Personal WAC: A WAC Manual for Me and Other Teachers

Introduction

What’s the purpose of witing? Calvin has the right idea: communication. But he means communication with noise–anything that interrupts a message sent to someone. How can anyone understand a title like “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study of Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes” without a dictionary? In the comic strip, Calvin pokes fun at jargon in academic writing. Technical words can easily mask weak ideas, making them seem intellectual and essential to democracy. But remove the elevated language, and readers will find a dull paper.

They will find a writer who can’ think clearly. He can’t think at all.

William Zinsser says that writing is thinking on paper; communicating clearly and precisely to an audience. It’s a relatively knew concept–our ancestors spoke before they wrote; newborns imitate the speech of their parents before they learn the alphabet. Words are just symbols to represent the sounds we make. Although it seems unnatural to communicate on paper, we do it all the time, even if some people insist they don’t.

I once asked an elementary teacher if he wrote clear, concise messages with warmth and humanity. He  told me writing is not a huge part of his job. When his principal visited the teacher’s class to evaluate him one day, the teacher asked the prinicipal if he wanted the day’s lesson plan. The principal said he didn’t. Teachers usually write e-mail messages in the subject box, because most of them don’t have time to write a two-paragraph message on why a student needs to meet so-and-so before the final bell. Writing a letter to parents is the most writing he does. I didn’t ask the teacher if he did a lot of writing; I asked him if held to basic principles of good writing; while he lectured on what little writing he did, the teacher inadverently gave me the answer I wanted: he writes clear, straightforward messages and he knows when its approriate to use the jargon of his profession.

Whether we do a lot of it or just a little, writing is essential, and because writing is simply turning spoken words into symbols–because it’s communication in a different form–writing applies to everyone. From the lovesick student writing a love letter (or love-text message) to the scientist writing a lab report, to the mathematics teacher revising a word problem on a test to be given out to students next week. Because all humans use langauage to communicate, it makes sense to emphasize the importance of communicating well in all discplines. Language, after all, is universal.

This manual is all about suggesting Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) to high school teachers, especially for myself. I’m taking everything I’ve learned and what I know as an educator-in-training and putting them into one huge manual!

Part I: Theory

WAC: Not just for college

Writing Across the Curriculum began in higher education as a response to ineffective student writing, and ultimately recognizing that learning to write can easily turn into writing to learn.  It has since blossomed into an ongoing programs in colleges and universities across the nation. While the goals and implementation of WAC varies from college to college, the purpose is the same: teach effective writing in all disciplines. Art, music, history, literature, psychology, biology, chemistry, engineering–regardless of the major, some component of intensive writing is incorporated.

Students need not be exposed to WAC for the first time in college; WAC can and should have a strong presence in high schools for many reasons.

  1. High school prepares students for higher education; high school students who do enter college are expected to have mastered the basic skills of writing.
  2. Writing is a life-long skill; students do not learn it in fifth grade, never to us it again, but return to it over and over again well into adulthood.
  3. Because writing is a life-long skill, everyone needs to write. Writing is not reserved for the “talented”. There is no such thing as “I can’t write” or “I’m not a writer”. Everyone can write and that means everyone is a writer.
  4. High schools already use it  for assessment in all content areas: short answer and essay questions on tests, for example.
  5. States across the country frequently test students on their writing skills
  6. Other high schools use WAC now: North Carolina has a handbook on WAC for high schools; Plainfield High School has a website devoted to WAC; Laporte High School in Laporte, Indiana has a guide to WAC.

In addition, the goals of WAC have universal appeal:

  1. Writing is thinking.
  2. Writing is a language process.
  3. We learn to write by writing.
  4. Development of our own writing can be facilitated by being more conscious of our writing processes.
  5. Writing is a socially constructed process.
  6. We not only learn to write, but we write to learn.
  7. The young writer benefits from some direct
  8. instruction.

All of these goals can easily apply to the high school classroom, especially the concept of “writing to learn”.

Writing to Learn: A different way to teach

Traditional assessment methods do not challenge high school students’s thinking. Of the seven levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy, teachers use only the basic learning domains–knowledge and comprehension. Most assessments evaluate what students remember by rote; rote memorization is not the same as learning. It merely means they retain the information until the test and as soon as the class ends, the information is gone. High schools need to challenge students on a great level– the greater the challenge, the better the student’s critical thinking skills.

Writing takes the student further up Bloom’s taxonomy into application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Students must take what they know and comprehend and transform that information into something new–apply them to real-world problems, analyze someone’s ideas and synthesis them with the students’s own ideas in a paper, and, most important, evaluate ideas for practicality, effectiveness, and worth. Writing Across the Curriculum, then, essentially has two roles: First, to improve writing; second, to improve learning new concepts.

