Problem-based Learning in the Writing Curriculum: Supporting the Development of Writers in a Flourishing Writing Community

By Melissa McMullan 

“Can we start a club called Special for Special and do special things for people?”

“That National Geographic article we read about the Paleolithic puppy got us thinking about doing our own story about the Paleolithic Era.”

“We would like to design a DIY (Do It Yourself) project for the class where kids can research different DIY projects to make their own school supplies.”

“Is it okay if we talk to the principal about sending our survey out to the entire building so we can find heroes in our school to write news articles about?”

“Will you help me send out my survey about bullying so that no one knows that I wrote it?”

These are things you might hear on any given day in my sixth-grade classroom this year. The questions are genuine, arising from the students’ own interests. Rarely are they prompted by me. The students are driving this train, and I am honored to be aboard. They are kind, hard-working, empathetic, and ambitious, with just the right amount of silliness. When they have arguments, we discuss them openly and work them out.  Clearly, they are a remarkable group of kids, but we would not be where we are now if not for our focus on a problem-based writing curriculum that has allowed these students to take ownership of their learning and the work they produce. I use the term “problem-based learning” to mean instruction that flows from students identifying a problem or need, where the teacher’s role is to support the students in meeting that need or addressing that problem.

More than any other class I’ve taught, this one has prompted me to contemplate the relationship between the teaching of writing and the growing of writers. These students began the year in September with a tremendous resistance to writing. For many of them, writing was painful. It was discouraging, something to avoid at all costs. The students’ growth as writers over the school year surpassed anything I could have imagined, and they see it in themselves. The students say they have written more this year than in the previous six years combined. Writing has become their natural inclination, the first thing they turn to when exploring a new subject.

Here are just a few of the projects they’ve taken on, both in groups and as individuals: They’ve started a “Writer’s Wall” where they can post their work. They’ve drafted an email to the principal in order to learn more about the origins of the name of our school, and a letter to President Trump to offer suggestions for running our country. They’ve gotten together to act out scenes from books they are reading. A pair of students from the Dominican Republic, sparked by our study of historical fiction, is collaborating to write a piece about their country’s independence. Another pair of students started a project of writing positive letters to people in our school, heading out each morning to deliver them. One boy is writing a horror story, releasing chapters as they come to him. He also created a student writing library that students can visit to read one another’s completed pieces.

It was not like this the first few weeks of school. When invited to write, a select few would immediately start to hammer away at their keyboards, but the vast majority of students would sit and stare at their computer screens. This could go on for forty minutes, with many students telling me they simply could not think of anything to say. When students brought me pieces of writing that they believed were finished, I noticed that they waited on edge to hear the ways in which they had “failed.”

These behaviors suggested to me that their writing experiences in the past were centered around looking for “what was wrong” with their writing. My approach was to help them see their value as writers, to emphasize what was working in their writing, rather than what was not working. This meant that for a period of time, I allowed them to ignore mechanics in favor of craft. In our classroom, we define craft as the author’s message, and how he or she chooses to share it. As a teacher, I have found it is easy to get distracted by a student’s spelling or punctuation and lose sight of the bigger picture—that he or she is telling a brilliant story. I told my students that published authors have editors to help them with the mechanics, and that to unleash their writing skills, I wanted them to start thinking like writers and focus on what they wanted to say. My initial struggle to get them to write soon became a struggle to carve out time for anything that was not writing.

“Can we have a day where we just write for all three periods?”

“When can we have Writer’s Workshop?”

“How long do we have to write today?”

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Here is what a problem-based writing curriculum looks like in our classroom:

There are 28 sixth-graders in this class, ranging in age from ten to twelve years old. Twelve of the students are considered on grade level for reading and math. The rest receive AIS (Academic Intervention Services) for reading and/or math. Despite these differences in proficiency, visitors to the classroom are hard-pressed to identify which group any particular student is assigned to. All classes in our two rooms are co-taught by two teachers, who provide whole class, small group, and individual instruction throughout the day for all students in the room. 

Partnering Reading and Writing

Throughout the year, our writing curriculum is partnered with reading instruction. In particular, we spend a significant amount of time engaged in studying authors and genres. These studies allow us to look at the craft of writing, to understand the myriad ways that writers choose to express their thoughts, and to provide students with multiple points of entry for their own work.

