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Voices from the Middle Moving from Print to Practice, March 2012 (19.3) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Preparing Students as Writers

In their article “‘Writing So People Can Hear Me’: Responsive Teaching in a Middle School Poetry Unit,” Cara Gutzmer and Phillip Wilder provide the perfect summary for this issue when they say, “Student voices are road maps. Through what they say and don’t say, our students are constantly telling us what they need as readers and writers, what they know and what they want to know.”

This issue focuses our attention on student voices and encourages us to be better listeners so that we may take what our students tell us and help them become better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.

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“Progressive Writing Instruction: Empowering School Leaders and Teachers”
Jan Lacina and Cathy Collins Block

General Discussion Topic
The authors of this article found that in the large urban districts they studied, the following instructional practices were not present in the majority of classrooms:
  • Writing strategies
  • Collaborative writing
  • Stating specific goals for writing
  • Word processing
  • Inquiry activities
  • The study and analysis of good writing models
  • Writing for content learning
What is present in your classroom? In your building? On your team? How do you know? If you don’t know what others in your school are doing, this is a good place to start a conversation. Present colleagues with a list of these instructional strategies and ask them to respond based on their use.

Key Points
  • Writing is often described as the “neglected R.”
  • There is little data on what writing instruction looks like in schools, especially grades 4–6.
  • Connecting to students’ backgrounds and experiences brings writing to life and reinvigorates that classroom.
  • Incorporating technologies of this generation of students in the writing classroom is another way to engage and motivate student writers.
Common Core Connection
The Common Core now emphasizes writing in all areas of the curriculum. From Writing across the Curriculum: Production & Distribution of Writing:

College and Career Readiness Standard 5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. (In grade levels 4–8, this is accomplished with guidance and support from adults and peers.)

College and Career Readiness Standard 6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Using This Article with Your Team
Since writing across the curriculum includes all content areas, talk with your team about ways to use some of the writing advice in this article in other content areas. When planning interdisciplinary units, think about ways writing can be used in all subject areas. Is there a writing prompt that begins in the social studies class, but can carry into language arts to work on an aspect of craft or technique? Can students use some form of technology, such as a wiki to work on their writing in more than one classroom during an interdisciplinary unit?

Why Not Try This?

The article suggested links to author websites for writing advice for students and to pull examples of mentor texts. Use the following links as resources and add additional options by filling in the Comments box at the bottom of this page.

The authors suggest using wikis or blogs to implement peer response groups as a way to motivate reading and writing. What is the difference between a wiki and a blog? According to Will Richardson in Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom (3rd ed., Corwin Press, 2010), a blog is a publishing tool. It allows the blogger to post ideas and links and for others to respond, but the initial topic comes from the blogger. A wiki is a collaborative effort between multiple contributors. Anyone can start and anyone can add, delete, or modify the text.

Here are some examples of real-time text tools for collaborative writing:
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"Narrative as a Springboard for Expository and Persuasive Writing: James Moffett Revisited"
Barbara J.  Radcliffe

General Discussion Topic
In this article, the author focuses on the transition for middle school writers from a focus on narrative writing to exposition and argumentation. The author poses a key question: “Can narrative and academic writing coexist in the middle grades curriculum?” In addition to asking this question, we might begin by asking, does narrative writing diminish in importance or frequency in your middle school? Why?

Key Points
  • The notion of honoring students’ oral traditions and narrative writing is replaced with the demands of expository and persuasive writing.
  • Can narrative be used as a springboard for exposition and argumentation?
  • It is important to consider the classroom processes that allow both oral storytelling and the narrative form of writing to lead to a deeper understanding and complexity and coexist as a support for learning new modes of writing.
  • Narrative breathes life back into the writing curriculum for middle school students and provides a springboard for more complex, academic writing.
Common Core Connection
Writing across the Curriculum: Texts and Types of Writing:

College and Career Readiness Standard 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or tests, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

College and Career Readiness Standard 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

College and Career Readiness Standard 3: Write narrative to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective techniques, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.*

*It is important to note that standards 1 and 2 in this area are written to be cross-curricular, but standard 3 is specific to English/Language Arts.

