather than writing about our thinking.
I wonder if there has been—I don’t know—maybe an unintended consequence of all of the great strategies we have now and these were strategies that I was taught as a new teacher that was heavily emphasized in Seattle Public Schools when I was a teacher in principle around accountable talk, right? We want students talking to one another we want them interacting we want them to share their ideas with one another and now we’re worried that like if there’s Plexiglas between the kids or if the desks are 6 feet apart we’re going to lose that. What did we lose in terms of writing when we started emphasizing all of that, you know, face to face conversation about writing and thinking? Did we stop doing some things in writing that maybe we should have continued doing and writing?
SP: I wouldn’t look at it that way you bring up an excellent point though because there are trade-offs for everything so if when I was starting on you and you and I probably learned a lot of the same things. I learned oh it’s always great to do peer conferencing get those kids conferencing with each other peer of peer editing. And you know what kids make crappy editors. So does that mean I don’t do any peer conferencing work? No, it just means I have to structure it in a really good way. So one of my simple structures was, sure, grab a partner get in a group of three here’s the rule: Questions only. Ask your writer partners questions. Help them figure out what you want to hear what isn’t clear and then leave them alone so that they can answer those questions. An editing kind of thing right around you know what kids there’s an order I want you to look at I want you to see if all the words are there first. It’s not much value in looking for periods and commas if the words aren’t there. Then I want you to look at ending punctuation but before you go and try to tackle all the commas and everything, why don’t you work on capitalization? That’s relatively easy and then you’ve got words in good shape, you’ve got sentences in good shape, you got capital letters in good shape, now guess what? I want you to go to spelling let’s get that spelling looked at finally we’ll get into some of the really harder things like interior punctuation.
So I think it wasn’t so much that we lost something or something was lost it was simply that we didn’t do something that we do almost everywhere else. We didn’t structure the activity in a helpful way and I think that’s probably the reason why a lot of those practices didn’t seem very valuable. Just like you were saying, there’s some work that is required to get the conference time that you need with kids in classrooms. You don’t just get it by saying, Justin, I’d like to talk to you but my desk. and everybody else then goes and does whatever they want you have to structure that with classroom procedures yeah I think that’s the trick it’s probably that’s probably true of everything we do with kids but it was certainly true with writing where an extraordinary amount of time could be wasted just having kids talking. And then it didn’t take me too many sessions of listening to kids starting to realize they very quickly stopped talking about their writing.
JB: Yeah that structure is really key and I appreciate you saying that is the case for written feedback as well. Don’t bleed red ink all over your neighbor’s paper. First, ask questions or make sure the words are there. And then make sure the ending punctuation is there, and then eventually we might worry about spelling. We’re not just gonna start you know scribbling all over each other’s papers.
SP: We’re not gonna go through it in kind of a random way because what that means is that each kid who’s contributing is going to contribute in a different way—and that’s gonna be very hard on the writer.
JB: Yeah—thinking as a former science teacher, often I will say I probably did accept first draft work if that got us to where we needed to be. But there were times when it would have served students well relative to the purpose of the lesson to revise or a certain purpose. Help us thin— especially for secondary content teachers—how can we be smart about putting in that extra structure—putting in those specifics? You know, we’re going to revise for this purpose—I want to make sure that your lab write-up addresses the question of whether the hypothesis was correct. We might not worry about spelling today but you’ve got to talk about whether the hypothesis was correct or whether you’ve even got evidence to be able to evaluate the hypothesis. We have a time issue right? We can’t focus on everything. We can’t do five drafts of every assignment, in every class, every day. How can secondary teachers, who maybe are not primarily writing teachers, be selective about providing that structure and really pushing students writing forward?
SP: That’s really good—again I’m gonna draw a line at revising here. Clearly there might be some prewriting or thinking that kids do. Obviously learning the lesson material is probably the rough equivalent of prewriting in a way. The majority of writing they’re going to do is what we would think of as drafting in a language arts classroom. But then you bring up a point well what if the kid doesn’t have the information down in a way that makes sense or in a way that’s complete? This is again where this notion of questions as the main focus of revision are answering questions as the main focus of revision becomes extremely powerful and extremely efficient.
It doesn’t really take me very long to look over—we’re doing tiny amounts of writing in the secondary and look in the content areas—it doesn’t take very long to look at a paragraph or two of writing and go hey what about this? what about that? did you remember in my model that I had this this, and this that would be the other part of the piece right? I wish and I don’t know if this will ever happen but but in my done my deathbed maybe someone will come with a study that says 40% of teachers and content areas are modeling the writing they’d like kids to do. Just to go back to the idea of quick wins right modeling is something I control 100% myself. I’m the model I can either show them a piece of writing or I can write one right in front of them. I think the secondary content area teachers could could do a lot for kids by simply doing their own assignments up in front of their class.You want all the kids to come up with the same right answer most of the time. I know we don’t want to give them everything, but if after a group of kids is tried for two or three days, what I don’t like and I think this goes, Heather, to what you were saying about finishing is what I don’t like is we spend a week on something about half the kids aren’t getting it and then we close the books on it and give a grade. Why not just spend a little more time but make sure everybody writes down all the information? To me, that’s part of school. And again writing is a really handy way to do it.
