What is a Writing-Based Curriculum?

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hillman students 2At the core of a writing-based curriculum is a learning environment where students (and teachers) are writing reflectively, creatively, and analytically together.

This writing practice positions students and teachers as readers, writers, and thinkers in the world.

This writing practice also creates a platform from which students and teachers can design projects with real-world implications. The writing is the work of the project. It is the engine from which products and performances are generated. The work of the class is framed around a question like: what are all of the ways we can write reflectively, creatively, and analytically to help us accomplish real world projects?

This means that writing reflectively, creatively, and analytically is the engine for any and all of the work happening within the class. There are no extraneous, peripheral forms of work. No worksheets. No quizzes. Very few, carefully chosen tests. The goal is to limit or eliminate busy work for the student and the teacher and instead to live a writing/reading life together.

Work for both the student and the teacher revolves around:

  • Sharing stages of a project or piece;

  • Providing feedback;

  • Discussing reading; post-product analysis;

  • Strategizing next steps;

  • Incisive mini-lessons that help to push a project or piece forward;

  • Guest-lectures;

  • Intentional fieldtrips;

  • Echoing skills and concepts that are being developed;

  • Spontaneous challenges that help to deepen the learning;

  • Practice in a skill that needs to be developed in order for the students to do an aspect of a project;

  • Conferencing with individuals and small groups.

All of this work is meant to embody the genuine habits of mind and body of writers out in the world and to avoid the dangers of schoolification.IMG_3487

A few thoughts on schoolification

Schoolification is when we take a real-world practice (e.g. writing), and we remove any of the real-worldness out of it. Here are some classic examples:

  • Having students come up with their thesis statement before giving them a chance to figure out what it is that they want to write about through actually writing

  • Making an assignment for writing a poem where most of the line is written for the student, and they just need to complete the line

  • Making students read a book that they don’t like

  • Limiting the writing of a paper to a rough draft and a final draft

  • Providing no time for feedback on in-process writing

  • Providing no feedback on writing before the piece is turned in

  • Making work ‘easy’ so that there is no conflict, no difficulty, no struggle

  • Designing work to only be graded by the teacher

  • Limiting reading to whatever is provided by the school (e.g. textbooks)

  • Having students memorize literary terms

Part of the purpose for a writing-based curriculum is to engage in the real world of work and learning. We want to attempt to make our classes fit seamlessly in that world. And since we are designing ELA classes, and writing should be at the center of ELA, we want to design experiences that position our students and ourselves as writers out in the world doing the real work of writers:

  • Reflecting in writing about their life and their work

  • Reading a heck of a lot and writing about that reading

  • Writing a lot! Everything from a fleeting thought to a fully fleshed-out piece

  • Collecting stuff that can be used as fuel for writing and projects (research on topics, images, other writing, lists, doodles, print material, etc.)

We know from the literature that is out there about the writing craft that writers engage in these four habits of mind and body: they reflect, they write about what they read, they write, and they collect. These four habits feed off of one another, making it possible for writers to create poems, short stories, essays, plays, speeches, etc.

As we developing writing-based curricula, we don’t want to limit our conception of who a writer is to the taken for granted examples: poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist. We should certainly be these kinds of writers in the classroom, but we should be a whole host of other kinds of writers as well:

  • Website developers

  • Novelists

  • Journalists

  • Bloggers

  • Tweeters

  • Editors

  • Hackers

  • Biographers

  • Folklorists

  • Sociologists

  • Memoirists

  • Orators

  • Debaters

  • Urban planners

  • Screenwriters

And in our classes, we need to design ways for these different kinds of writers to reflect, write about what they read, write, and collect in order to generate interesting forms of work in that particular genre.

Redefining the work of the teacher

When teaching revolves around designing learning environments where we are living a writing life with our students, our orientation to the work of teaching changes as well. Our focus in a writing-based curriculum is to create environments where our students and ourselves can be many of the kinds of writers that I list above. This means that we, as teachers, need to develop a sense of and be open to the kinds of work that these kinds of people do. We scour resources to tap into what makes these kinds of writers tick. We look for media that captures these different kinds of writers discussing their craft. We look for anything that can help us embody the practice with our students. We want to become these kinds of writers just as much as we want our students to do the same.

We then think creatively about how the classroom environment encourages these ways of working for ourselves and our students.  In a traditional ELA classroom, teachers grade papers. In a writing-based classroom, teachers focus on designing opportunities for students and themselves to share their work for feedback and then to publish that work out in the world. In a traditional ELA classroom, all of the students are doing the same thing at the same time. In a writing-based classroom students may be doing different things at the same time according to where they are in the project. In a traditional ELA classroom, the teacher is the primary source for feedback and evaluation. In a writing-based classroom, everyone is viewed as a resource for feedback. In a traditional ELA classroom, the only time something is shared is at the end of the process. In a writing-based classroom, work is shared in process to determine next steps and to gauge impact.  In a traditional ELA classroom, the language of learning is predetermined and given to the student. In a writing-based classroom, the language is co-constructed through the work.

In this kind of a classroom, the teacher removes him/herself from the center of the experience and instead becomes a co-reader, writer, and thinker with the students, bringing his/her own work into class for feedback. The teacher is involved in and is as invested in the project that the class is doing at the time. The success of the project is dependent upon the teacher in a fundamentally different way to a traditional ELA classroom. In a writing-based classroom, the teacher spends energy pushing the work outward in the world rather than inward into a grade.

IMG_3482In the next post, I’ll speak to skill development within a writing-based curriculum as well as provide some examples of writing-based curriculum in action.

One comment on “What is a Writing-Based Curriculum?

  1. […] tests to measure learning, large class sizes, etc. In this kind of environment, it is easy to schoolify learning. Schoolification is when we take a real-world practice (e.g. writing, geometry, physics), […]

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