Using This Article with Your Team
If expository or persuasive writing gain more importance in middle grades curriculum, how can we balance types of writing across the curriculum? Are there ways to use expository writing in science classes? Persuasive writing in social studies? Refer to the Common Core Standards referenced here to work with your teammates in other disciplines to support expository and persuasive writing. How could your team work together to follow the model outlined in this article, but work on different types of writing in each content area?

Why Not Try This?

The author of this article used teen violence as the topic that she thought would resonate best with her students in moving from narrative writing into other forms. What are some other topics that might work for this process?
  • Bullying
  • Health and wellness issues
  • Friendships
  • Standardized testing and accountability
How can we involve students in the process of creating prompts within a broad topic like this? Share your ideas in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.

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"Using Student Voices to Guide Instruction"
Susan E. Elliott-Johns, David Booth, Jennifer Rowsell, Enrique Puig, and Jane Paterson

General Discussion Topic
This article focused on how to use student voice and talk as an effective part of the learning process. Through a series of four excerpts of their work, the authors encourage us to examine the value of student voice in the classroom. Think about how often we might try to silence student voices. How does that happen in your classroom, and how can you become more aware of opportunities for student voice and talk throughout the student experience in your school?

Key Points
  • We need increased acknowledgement of why student voice matters and how teachers can integrate opportunities to promote student voices across the curriculum.
  • If we listen well, learners will open up because they trust we can make a difference in their lives at school.
  • Not only do student voices matter, but the voices we use with students also matter.
Common Core Connection
College and Career Readiness—Speaking and Listening

Comprehension and Collaboration Standard 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Comprehension and Collaboration Standard 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge & Ideas Standard 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to the task, purpose, and audience.

Presentation of Knowledge & Ideas Standard 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Using This Article with Your Team

Speaking and listening are crucial skills that many business and civic leaders say today’s adolescents lack. Technology is changing methods of communication, and middle school students are at the heart of this revolution. Speaking and listening skills cannot be the sole territory of the language arts teacher. Be a leader on your team, helping your colleagues to find ways to incorporate meaningful talk and oral expression in all areas of the curriculum. Use ideas from this article, such as digital stories. Could a digital story be the culminating project in an interdisciplinary unit? Are there ways to use drama and role play in disciplines other than language arts? Could you help the science teacher on your team create a role play using elements of the rock or water cycle? Could students in a math class use Xtranormal to create a scene where characters explain order of operations and post that on a class website as a resource?


Why Not Try This?
How can we accomplish the idea of digital stories as Patsy Flores did in her examples? There are multiple ways students can present information in a digital format and use that information to tell a story. Resources include:
  • iMovie
  • Windows Movie Maker
  • Using the record feature of a SmartBoard or other interactive whiteboard technology to record a presentation with pictures and sound
  • Glogster (
  • Prezi (
We can use any of these technologies or others to expand on the idea of drama and role play from this article. Students can role play live in the classroom with peers, or they can create virtual role plays using avatars on sites such as:Using sites like these with avatars allows students to expand into new roles with different genders, racial or ethnic backgrounds, or periods in history.

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"Teaching Writers through a Unit of Study Approach"
Denise N. Morgan with Barbara Clark, Joe Paris, and Claudia Kozel

General Discussion Topic
In this article, the authors use a focused unit of study to support writing instruction. Through the study of memoir, students read mentor or anchor texts, studying the craft and structure of the genre, and then write their own memoirs. The goal is to help students develop as writers by focusing on both process and product. The authors provide a good model for a focused unit of study. What other topics or types of writing could we explore using this same model or unit structure?

