I had a realization while working in some middle schools in South Texas recently. I was working with several writing teachers, and I kept hearing the same things: “The kids are not developing their ideas”, “The kids are not able to state a claim and back it up with reasons,” “The students aren’t able to get their thoughts down in writing.” “Kids aren’t motivated to write…they’re lazy.”
I really started thinking about the students they are serving. Many of these students are first generation kids – kids who were the first generations to be born in the United States. We often see academic language plateau with these students because they stay at very surface level in language in both their native language and English.
They also have quite a few long term ELs – the very students we have been talking about (before we took a break to look at the Teach Me, Teacher podcast). These were students who maybe were born in Mexico, but came over at a very young age.
Remember when we talked about language development? BICS (social language) and CALP (academic language)? We know that students can develop their BICS quickly – in 1-3 years – especially if they are learning their second language at a very young age. CALP, however, can take up to 10 years! And this is if they are actively and intentionally building their academic language, with proper supports and linguistic accommodations!
So many of these students sitting in these classrooms seem to be very fluent in the English language, and they ARE – socially. But this looks very different when writing an essay.
So I really got to thinking about this. Is it that kids just aren’t writing the way they use to? Is it that they are just lazy? I’m a firm believer that all behavior stems from an antecedent -so what is the antecedent that is keeping these students from being able to write at grade level?
Here’s where my realization hit…
It’s not that students don’t know how to write. It’s that students don’t know how to think in the format we want them write!
So I started talking through this with some of the teachers down there. Now, understand that a vast majority of the students and teachers come from the collectivist culture in this area of Texas. So I shared my theory with a few of them. In the collectivist culture, as one teacher mentioned, there is often this “children are to be seen and not heard” mindset. The adults sit in one room, the children are playing in another. The language between adults and children are often directives, with little room for negotiation or explanation on the child’s part.
So not only do we have an academic language barrier with many of these students, we also have a cultural barrier where they’ve never been required or expected to state a claim and then back it up with description and details. Many of the students have never given their opinion on matters, or ever been spoken to about how to develop an individual opinion that may be different than the collectivist group. This goes against much of the collectivist culture.
On top of that, we are asking them to write about topics that they may actually NOT be interested in or have an opinion on!
So what am I saying here?
I don’t think the problem is the skill of writing. I think the problem may be the skill of developing an individual opinion, and then thinking deep enough on that opinion to develop it fully with anecdotes and examples.
So what skill is this?
But here’s the funny thing…when I asked every one of the writing teachers that I was working with about how they have their classes brainstorm, they ALL said they brainstorm with their students, and then have them write. So let’s think about this – if we are guiding our kids to do the brainstorming, aren’t we taking away the skill of thinking that we are needing to develop??
Then, when we then ask them to write about topics they may or may not have come up with, they have a really hard time with this.
So if I was teaching writing – I think I would actually be talking about teaching brainstorming.
Here’s a few ideas that we’ll dive into next week:
Throw and Write…
Be looking for the next blog next week (and possibly a free guide to these strategies ahead of time!)
This week, start thinking about brainstorming! How do we get our kids to THINK! To develop ideas! To argue! To debate! Isn’t this the basis good writing?
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