Sunday, February 26, 2017

Is It Time To Go Back To Basics With Writing Instruction?

Pens Paper
Flickr/David Merz

Most educators acknowledge that literacy is important, but often the focus is on reading because for a long time that is what achievement tests measured.

In the last few years there has been more focus on writing in classrooms and on tests, but many students still have difficulty expressing their ideas on paper.

Often students struggle to begin writing, so some teachers have shifted assignments to allow students to write about something they care about, or to provide an authentic audience for written work. While these strategies are important parts of making learning relevant to students, they may not be enough on their own to improve the quality of writing. Practice is important, but how can teachers ensure students are practicing good habits?

Nell Scharff Panero taught high school English for 13 years before going back to school to get her Ph.D. in educational leadership. She is now the director of the Center for Educational Leadership at Baruch College, part of City University of New York (CUNY). As a teacher she was often frustrated that she didn’t have more concrete tools to teach writing. Like many teachers, she taught her students to brainstorm, to write outlines and thesis statements with details that backed them up, but when students still struggled she didn’t feel she had the tools to dig deeper.

“If language was breaking down at the level of the sentence, I didn’t know how to break it down or what to do about it,” Scharff Panero said. “And I didn’t know how to expect more.”

These experiences teaching ultimately led her to the work she currently does, guiding teams of educators in an inquiry process to identify specific, granular gaps in students’ ability to write. Peg Tyre documented one school’s inquiry and implementation process at New Dorp High School in her article “The Writing Revolution,” published in The Atlantic.

Despite initially pushing back, Tyre writes that through inquiry teachers began to see that their students didn’t understand things like how the conjunctions “but, because and so” work in sentences, and these gaps were preventing them from expressing complexity in writing.

“I think what’s most counter-cultural, and not really in the knowledge base, is how to develop students at the level of the sentence and all the ramifications that has in terms of thinking and content,” Scharff Panero said.

She has recently published a paper titled “Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing” in the journal Improving Schools about the New Dorp approach and how it compares to commonly held beliefs about writing instruction, as well as the existing literature on how to teach writing.

“There’s a belief that you immerse kids in it and they kind of figure it out,” Scharff Panero said. And some kids can, especially if they grow up in a language-rich environment without any of the common barriers found in public school classrooms, like learning English as a second language, special needs, trauma and poverty. The idea is that models of good writing naturally transfer to students as they regularly practice their own writing, but sometimes students don’t pick up on crucial ideas that end up inhibiting them as they advance in school.

Indeed, many students in the public education system aren’t “catching” what they need to know about writing - the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test found almost 75% of eighth- and 12th-graders in the U.S. wrote below grade level and only 3% of U.S. students, across all demographics, wrote at an “advanced” level.

“Some people can make it, but how do we learn more about how we can teach it better, so everyone does better?” Scharff Panero asked.

The strategies New Dorp teachers used to fill gaps in students’ understanding came from Judith Hochman’s book Teaching Basic Writing Skills, and they seem simplistic. To the average high school teacher, spending a semester on sentence-level exercises that are heavily scaffolded seems easy and boring.

But Scharff Panero said that when teachers try taking instruction back to basics using what she calls “progressive mastery,” they see big improvements in the quality of both thinking and writing, and that students can meet high school expectations when teachers slow down to show them how to write well.

The New Dorp turnaround inspired New York City to require the approach at the 30 lowest-performing high schools in the district, called Renewal Schools. Some of these schools are now beginning to see a shift, but only after some difficult discussions with staff.

“It was very much an attitude that we went in; we taught it; the kids didn’t pay attention; they didn’t study; and they should have learned it,” said Dan Scanlon, principal of John Adams High School. “A lot of people felt they were being blamed for their kids not learning something.”

Scanlon said it was difficult for his staff to acknowledge that pointing fingers at students wasn’t going to improve performance. Instead, the staff had to accept the reality of where their students were at and try something new and different for most high school teachers. Because John Adams has been a low-achieving school for a long time and has been designated a Renewal School, teachers ultimately had no choice. The whole staff got trained in the writing strategies, called Writing is Thinking through Strategic Inquiry (WITsi), and learned how to apply them to their content areas.

“We have better teacher practice because of their implementation of WIT and that has improved performance on Regents exams,” said Joanna Cohen, a vice-principal at John Adams. School administrators chose to implement writing across the curriculum because they began to see that many of the gaps in writing knowledge also pointed to fundamental abilities to express relationships. Using “so” correctly in a sentence, for example, indicates causality, an idea that’s just as important in math and science as it is in more writing-intensive disciplines like social studies and English. 


The WIT activities are not a set curriculum meant to be used exactly the same way by every teacher. Instead, Scharff Panero explained that teachers are trained in the strategies and then use their own discretion to introduce different approaches, according to their instructional goals.

For the program to work well, it’s important for teachers to be able to pick out and focus on writing structures that indicate a way of thinking, no matter the discipline. For example, distinguishing general ideas from specific statements is a crucial skill that comes up when students write paragraphs that include a topic sentence, along with supporting sentences that back up the topic sentence.

When the idea of distinguishing general from specific is the focus of the lesson, the teacher can approach it in a different way. For example, in the Hochman Method used at New Dorp and studied by Scharff Panero, teachers started by giving students a paragraph and asking them to pick out the general statement, the topic sentence and specific statements, the supporting detail. Starting with the model before asking students to write their own topic sentences helped reinforce the bigger idea of the difference between general and specific.

