As many readers of this blog know, Colleen Driggs, Erica Woolway and I are finishing the manuscript of our forthcoming book on literacy, Reading Reconsidered. This morning, in fact, I was editing the introduction to a chapter called “Writing for Reading,” a discussion of the synergies between reading and writing and how to unlock more of their benefit. By the time the sun came up I was ready for a reward, so I thought I would share a few pages. The following is the intro to the chapter in which we reflect on how one teacher used writing especially effectively in her lesson.
Recently, Gillian Cartwright of Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn introduced her ninth-grade students to the play Fences by August Wilson. In one lesson, Gillian and her students read scenes 2 and 3 from the second act aloud. Students engaged the text actively, with their pencils up, making notes throughout. Their task was to note literary elements and devices that they thought would help them make sense of the themes and characters. Gillian paused briefly after reading the scenes to inquire about some of the elements and devices they’d decided were “worthy of analysis.” Two or three students shared specific lines from the play, Gillian expressed eagerness to hear more and then she set the class to writing: “You’re going to do a four-entry Lit Log,” she said. This meant they were to choose four of the literary elements or devices they’d identified from the scenes and discuss how they worked and what they meant in a writing ‘log’ they used over and over for this purpose. “You can choose to divide the scenes any way you’d like. You’ll be writing for eighteen minutes. Go.” And then they were off. For eighteen straight minutes every pencil scratched furiously across the page as her students reflected on Wilson’s great (and challenging!) play—different moments in it, from different angles and perspectives, citing different literary tools the author had used, but always in writing.
When it was time for the student directed discussion that followed, one student opined, “It seems like he [Troy] doesn’t care anymore, and he’s being selfish. But, on page 77 when he was talking to himself and he had that little speech, he said, ‘I’m gonna build a fence around what belongs to me, and I want you to stay on the other side.’ Right there, he’s talking to Death, I feel. It’s not that he’s being selfish; he’s scared. We all know that at the end of the day, no matter what he does, he loves Rose.” Another student questioned this analysis, however: “I have a question for you, Allie. You said that Troy is more scared than selfish. Since he’s a prideful man, why would he be scared and not try to keep his family together?” And so it went -students engaging each other directly, using evidence from the text and wrestling with specific lines. All of this without a single comment from Gillian herself for more than six minutes
It was impressive stuff but Gillian wasn’t done. After the first round of discussion, Gillian did something that surprised us. She asked her students to revise what they’d written in their Lit Logs based on the discussion they’d just had. Before jumping into a second round of discussion, students used the first round to refine their initial written thoughts.
Gillian’s lesson yielded quite a bit of insight for us- and not just about Fences. While the discussion was remarkable, her use of writing is what struck us most, in large part because we thought it had created the conditions that allowed for a high-quality discussion to thrive- deep sustained reflection on the text by every student in advance, for example. But her use of writing had other benefits too. Consider, first, just the amount of time Gillian devoted to sustained uninterrupted writing—eighteen minutes. That was far more time than we typically observe students writing in most classrooms, but not, we also realized, nearly as much time as students would ultimately need to be able to spend framing ideas in words in uninterrupted concentration as they cranked out papers in college. Eighteen minutes of uninterrupted writing would help students build incrementally the stamina they’ll need as successful students. In an age where concentration is increasingly fractured and divided by the pings and pop-ups of a thousand electronic devices, this is no small thing. As one college professor we spoke to put it, “Technology is quickly destroying our ability to focus, to pay attention to details, to appreciate the contemplative aspects of reading.” In this class there was practice sustaining focus- about a text no less.
The placement of the writing within the class period yielded another insight. Gillian required students to write directly from the text before they discussed it. During the discussion, students contributed in a meaningful way as and when they felt it was appropriate without prompting from Gillian. That autonomy was impressive, but their written ideas were autonomous in another way: they came directly and exclusively from their own fully independent reading of the text, rather than from what they had heard in discussion. The ideas that framed their contributions weren’t—at first–based on what they’d learned about the play from Gillian or their peers; they were, by necessity, their own.
The revisions that students were asked to make after the discussion sparked another epiphany. In Gillian’s class they were accountable not just for participating in the discussion but for using it to improve and refine their own ideas! Think about that for a moment. We often set the goal of students “participating” in discussion. Mere participation is nice, perhaps, but it’s hardly a perfect incentive- it’s all about talking and not about listening. No wonder kids sometimes participate by saying things apropos of nothing. They’re chalking up their participation points-sometimes at high cost to the continuity of the discussion. And what about the quiet reflective deep thinker who all the time is ruminating on the play’s themes? Where do we credit that as ‘participation’? Further, consider that so often class “discussions” are more like arguments. For example in a typical class the two students we quoted discussing Fences in might have begun a disagreement about whose interpretation was right that devolved into a ‘who’s right?’ and ‘who’s on whose side?’ tug-of-war. When there’s no clear purpose to a discussion beyond being a part of it, it’s easy for students to assume the purpose is to “win” it, but Gillian subtly gave students a far more useful goal. The goal of discussion in her class was to gather insights that would be useful in refining students’ own ideas, in writing, later on. So not only did the second round of writing reinforce the idea that revising is an integral part of writing and thinking, but it made the discussion part of this process: it’s purpose was to learn from others rather than to be “right.”
Writing, Gillian’s class reminds us, is immensely valuable. The task of taking complex ideas and describing them in precise vocabulary and deft syntax is one of the most cognitively demanding tasks students can do it the classroom. For this reason, Doug spent a chapter on it in his previous book Teach Like a Champion 2.0. But what Gillian’s class reminded us of was something more. In her classroom, the strategic use of writing made reading and discussions of reading- the other core activities of English class—more rigorous, focused, productive and engaging- ‘better’ in short. Writing is a deeply valuable endeavor in its own right, but it is also an endeavor that works in synergy with reading in specific ways.
In this chapter we will explore some of the synergies between reading and writing in more depth, focusing not only on how and why writing is valuable but how it can aid us in building top level readers specifically- though of course the converse will hopefully also be true and we hope to also provide some on how more intentional approaches to reading can make students better writers