Key Points
  • It is easy to assign but difficult to teach writing.
  • A unit of study offers a predictable format of instructional practices for studying writing.
  • No single teacher-directed topic will inspire all writers.
  • Writers need time to write.
  • Before students can write thoughtfully in a particular genre, they need to know that genre.
  • The overarching idea is for students to be intentional in their writing, to think about what they want to say and want the reader to experience, and deliberately craft their piece to accomplish those goals.
Common Core Connection
In addition to all of the writing standards that have already been identified in this issue, this article makes reference to close reading and study of anchor or mentor texts as part of the memoir unit.

The Common Core addresses close reading in Reading in the Content Area: English/Language Arts Key Ideas and Details

College and Career Readiness Standard 1:  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Using This Article with Your Team
How can we enlist our teammates to help students think of themselves as writers? For this memoir unit in particular, how can other content area teachers help students choose moments from their lives to capture in writing? Solicit stories from other teachers or coaches. Use advisory time that might be focused on social skills or personal interests to talk about students’ lives and help them find ideas for writing.

Why Not Try This?
What are some anchor or mentor texts we can use for our students to study memoir? Who are some authors we can use as resources? Add suggestions of your own in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.

  • My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen
  • King of the Mild Frontier by Chris Crutcher
  • Writing toward Home by Georgia Heard
Peer Examples

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"'Writing So People Can Hear Me': Responsive Teaching in a Middle School Poetry Unit"
Cara Gutzmer and Phillip Wilder

General Discussion Topic
This article focuses our attention on how two teachers began with student voices and structured a poetry unit that was student-centered, performance-based, and differentiated. Two important points for discussion are at the heart of their work: What does it mean to really listen to our students? Do we have the courage to use what they tell us to design our curriculum?

Key Points
  • Teachers listened to student voices and used that information to make daily instructional decisions.
  • One quote guided their work: “Learning is a Partnership: Good teachers find out what students do and do not understand and do something about it. Good students tell and show what they understand and ask questions when they don’t understand.”
  • Clear learning goals and all the continued assessment practices in the world mean little if teachers do not differentiate instruction for students.

Common Core Connection
English Language Arts: Range of Reading & Level of Text Complexity

College and Career Readiness Standard 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Poetry appropriate to the grade band is included at every level beginning in first grade. In grades 6–8, the only poem listed as an example of “Texts Illustrating the Complexity, Quality, and Range of Student Reading in Grade 6–12” is “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

Using This Article with Your Team
The authors of this article focus their teaching of poetry within the framework of performance tasks as described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005). Wiggins and McTighe define a performance task as “A task that uses one’s knowledge to effectively act or bring to fruition a complex product that reveals one’s knowledge and expertise” (p. 346). Poetry writing as the authors use it in their classroom may not translate into every discipline on your team, but maybe you can use this article as an example to foster discussion among teachers about using specific performances to make curriculum and assessment more relevant and student-centered.

Why Not Try This?

  • In her volume New Handbook for Storytellers (1993, ALA), Caroline Feller Bauer introduces readers to the concept of a “Poetry Break.” A poetry break is a variation on the idea of “Must Reads” in this article. Instead of students bringing “must reads” to the language arts class and confining them there, poetry breaks are schoolwide. Someone, in this case a student from your class, is selected each day or at least each week to go from class to class at a designated time and read a poem. This could be a great activity for advisory time. If the whole school is too much, try this just within your team. The website Poetry for Children can help you get started:
  • The authors suggest a pre-assessment asking students to begin writing about an experience as a narrative and then using the same experience to write a poem. A variation on that idea might be to provide some examples. Have students read a newspaper account of a high school basketball game, preferably one that was down to the wire. Then read “Foul Shot” by Edwin Hoey ( Ask students to compare and contrast the two styles before writing their own examples. Use the Comments section at the bottom of the page to share your own examples with others.
  • The authors began the poetry unit in their classrooms by using a wide variety of books of poetry and online poems:
  • I Never Said I Wasn’t Difficult by Sara Holbrook (
  • Something Permanent by Cynthia Rylant and Walker Evans
  • 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • Poet and author Nikki Grimes has compiled a great list at

Share some of your favorite resources in the Comments section at the bottom of the page.

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