Writing emphasis - even in math - multiplies students’ understanding

Reading, writing and arithmetic is not out, but reading and writing in arithmetic is becoming increasingly popular.

An unofficially termed Writing Across the Curriculum effort at Lincoln North Star High School creates more meaningful writing opportunities in all classes, even math and art.

At Tuesday’s capstone-type event, 10 teachers from different curriculum areas presented their own findings from their classrooms to fellow teachers and school district staff.

The new approach is nearing the end of a two-year grant cycle, but the emphasis will stay. The grant is from Humanities Nebraska with partial funding coming from the Nebraska Writing Project.

Twenty-eight teachers at North Star have gone through the program. They will continue to share their data with their fellow teachers in their data teams (professionally learning communities).

Melanie Farber, English Department Chair and Co-Director for the Nebraska Writing Project, said the writing effort helps students think more deeply, improves problem-solving skills and helps them better recognize errors.

"Their scores are getting better, and they are understanding concepts more deeply," Farber said.

Students are questioning the reasoning for writing less and less, she said, because writing - once commonly emphasized mostly in English and social studies classes - is now a growing part of the school-day culture in all classes.

Susan Frack has spent 30-plus years teaching science. Last year, she felt trapped in a rut. She sought out ideas though from English teachers at North Star. There was one spot left in the Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute. It was Frack’s.

Starting in second semester, Frack thought through her daily lessons and incorporated writing where it made sense. It unleashed

“Kids are responsible for their own learning, rather than me being the giver of information,” Frack said. “I rarely get a kid that says, ‘Oh, this is boring.’ They were excited, starting to ask what they were going to do ahead of time.”

It’s one thing for a student to be able to be hands-on in learning, but at some point they have to be able to describe what is happening. By writing out the explanation, they can see where there are holes in their answer. That means they need to do more research.

“They are getting better at problem solving because writing helps them solve their problems,” Frack said. “If they can put down in words what they don't know, that makes them better researchers to find the answer.”

In English Language Learner classrooms - designed for immigrant and refugee students - the writing emphasis has sped up language acquisition, and teachers experiencing students going back to their native language less often.

“You have to reflect,” said Bailey Feit, a math teacher at North Star. “That's where I started writing in math, writing reflections. You have to reflect upon your actions and the results of those.”

As kids started writing about their math problems, it didn’t click right away. Students would review what they wrote days later, and it didn’t serve as a helpful reminder.

So she went back to her research, studied double-entry note taking, and taught her students the method.

“In algebra, I’ve had the best assessment scores I've ever had,” Feit said. “Pretty consistent in advanced algebra. But what I have found is students are now taking the skills and methods I'm teaching with them, like color coding and highlighting, and using themon assessments without me having to tell them. So they are starting to internalize those strategies.”

At the recent event, Feit was honest with teachers: this will take more time early on. But the reward, especially among students who typically struggle in a math class, provides incentive to spend the extra time implementing the writing skills.

With writing - and subsequent skills like critical thinking - so prevalent in all career pathways, students will have a foundation for more success outside of the classroom.

Published: May 8, 2014, Updated: June 13, 2014


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