JB: Could you say what you mean more about having everybody write down the information? Because I think especially if we’re talking about note-taking or anything that seems kind of lower-level there’s a strong pushback against that idea, because we want everything to be higher order we want everything to be personal expression. Help me understand what you mean by that.
SP: sure think about it this way and again I’m I do a lot of things just by I’m gonna call it common sense. If I’m giving, let’s say my lecture for the day or for the week is the history of the Middle East crisis say from 67 to the present right or maybe I want to go all the way back to the Balfour Declaration or I want to go all the way back to the end of World War I. Whatever that chunk of time is, I’m going to be giving kids information I want them to learn something about it. Obviously I want them to learn a lot that has to do with higher-order thinking. But as we’ve discovered and I think everybody’s kind of getting around to it there’s some basic knowledge that has to be in place first. And so if I’m talking and kids are trying to write notes, my hunch is I don’t have their full attention. I also noted that while I’m telling them about a certain thing that happened in 1914 and another that happened in 1918 that led to one in 1939, etc the kids are not exactly making those connections. Certainly not all the kids. So the way I kind of look as it is why don’t I put that up on the board as I talk about it? Why don’t I arrange the information the way I talk and then what would be wrong with kids actually copying that down or making sure they had that exact information? Oh my gosh wouldn’t that ruin their higher-order thinking? No because what they’re copying down is the quote lower order. I don’t like lower order. But what they’re copying down is the information that every one of them has to have to do any higher-order thinking. So why isn’t it a good idea for a for the teacher I almost can’t teach this I can’t I have to do this now to teach. I have to actually write down all the things I’m teaching kids to literally remember where I am half the time. So I’m writing these things down and I’m just telling kids kids write that down here’s a list of four things we just talked about it write it down, put this down, put that don’t put this down we don’t need that that was a sidebar question. We’ll get to that or we won’t worry about it. But what I’d like in a subject like science or history is, I’d really like kids to have that knowledge and I’d like to know they have it—I’d like them to know and I’d like it to be fair. Kids who take notes better than others have an advantage that simply accrues more to the advantage they already have and I don’t want that to happen. So even though I know I’m probably breaking a rule and slaughtering a sacred cow here, I would say I really do want all kids to have the same notes. just like they would have the same textbook.
JB: Wow, it is so hard to even just hear you say that. Like, it goes against, you know, our kind of values of higher-order thinking and student personal expression. So let’s talk about that personal expression idea because if we were to kind of categorize the writing that gets done in schools you know the students the writing that students are asked to do, it seems to me that an enormous proportion of it is just kind of personal expression. Like the good old tell us what you did this summer, write about what you did this summer, or write a letter to so-and-so telling them what you think— there’s a heavy emphasis on personal expression because as we’ve talked about earlier there’s huge value in student choice, student agency, students being able to kind of select their own topic. But does that get us too far away from the information, from the knowledge that students need in order to have something to think about? Help us with that.
SP: I think it gets away when we let it get away. Again, I’m probably never going to walk in to a classroom and say okay just write anything. All right I’m never gonna do that tell me what happened last summer I mean I’m just not going to do that I’m not saying that’s inherently wrong I’m just saying I’m never gonna do that. I have topic selection activities that I use where kids develop good topics. Some of those topics naturally lead themselves to a personal narrative, but many of the topics lead themselves to informational writing. some some lead very naturally to persuasive writing some lead very naturally to argumentative writing. Kids still get the choice but I get to choose by putting them with certain types of topics I get to have a lot of control over the type of writing I want them to do. And I think again so much of school is all or nothing. Okay they all have complete choice or they have no choice—five paragraph prompted essay no choice right about anything you want that makes you feel good full choice. Neither of those is probably good. I don’t think—this is just one of the things that I made kind of a rule for myself and I’m probably going to break it here—it’s almost never either/or it’s probably always and. And so that’s the way I think about it with regard to narrative writing versus expository writing versus persuasive writing versus argumentative writing. Again I’m going to go to sort of a common-sense approach to this. What do you think the likelihood is of a kid doing a really good expose expository they can’t write a narrative piece? It’s probably a little lower what if what do you can’t write a narrative or or posit or a piece how hard is it for them to write a persuasive or argumentative piece? Very hard. So I don’t think of these things in terms of mix or balance I think of them in terms of progression. I really really really want to make sure that all kids can write a pretty solid narrative. And that’s for two reasons one we’re all very aware these days that our brains are wired for narratives, that in fact even when we approach informational writing expository information we still organize it in a narrative fashion. Some comes first something comes next something comes after that. So I really really want to put an extraordinary emphasis on narrative reading, not because I think self-expression is important, but because I think actual logical thinking is important and fluency of thought is important. And I know that there’s almost no way kids can succeed in higher-order thinking in the content areas in expository, persuasive, and argumentative writing if they can’t easily knock out a narrative.