Notice the two roles intertwine with each other. If a student needs to explain the theory of relativity, he must think about the information and then explain it with clarity and precision.  For this reason, student writing improves throughout their high school career and it prepares them for more demanding writing in college. Teaching students to think clearly is the ultimate goal of writing and a critical eye on everything will help students succeed in higher education and beyond.

Content Specific Writing Instruction!

 

No, Writing Across the Curriculum does not turn history teachers, science teachers, math teachers, and elective teachers into writing instructors. Writing still belongs to the English Department; English teachers instruct students in basic writing skills and specific skills needed to write about literature and poetry. In addition, English teachers have a variety of other genres and subjects to explore.

Writing Across the Curriculum is about teaching students how to write on a specific topic in a specific content area–“writing to learn; learning to write” in particular content area. Students take their general knowledge of writing–topic, audience, purpose, voice, organization, coherence, thesis statement, evidence, conclusion, etc. and apply them to history, science, art, music–any content. However, that does not mean the history teacher simply assesses his students’ knowledge of a concept; teachers are assessing both content and writing; the two, of course, must go together. If the student has not explain the Napoleonic Wars clearly, no one will understand; however, if the student confuses Napoleon with Robert E. Lee, he will lose credibility. If the reader wants to learn about something he does not know about, he’ll walk away with false ideas about Napoleon.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration!

Most people like organization, and that involves putting things in categories. By establishing what something is everyone will know what it is not, so there is no confusion. On university campuses the Sciences Building will not have and English Department–students will find that across the quad; likewise, medical technology will be in the Nursing Building and not the Sciences Building. The same happens  in high schools–students go to history to learn about history, English to learn about English, biology to learn about biology, and so on.

Students receive a fragmented education this way and do not see how English relates to biology.

Writing Across the Curriculum emphasizes collaboration between disciplines. Teachers should work as a TEAM. Teachers pool together their knowledge to build an effective writing program. This also means teachers can learn from each other and see how their content area overlaps into other content areas. This is where they ASK questions to see how their disciplines CONNECT.  History covers the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages; that is a perfect opportunity for a science teacher to cover a mini-lesson how the plague effects the body and explain if it exists in the 21st Century.

Students can then combine the two and write a paper on the bubonic plague. This is where the collaborations generations IDEAS.  The genre options are infinite; they can write historical fiction, a short story, a memoir, a letter to the future, a letter to a loved one, or even a memo written by a blacksmith.  Students can get creative once they see how the concepts they learn connect with one another.

Part II: Practice

Getting Started

Writing Across the Curriculum changes how education works; in a way, it changes the learning culture in a school. Administrators and teachers might not be willing to CHANGE traditional instruction for different reasons: WAC is too difficult to implement, the curriculum does not give teachers enough time to implement WAC ,or “that’s not how we do things here” are some reasons for objecting to WAC.

However, the history of WAC shows that the program never changed writing instruction in two years; in fact, WAC has taken decades to develop and refine itself in colleges across the nation.  No program is perfect; there is always room for improvement, especially as society changes, putting emphasis on integrating technology in the classroom.

Catholic philosopher G.K. Chesterton was once asked “What’s wrong with the world?” He replied, “Dear Sirs, I am.” Chesterton basically argued that self-responsibility made the world right. Although WAC values collaboration and involves hundreds of colleges led by thousands of administrators, teachers, and students, it does not have to start big; it can began in my own classroom. This can help expand WAC to other teachers in two ways:

  1. A teacher can see firsthand how WAC improves instruction
  2. A teacher can see firsthand how WAC improves students’ thinking, learning, and writing.

For this reason, my classroom can become an example for how WAC works in the classroom and how it influences instruction and learning. Good teachers want to help their students improve and be successful, and if they see students in one class improve over time, they might walk up to you and ask, “So, what’s your secret?” You should reply, “WAC, my friend! My secret is WAC!” (for comical effect, too!)

Because WAC takes time and commitment to implement in an entire school, Part II of this manual focuses on ways teachers can use WAC in their classroom. The next few pages offer general suggestions, not rules, for educators. Every school is different; every teacher is different; every class is different, so you will have to use see what works best for your purpose and goals in the classroom.

Lay a foundation; then build


WAC need not bring a dramatic change to the classroom; it should start small and then build up. Get students used to the idea of writing about what they learn in class with a Reflection Journal.

Students need to process the concepts they’ve learned; spending ten minutes at the end of class allows them to do this and putting what they have learned in their own words help students retain that information. The journal can be more open-ended than a general rehash of the day’s lesson plan. Teachers should encourage students to also write about the lesson itself–what specific methods of instruction did they like (questioning, lecture/discussion, group discussion, inquiry)? What did they not like? What do they wish you did instead? Not all criticisms of your instruction apply (some comments maybe unreasonable), but it gives the teacher some idea of how to improve instruction and assess students’ knowledge of the concept taught.