While the students in my classroom are reading on different grade levels, our study of books gives the entire class a common focus. We come together to identify what we notice in what we are reading. Once we have identified the “ingredients” of a particular author or genre, the students try their hand at writing a piece modeled on or inspired by what they’ve just read.

Kayla, one of my students this year, consistently performed above grade level in all of her subjects. She rarely, if ever, had difficulty with spelling or other conventions of written English. Her writing, from the very beginning, exhibited a maturity and style consistent with an avid reader who was able to transfer that skill to print. While some of her fellow students faced tremendous difficulties in reading and writing, my job was to make sure Kayla had the space and support she needed to continue to develop her already advanced writing skills. Throughout the year, we looked deeply at the use of craft by a variety of authors. One of our areas of focus was on the use of vignettes to entice a reader into a story. Kayla was intrigued and worked on her first vignette for days, until it was just right. Through writing projects such as this, she was able to continue to challenge herself to become a better writer.

Connecting with Authors

Our units of study are bolstered by interactions with the authors of the books we have read. Via Skype and through email, letters, and, on extremely rare occasions, in person, the students have the ability to connect with the authors of the books they are reading. When they read a book and speak with the author of that book about how it came together, it solidifies the connection between reading and writing. From their exchanges with authors, my students have learned that they can create a framework to give their work structure, while still leaving room to experiment with their own ideas.

Jayden reads and writes on grade level. She is your typical sixth-grade reader and writer who needs help inferencing when she reads and expanding her paragraphs when she writes. This year, she came to school happy every day, always willing to do whatever she was asked to do, and had a natural inclination to help others. Of all my students, I believe she benefitted most from meeting the children’s book author Brian Heinz when he came to teach the students about writing. At the end of the year, she recognized his visit as a pivotal point in her development as a writer.

Crafting Individual Assessments

Once our students have had time to experiment, we formalize an individual assessment. All students participate in their assessment. Their work is scored using a rubric we develop together. It emphasizes the type of writing we are developing rather than the mechanics of the work, which are addressed through small group instruction, peer editing, and during the writing of their end-of-year writing portfolios.

One of the things the assessments consistently point to is that students who struggle as readers and writers often need work to strengthen their vocabulary. So every week we learn new vocabulary words, usually unfamiliar words we have identified from their readings. The assessment of their knowledge of these words is scaffolded throughout the year. We begin with traditional vocabulary quizzes. From there, students are asked to use these new words in sentences, then to try to include them in their stories, and finally to edit their writing from throughout the year to incorporate the words they’ve learned. Students move from one level to another when they are ready. Those who need more time work in small groups with a teacher for extra support.

With our study of vocabulary, as with other writing activities, the cornerstone of our curriculum is choice. When students feel and know they are in charge of their own learning, they are far more motivated to work hard. Choice also seems to mitigate fear of failure because students have agency. When students are given the power, within a curricular framework, to choose what they read or write, they feel in control of their success (or failure). And failure is less scary.

Ben was one of the students in our Academic Intervention Services (AIS) section of the class. In September, writing appeared to be an incredible challenge for him. He misspelled words to such a degree that it was difficult to decipher his writing, which lacked enough context to help in this task. Our goal with Ben was to help him feel free to pursue any ideas he came up with so that we could help him increase his writing stamina, and ultimately use what he wrote to improve his spelling.

The picture books we read to the class always caught Ben’s attention. We began to see his voice as a writer take shape after we read The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. After reading the story, we invited the students to write their own stories. Ben wrote “The Day the Clothes Quit.” It was a hilarious story that the class enjoyed listening to. This positive feedback gave us the opening to get Ben interested in making his writing even better by working on the mechanics he lacked. This early entry into writing also gave him the self-assurance to try longer pieces. By the end of the school year, he had written, by his own choice, many literary responses to the picture books we read and felt much more confidence in his abilities as a writer.

