Why Writing Across the Curriculum Makes Sense

Everybody Writes, Everybody Wins: Why Writing Across the Curriculum Makes Sense

Over the last 20+ years, I’ve worked in over 500 different schools. Each school is as different as the teachers and kids who inhabit it. But they’re all working toward the same thing: sustainable school-wide change that results in a better work environment for teachers and better learning experiences for kids.

Everyone in education is working harder than ever, but the goal of sustainable school-wide change is elusive. Even new technology hasn’t yet proved its promise. We’re all more focused on student achievement now than we were 20 years ago. This is good. But it doesn’t seem to be good enough. There’s something missing. And sometimes I think it’s write under our noses.

I have seen schools make extraordinary investments in schedule changes, in technology, in reading instruction, in character education, PLCs, departmentalization, project-based learning, curriculum integration, differentiation, flipped classrooms, personalized learning, virtual learning, blended learning, 1-to-1 computing, BYOD—every well-intentioned program and idea that promises any hope at all and seems like a responsible thing to do. But promises aren’t always kept and hope is that thing with feathers Emily Dickinson told us about—it’s more inclined to head South for the winter, just when we need it to kick in and power us through the rest of the year.

Most districts I’ve worked with have some form of Shiny Object Syndrome. Every few years it seems, a sparkling new “solution” catches the eye of district leadership. All of a sudden, the previous change initiative is replaced with something “new” (ironic quotes intended as most new things are repackaged versions of old things). If there’s one pattern of change I’ve seen throughout my career, it’s the pattern of replacing one change with another—with little or no change in results.

I don’t know about you, but for me this has been tiresome and, at times, demoralizing. I’m fortunate to be more isolated from the whims of management than most educators, but the support I offer to teachers and schools has so often been halted (just when it starts working on a noticeable scale) that I’ve felt the frustration, too.

Criticizing educational decision making has become something of a national pastime, but that’s not my intention here. All sectors of our society that are under-resourced and overwhelmed with the unreasonable requirements of contemporary life struggle with exactly the same issues—and tend toward the same well-intentioned ways of dealing with them. These are hard times for our schools. In hard times, there’s a feeling we have that hard problems require equally hard solutions. But sometimes when we’re working so hard to solve complex problems, simple solution that make more sense don’t make sense to us.

For example, we don’t need research (though much exists) to understand that writing is, minute for minute, the most valuable thing we can ask kids to do. Writing requires all the skills of reading, some of the logical skills of science and math, graphomotor skills for little kids; computer skills for big ones, and social/emotional skills for everyone. Writing is the greatest symphony young minds can conduct. And every subject can host daily performances of crucial repertoire.

Why, then, do so few schools choose writing as the year-by-year foundation of their work?

Writing is not a shiny object. It’s as dull as a worn out #2 pencil. It isn’t new. It doesn’t sparkle with the promise of overnight transformation. Writing is a subject, not a solution. And it’s a subject that few of us feel comfortable with. After all, it is the only core subject where every student is required to produce original work at all times. It isn’t like math or science or social studies where we hope, with each new unit test we give, that every kid will come back with the same right answers.

Writing across the curriculum is a simple idea but it’s certainly not a sexy one. You can’t just go out and buy a cool new writing program and expect to feel good about your decision. Programmatic approaches to writing have never been broadly successful at any time in the educational history of our nation because writing is an individual sport and players bring with them diverse needs for coaching and equipment. There’s a lot of technology out there for writing, but nothing is significantly better than access to pen and paper or a simple text editing environment like Google Docs. No one in a school needs Microsoft Word, least of all young kids learning to write.

Writing across the curriculum is the educational equivalent of sensible shoes. It doesn’t have that Manolo Blahnik cachet, that Prada prestige. But there’s a reason so many of us wear sensible shoes: it makes sense to wear them. What they lack in allure, they more than make up for in comfort and cost.