The purpose of journal writing can go beyond reflecting on a lesson. Students can brainstorm ideas for future writing assignments–Brainstorming— and even share their ideas with each other–Reader-Response Journal

Journals should be fun for students and not a chore. To make this happen, the journal should be open to many topics for writing; the book belongs to the student and on occassion they should share their thoughts with others.

As an example, let us say I’m covering fairy tales with my 9th grade English class. Before we read a fairy tale, I ask them to reflect on the typical characteristics of a fairy tale we discussed in class. Responses will vary here.

Build on journal writing short, small writing assignments that go beyond reflecting on learned material. This is where students start applying what they’ve learned. Writing prompts are very useful with this. It’s important that students see how content applies to the real world, so writing prompts should be based in the real world. Mathematics is well-known for word problems, and they usually address real world problems –building a bridge, for instance. Or better yet, building the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to combine history with math!

Back to my English class. We’ve read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. I know it’s very elementary. But we read two different versions of the same story. The original version by Robert Southey and another version by Joseph Cundall. What is the difference? Southey’s story features an ugly old woman; Cundall rewrote the story and replaced the ugly old woman with a beautiful young girl. Here’s my prompt for the class:

As the defense attorney for either old Goldilocks or your Goldilocks, explain her behavior to a jury in three pages. Make sure the concluding paragraphs is your closing argument.

If I wanted to make things really interesting, I could split the class into two legal teams: one side represent the defense and the other the persecution. Then we could have a mock trial! The prompt combines Civics with English.

We can talk a little bit about court cases to prepare the students for the coming trial!

Tell them writing is a process

By high school, most students should be familiar with the famed writing process. It helps writers approach their assignment. Here’s brief rundown of what that process involves:

  • Prewriting
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing: proofreading
  • Publishing

Teachers can take a step-by-step explanation of the last three as prewriting and drafting are fairly obvious to most high school students. It’s the revising and editing stage that matter most. This is where workshop, teacher conference, and peer review come into play.

It’s important students know the difference between  revising and editing. Editing means to check for grammar, mechanics, and usage. Revising involves looking at the structure of the work as a whole: organization, coherence, and word choice. Entire paragraphs might be deleted, or maybe moved from one part of the paper to the next. Revising might take more time to teach and demonstrate than editing; it depends on how far you want to go into the writing process. However, it’s always fun to see how the students handle the revision part of the assignment.

Dialogue is Key 

Social interaction is key to improving writing. This is what workshops and teacher conferences are important. Workshops give students the chance to share ideas and assignments with one other to get comments on what they did well and what they need to improve on. Most importantly, students know they are not writing for the teacher along, but their peers. Knowing their audience help students write with a strong purpose and voice in mind.

Teacher conferences can be one-on-one. This is where the student and teacher sit down to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the student’s work. Workshops and teacher conferences combined give students a great sense of why writing is important and why they should consider their audience while writing.

Cut grading time down to size!

Writing is cool. Writing is great. Having students write about science and math is great. But teachers have a lot of work to do. Teachers have a lot of students, and that means a lot of grading. Who has the time?

Rubrics come in handy for this. They come in categories with a rating scale for each one and within each category, specific criteria that the paper meets. Actually, rubrics are a most! The caveat to assessing student’s writing is subjectivity. One reader might love John’s report on how dead frogs are bad for the environment; another reader might hate it. Rubrics eliminate most of the subjectivity and it helps students know exactly what their teachers are looking for.

However, rubrics cannot do everything. Comments are a most on any paper. The comments you make should be specific and helpful for the student. It’s not enough to say “This sentence is confusing”. Expand on the comment. Say: “This sentence is confusing because you say dead frogs float on water and then you say something about how pigs can fly”. Okay, that is a bit comical, nonsensical even, but you get the point. The same goes for students when they provide feedback to one another. Their comments must be useful and specific, but never insulting to the writer!

Conclusion? Nope!

This manual scratches the surface on WAC and its application to the classroom. Think of this manual as an introduction to the idea. If you want to get your hands dirty in WAC visit the WAC Clearinghouse website. It has free journals and books in PDF format. Below is a selection of books that might be useful!

Revision: History, Theory, and Practice

WAC for the New Millennium

Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum

The Informed Writer: Using Sources in the Disciplines

Armed with some tools for writing in your discipline, go forth and raise up great minds!

1 Response to Personal WAC: A WAC Manual for Me and Other Teachers

  1. This is very cool! I learned so much just by reading your plan! I love Goldilocks and the jury! Fun times. Good luck in your future endeavors and in your teaching, and I loved your blog posts this semester.

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