JB: So you’re almost kind of sequencing it as a progression of skills that you know narrative first and then you said expository and then argumentative kind of builds on those on that foundation, right?
SP: yeah yeah narrative is the foundation for everything and I think I think that’s just how the human brain works. Expository or informational writing it comes off that really easily. And kids can do this a lot better than we give them credit for if we approach it as personal expository writing rather than as a teacher assigned topic. If it did has a story to tell about basketball game they played or particularly event in their life they actually know quite a lot about that as an informational topic. So often the way to get kids into expository writing is by having them write informational e about things they already know. This is how I work with the video game kid it’s quite a lot of information that they know they just don’t know that it’s valuable. And it’s also also I don’t want to stress to that if we’re not writing for an audience we’re not actually writing anything that, I’m not gonna say that matters, but we’re not writing something that matters to someone other than us. Here’s a really simple activity I loved it it was a huge hit, I don’t know why we don’t do it. But you know in math say third fourth fifth grade any kid who goes through it and does the problems in a math book and it’s not a math book in front of them could in fact write their own section of a math book. it could in fact create a set of four problems that go from easier to harder and they could write a little thing that explains how to do that math problem. Every kid can do that every kid can write story problems and what do you know they can actually solve more of the story problems they write themselves. So I the way I felt like we were finished with a math I don’t want to say a whole unit but we were finished with a section of a math unit is if kids could actually write their own math lesson. And I don’t know why we don’t do that we could do that in social studies we could do it in science it’s easier in math because they have an example right in front of them. But that seems that seemed to me to be a very productive way of working, because of course what did they try to do they’re trying to create problem sets that would challenge all their friends because that was the corresponding activity write your math lesson give it to another person, if they can understand it and figure out the problems then we’ve sort of close the loop on the learning. And kids thought it was very cool that they could do that and I said yeah it is cool you can do it. And I think I think I think writing can be really cool I when kids see that they can produce things that are on a par with or in some way similar to the writing that is given to them.
JB: yeah absolutely and there’s there’s an authenticity I mean so much of what we’ve just been talking about applies perfectly to project-based learning with you know the constrained choice the you know the kind of you know genre or problem space that that we’re working within but then you know a great deal of originality and agency and developing and using your knowledge in the course of that like— yeah so much of this overlaps with PBL.
SP: That’s right! It’s great for PBL. I couldn’t be more of a proponent of PBL if I wanted to. I mean it’s just such a good thing to do and there are so many opportunities for writing within the PBL space.
JB: yeah well I think we’ve we’ve kind of been circling around this question but let’s let’s get to it directly. What does it mean for a school to embrace a writing first philosophy? So rather than oh we’re gonna try to squeeze in writing across the curriculum or oh maybe we’ll have writing on Fridays or you know will demand writing three times a year as an assessment. What does it mean to really reorganize our curriculum or at least our thinking about student learning around a writing first philosophy?
SP: I think you kind of hit on the first thing which is we actually have to make a commitment to have it included in our day. I would say that if you’re a writing first school or you embrace a writing first philosophy you should probably be doing writing as often as you do reading. I haven’t been to too many schools where reading wasn’t done every day so that’s the first thing is we should make the commitment to the task itself. I think the second thing is to make the commitment to share a small group of strategies. that’s where they’re that’s where the big win in in my work has come through just in your the language I know I’ll be the language arts teacher you’ll be the science teacher. You really don’t have time in your day to teach writing and you shouldn’t I’m the one who should teach kids the how you should then say hey I know there’s this thing Mr Peha you called the idea detail strategy I want one of those and then ideally you get that without having to teach the tool.
