By Jane Moskowitz, Head Teacher, Silver Cluster
Written expression has emerged as one of the most vital skills required for academic, careers, and social success. Through writing, we make critical first impressions, whether it is a cover letter for employment or an essay for admission into college; the quality of one’s writing can shape the trajectory of a person’s life. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “ability to use written language to communicate with others—and the corresponding need for effective writing instruction and assessment—is more relevant than ever.” However, the very skills that are essential for success are the same skills that are, arguably, the most difficult to master.
Learning to write is challenging for all students but is particularly difficult for students with language-based learning differences, due to the robust and varied language requirements that writing entails. At Gaynor, we implement the Judith Hochman Approach, which distills writing down to its component parts, focusing first on the sentence level, and building on those fundamental skills in a sequential and explicit way, as learners are thoughtfully led towards paragraph and composition writing.
Students have found great success using the Hochman Approach, which has helped clarify and organize a process that is opaque and fraught with nuances. However, a question remains with which I have been grappling across the past few years How do we teach students basic writing skills while simultaneously providing opportunities to write creatively and make their voices heard? How can we give students a sense of agency in their work and continue to explicitly teach them fundamental writing skills?
Ralph Fletcher—a renowned American writer and literacy educator—contends, “The writing in a classroom can only be as good as the literature that supports and surrounds and buoys it up.” With this in mind, I have made a conscious effort this year to expose my students to engaging and diverse literature that has great potential to inform their own work. By reading these books aloud and inviting students to studythe writing, I have seen a remarkable shift in my classroom: what has emerged is an authentic community of writers who have grown to enjoy the writing process and are eager to share their work. Through the use of mentor texts, students have become inspired and invigorated, and have been able to transfer effective writing techniques into their own compositions.
Most recently, we honed in on human rights—a common thread this year throughout social studies and current events—and students were given the opportunity to develop their own stories in which the protagonist navigates a social justice-related issue. Prior to beginning their writing, students were exposed to a series of human rights-related mentor texts, including Henry’s Freedom Box, The Journey, Let the Children March, and I am Jazz. As I read these stories—which grapple with issues related to slavery, civil rights, immigration, and people who are transgender—aloud we identified compelling word choices, text structures, and figurative speech. Studying the literature in this way facilitated a process whereby students were encouraged to thinklike writers.
After studying our mentor texts, students were given the chance to develop their own stories, and here is where they were able to use their explicit Hochman-based writing strategies again. Planning is one of the most critical steps in the writing process and different tools work for different students. For some, Hochman’s Quick Outline is remarkably effective, providing a simple technique for strategizing and organizing thoughts and ideas. There are students for whom drawing first is more accessible and others who prefer starting to write and getting ideas down on paper. During the planning phase, I made the Quick Outline available for students who preferred it and provided other planning options for students who opted for a different tool.
As students worked on their narratives, I observed something profound: they were incorporating learned Hochman skills, while simultaneously including elements of the mentor texts. And, what’s more, students were enjoying the opportunity to write and author their own narratives. They all had a story to tell and they were eager to share their stories with their peers. Students developed accounts that were personally meaningful to them and, with the right supports in place—e.g., explicit writing instruction paired with exposure to rich literature—they were able to experience what it is like to be given authentic choice as a writer.
The explicit writing approach is a critical part of the learning experience and we have seen, first-hand, the success to which it can lead. However, what I have found is that we can teach writing explicitly with purposeful inclusion of mentor texts; there is myriad literature that exposes students to effective and interesting writing, which can bolster their work and bring more meaning to the writing process. The key is to avoid prescribing only one approach; providing opportunities for onlycreative writing, for instance, will not help foster the foundational skills that students must learn. What we can do though, is embed explicit instruction and exposure to good writing into our curriculum, and provide meaningful opportunities for students to experience authentic choice, which ultimately fosters a love for writing and builds the skills students need.