Learning Editing Skills

Learning to edit their work and the work of their peers is one of the most crucial tasks the students must master, but it has to be managed in a dynamic way that accommodates students at a range of writing levels. Some students work very well with peers, while others find this more challenging. Peer editing has to be carefully managed to pair students who complement one another in both skill and personality. We have learned throughout the years that checklists are critical in order to help students focus when they are editing, and also to hold them accountable for their time. Editing checklists are devised as we review writing and take stock of where the students are, and what they need to learn. We also use small group instruction in editing when we identify groups of students with similar challenges. It is always a balancing act to make room for students who excel at writing, scoop up those who are falling behind, and move along the ones in the middle. Purposeful peer editing and carefully crafted small group instruction make this possible. Additionally, sharing documents through our Google Drives provides a third space for us to read one another’s writing and offer suggestions, or more specific editing. Sometimes I sit with students one on one, each of us on our own computer looking at a shared document, making revisions aloud and discussing them as we move along. Sometimes students share their work with an editor they trust to help them look at their work.

Providing Multiple Opportunities to Share Work

One of the overarching goals for our classroom writing curriculum is to create a comfortable space for students to share work at each stage of the writing process—from an idea, to a work in progress, to a finished piece. How we make this happen varies from year to year. Some years we simply look at the students’ completed portfolios. Other years we have invited families in for oral presentations. This year, sharing writing with others has been much more of an ongoing process.  Students used the “Writer’s Wall” to post signs of upcoming pieces they wanted to write. They used Google Forms to send out surveys eliciting ideas for characters, plots, and everything in between. They set up a “sharing list” to manage the volume of students who wanted to read a piece of writing to the class each day. There were always far more students who wanted to share than we could accommodate in our schedule, so students would use the time allotted each day to work through the list in an equitable manner.

Michael absolutely hated reading and writing when he came to us in September. We were convinced that these strong, negative feelings had played a huge role in his lack of development as a reader and writer, and his ultimate label as an AIS student. While we didn’t ignore his writing, our primary focus was to help him find things that he wanted to read. This was no easy task. It took a relentless pursuit of what his interests were.

“Do you like sports?”

“I like to play them but I don’t like to read about them.”

“Do you like cars?”

“I like to look at them but I don’t like to read about them.” And it could go on like this forever. We stopped asking, and started reading with him in small groups. We used audio books. Eventually we found his niche—historical fiction about wars. And if there were an army dog in the story, that was the cherry on top. It was by finding what he liked to read that we were able to get him writing. But what motivated his progress even more was our writing wall, where he enjoyed sharing stories he was thinking about and could preview what others were working on. At the end of the year, Michael had this to say about his progress as a writer: Writing was very fun. It was different from any other year. The sixth-grade writing was best by FAR. I’m writing a World War II story and it’s going to be successful. 

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Authentic writing instruction begins with acknowledging and valuing what student writers bring to the task. Taking the time to highlight what these students are already doing well works wonders on their confidence as developing writers. The next step is to help students identify what they are interested in reading and writing about, and opening up the curriculum to all different types of writing, with the understanding that anything—from signs and club rules, to formal and informal emails, to a variety of genres—can invite students to the table. As the writing begins to flow, further instruction can be grounded in students’ needs.

Once I was able to help my students see themselves as writers, bringing them back around to focusing on writing mechanics and grammar was a natural next step. Lessons arose from identifying what students needed to know. Once students felt like writers, they were able to work like writers. Students now seek out fellow students who have developed their editing skills, in the same ways they seek the students who are great artists or savvy on the computer. They want to share their writing, on the Writer’s Wall, or aloud to the class on sharing days, and they want help to make it to be as good as it can be. Sharing has become the natural impetus for editing.

For me, this is the difference between the teaching of writing and the growing of writers. The focus on a problem-based writing curriculum in our classroom has allowed us to forge a community of writers who possess not just the necessary skills to write well, but the motivation and interest to continue to evolve.

And from there, the sky is the limit.

 

About the Author:
Melissa McMullan has worked as a sixth-grade reading and English teacher in the Comsewogue School District on Long Island, New York, for the past 17 years. She believes writing can be a powerful tool to fight the continuing loss of rich learning experiences to the demands of standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all curriculum model that relies upon students’ deficits. She is currently working on her dissertation in literacy studies at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York. Her research is examining the role of revaluing readers and writers in the classroom, and its impact on developing proficient readers and writers. She welcomes conversations about problem-based learning, reading and writing, standing up for our students, and the practice of effective co-teaching.

 

Photo (top) via St. Paul Middle School


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