So share strategies commitment to the time shared strategies and then I think a good third piece has to do with getting back to this notion of note-taking and writing kids do to express their knowledge. When I’ve been in the elementary level I’ve been a big proponent of kids having an extra notebook in each of their subjects that I just call their journal. It is not for journaling it is for capturing their knowledge on a daily basis. And one of the things I wish that we could do, and I don’t see why we can’t, I wish that I wish that a teacher would teach for about 12 minutes-15 minutes and stop and say what do you know? what did you pick up and hold those kids to actually writing in complete sentences anything that they’ve picked up and learned. CauseI think what we might find is the two minutes that the 10 or 12 minutes of talking and the two minutes of writing and maybe the one and a half minutes of quickly sharing, would tell us exactly what kids know and don’t. Also gives kids a night gives kids who do know a chance to show their knowledge and once they do gives kids who don’t know the opportunity to write that down as well. And I wish that there was kind of a learning journal approach that we could take because it just makes sense. It’s what it’s what I try to do when I go to a course or something or I’m in a training for a day. I try to actually write down the few pieces of information that seem the most salient to me. and I wish we would take that approach with kids.
JB: Yeah absolutely I mean I think so much of that just reflects what we do as adults you know to learn.
SP and we all know what we all know about this we all know it’s a good idea we simply don’t elevate it to the same level as again I’ll go back to reading and math we’re supposed these three R’s in our national curriculum is reading riting and rithmetic but actually writin has never even been close especially as we get into the secondary level. It’s as though writing just vanishes and I think the exactly the opposite should be true as kids get older writing should take a higher higher level especially as we look at what I’m really not sure what this debate about 21st-century skills is about but I will tell you one thing the number one 21st-century skill is writing we all text we all do email we have to have LinkedIn profiles we have to communicate through writing. And so if you’re walking out of 12th grade and you don’t have a certain handle on writing, your prospects for the future are really limited. Whereas say in the 50s reading would have been that benchmark or that limiting factor today it’s writing. And I think that we should embrace that and that’s probably why we should do writing first. We know kids will learn to read if they write we know they’ll learn to think if they write we know they’ll learn some computer skills if they learn to write. I’d be pretty happy if any kid I knew had that kind of an education.
JB: Yeah absolutely and so much of what we want to happen in those other areas does happen as the as a you know a byproduct or along the way of getting students to do that writing, but the reverse is not true as we said at the beginning right yeah.
So Steve if if someone is interested in becoming a writing first school bringing this philosophy and bringing some of the the specific methodologies and techniques that we’ve touched on a bit today what’s the best place for them to get in touch with you and maybe have a conversation.
SP”yeah the best this is something that plays out very differently in every school and every school has different constraints so the best thing is to get in touch with me on email that’s StevePeha@gmail.com, and i love to talk with anybody about it we can set up a phone call or a video conference. I can also give out most of how he’s happy to give out copies of my book Be a Better Writer. It’s used quite a lot by kids but also by teachers in schools and some elementary schools have taken it as a study book so I’m always happy to send a copy to to anybody who wants one so I hope to hear from people individually and we’ll take it from.
JB: Wonderful yeah I know we’ve we’ve correspondent for for many years I have probably written more to you and you have other written wanted me than any other people and we probably have you know a hundred thousand words of correspondence between us yes. The book is in I think it’s upstairs in my kid’s room right now be a better writer fabulous resource on you know very specific strategies for improving your writing as you said be strong beginnings and strong endings and lots of other specifics. And I would definitely encourage people to check that out on Amazon or to reach out to you about that.
Tell us just briefly I know we’ve got a we’ve got to go here tell us briefly why you decide I don’t actually know the answer is why did you decide to write a novel pretty recently and what happened?
SP: huh first of all I haven’t finished it that’s the important there’s a really simple thing I have a rule that I will never ask a kid to do something that I haven’t at least tried to do myself. And I realized that I was teaching fiction to a lot of kids and I’m a good fiction writing teacher, I really am, but that I hadn’t really struggled through it enough. So that’s what I’m trying to do now I’m trying to experience what that’s like it’s really hard. I also I’m also realizing that it makes me a better reader, and so as I become a better teacher of fiction writing I think what I’m really doing for most kids is helping them get more out of literature. So that’s probably going to end up being the real reason why I did become a better teacher.
JB: love it love it and and you want some sort of award just like for a—
SP:idea that I won I won an award is called the 2019 or is given by Ingram spark and it was for reading a one-minute spark of your book I read the first four paragraphs and I won. So the first four paragraphs are great you know the rest the rest is gonna take a while but that’s part of it too is you know I want to say kids go ahead give fiction writing a shot. Here’s how it works write something read it to people and don’t die. Just don’t die when they tell you something about it you know just just live to write another day that’s really the thing with fiction.
JB: love it we’ll see if thank you so much for setting aside this time and sharing your perspective and taking my crazy questions. And Heather thank you so much for being our panelists today to share your perspective as a principal appreciate you being here
HBW: my pleasure Thanks
SP:Thanks it was really a great opportunity today I appreciate it all right well we’ll we’ll stay in touch we’ll talk soon and we’ll we’ll get this recording posted for our roundtable members and Steve will send you a copy as well thanks so much and have a great day right take care.