Twenty years ago, when I started to do a lot of consulting and needed to dress appropriately, I bought two pairs of very sensible shoes at Nordstrom. I’m still wearing them today, just like I’m still wearing writing as the focus of my work. Similarly, the small set of writing strategies that I created in my first few years are still in wide use today (1.5 million free downloads from my website to teachers in over 120 countries and growing every month). Is there anything in education that has been used successfully all over the world for over 20 years with little or no modification? Maybe an old blackboard or two. The real ones had great staying power.

Other aspects of writing have been just as stable during the curricular chaos of reform. Any Language Arts teacher who settled into Writer’s Workshop at any time in the last 30 years would never have had to switch to a different method. Any content area teacher who made writing an integral part of his or her classroom would never have been questioned or challenged for that choice. If your goal is getting off the swing of the education pendulum, writing is your best bet for stability. Writing has also enjoyed a very thoughtful progression in its practice. The books that line my shelves show a wonderful view of steadily improving ideas and results over the last three decades. The kindergarteners I work with today write about as well at as 2nd or 3rd graders I worked with back in the mid-1990s. Evolution doesn’t work that quickly. The only reasonable explanation is improvement in instruction. In no other curricular area have we seen such progress. There’s no doubt at all these days that we know how to teach writing well.

Yes, writing is hard for teachers to teach and it requires us to devote a good chunk of time each day. True, it’s not something we can deliver  page-by-page from a textbook. But what is our alternative? Like a classic Blue Chip stock, the value of writing continues to rise, year after year, “beating the market” every time.

If everybody wrote, in every classroom, we’d all get better—especially if we worked together. Working together on writing requires surprisingly little (and nothing we don’t already have):

  • A few simple principles to follow. There’s a small number of basic ideas we should all be familiar with. I wrote a short packet over 20 years ago (which you can download by clicking here) that still receives thousands of downloads a year. I say this not to claim that my work here is special, merely that writing across the curriculum is an enduring ideal. This packet was the first thing I ever wrote for educators and my inexperience shows. It’s consistent currency owes more to the staying power of the subject than it does to any ideas I may have had in my first year or two working in classrooms.
  • A small set of curriculum-independent shared strategies. I have dozens of writing strategies to offer, but I’ve found that a small set of eight is enough to drive school-wide success. You can find them, and many others, at my website in The Writing Teacher’s Strategy GuideLearning Patterns, and Learning Across the Curriculum. I also have posters, handouts, and single-page organizers that encapsulate all this stuff in a kind of “cheat sheet” fashion.
  • A common language of quality. We have been run ragged with rubrics over the years. So I’ve focused on simplifying the ones I use rather than jumping on each new standards new bandwagon. The criteria for success that I use today are simpler and smaller than what I started with two decades ago. And they work better as a result. You can get them herehere, and here.
  • An efficient approach to assessment that focuses on feedback instead of grading. Lots of writing implies lots of grading of writing. But grading is just a form of feedback, and research and experience tell us that it’s the least valuable form of feedback we can offer. Over a decade ago, I developed a flexible grading system that doesn’t require the grading of individual pieces of work. It’s an extraordinary time-saver, and it’s nature as an instrument based on 360-degree feedback puts most of the burden, and the learning, onto students (wher it should be). You can get a short packet on the 3P System by clicking here.

Each of these things exists and has existed for decades—and not just from me. Imagine how good we could become as educators, and how much easier our jobs would be, if we knew we had years to make progress at one important thing instead of dealing with the ever-present pressure of implementing many things every year in what we know now to be a fruitless effort of continuous adjustments in pursuit of gains so small we don’t even know if we’re making them.

Wouldn’t it be great to look back three to five years and know for sure that our teaching was significantly better and that our students were significantly smarter—not because we analyzed gray and murky numbers we don’t understand from tests we don’t believe in, but because we held in our hands the work of our students and saw the difference as clear as night and day? This is not only possible, it’s probable. In fact, it’s almost a certainty because when everybody writes, everybody wins.