The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component. With that in mind, the freshman high school students Scharff Panero studied focused on the level of the sentence, as well as note-taking strategies, for a whole semester. They looked at examples, identified different kinds of sentences and the details within them, filled in word stems, learned to expand sentences and how to combine them.
A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence.
A scaffolded activity focusing on the differences between but, because, and so in a sentence. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")
Many of these activities are “closed” in that they have a right or a wrong answer that indicates both how well students understand the writing structure, as well as the content involved. Scharff Panero is aware that many educators believe writing in this didactic way inhibits creativity and free expression, but she says students need to understand the rules of writing before they can break them. And, she pushes back against the idea that this approach is dumbing down expectations, arguing that short, sentence-level exercises can contain a lot of rigor and show deep thought.

“My feeling is that if you believe, as I do, that they’re missing foundational skills, then if all you do is increase the rigor without closing the skill gap, then you’ll just make the divide bigger,” she said. Asking students to read longer and more challenging texts, and to write longer essays without first showing them in concrete ways how to build up to that level, defeats the purpose in her mind.

After mastering sentences, teachers move on to how to build a paragraph. They teach students how to write quick outlines using a specific note-taking strategy that can then provide an easy guide for writing. Many of these ideas are familiar to English teachers, but the difference with the progressive mastery or WIT strategies is how teachers break down each aspect of writing.

Many high school teachers haven’t been taught to teach this way, and while they know how to write themselves, they may not be thinking clearly about the scaffolded steps required to accurately summarize or build on an idea. As simple as they sound, these writing strategies are meant to fill in those gaps.
Example of a sentence expansion activity.
An example of a sentence expansion activity. (Nell Scharff-Panero/"Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing")

It was frustrating, but John Adams teachers had to face the reality that their kids needed them to step back and explicitly teach things like how to effectively use conjunctions in a sentence. While it’s natural that the English department expected to be reading and analyzing literature, its teachers soon realized that if they didn’t help their students master writing, they’d never get there.

“We weren’t really sure how well it was going to work because we thought it was really low level for high school,” said Loribeth Libretta, an English teacher at John Adams. She’s been using the WIT strategies for five years now and has seen the difference it has made for students. She remembers one shy freshman boy who lacked confidence and most writing skills. Now, he’s a junior in her class and she says it’s a joy to read his well-developed paragraphs that flow together and express high-level thinking. He’s also become much more confident as a learner.

“Ideally they should have learned this in elementary and junior high school,” said Lauren Salamone, who teaches sophomores Global History. “That’s your automatic reaction, but it’s not the reality.”

There’s a lot of writing on the New York Regents Global History exam, which requires students to answer several document-based questions as well as two essays covering a lot of content. Salamone didn’t resist the writing strategies because she could see early on that her students didn’t have the skills to write at the level required of them. And, to her surprise, her students were grateful to learn the code to good writing.

“They just kind of naturally grabbed on,” Salamone said. “They didn’t really question at all. If anything they found the benefit in it.”

As a science teacher, Jennifer McHugh was skeptical of the schoolwide writing strategy. She didn’t see why she should use valuable class time to teach writing when students wouldn’t need that information to pass the Regents test in her class. But, she complied with the program because she had to, and has come around to how the writing strategies improved her students’ scientific thinking as well.

Asking students to use “but, because and so” about the science they are learning has given students new tools and perspectives to discuss what they know. And, McHugh has found that the writing exercises help her see where students have gaps in their knowledge. For example, if a student uses “but” incorrectly in a sentence, it’s likely he or she doesn’t understand the relationship between the two things yet.

“It helps with their critical thinking skills because they’re thinking from multiple perspectives,” McHugh said. She’s seen her students grow over the year and they earned better Regents scores as well.

What started out as a writing program has become a way to scaffold content and improve teacher performance at John Adams. Teachers are consistently asked to dive into the data in their classrooms and try to understand where the gaps are and how they can be filled. The inquiry that staff did to find the gaps and develop strategies to fill them is ongoing. This work is pushing them to think more critically about how they teach as well.

Scharff Panero believes education researchers need to do more explicit studies on best practices to teach writing, and sees her paper as a starting point for that work. Research has already shown that improving writing also improves thinking, content knowledge and speaking skills.

She’s not convinced the WIT strategies that she helped develop for New York City’s Renewal Schools are the only way to see pronounced growth in students’ writing abilities. It could just be that identifying and actively trying to fill gaps in writing, no matter how it’s done, is enough.

She’s also skeptical that a software program could find and remediate weaknesses in writing. The processes she has witnessed are very human-based, requiring a teacher’s expertise. Principal Scanlon also thought it might be hard for a computer program to yield the same results. He pointed out that software can give a teacher a lot of data, but how he or she uses that data is much more important. He believes that requiring teacher teams to do cycles of inquiry into their students’ skills, while providing them with support and ideas for closing gaps, serves the important purpose of helping teachers grow, too.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

Friday, February 17, 2017

I’m Writing - But How Much Detail is Enough?
by , Patter:

Details, details. More, or less?

Doctoral researchers may get feedback from supervisors or reviewers about writing less detail - too much here, be more concise - or conversely more, unpack this or more information needed here. Both types of comment mean you haven’t got the detail and length right. So how do you know when enough detail is enough? And how long is just right?

Writing at the appropriate depth and length is an important scholarly discipline. I mean discipline in both senses here - writing to the right word length and at the appropriate level of detail is an important part of what we do as scholars. And it does mean we must self-consciously manage what we write.

Achieving the right length and depth in any piece of writing is not a matter of rules, but of intention, format, convention and expectations. Understanding how these come together will allow you to write to the right depth and length. I’ll just say that again. It’s not about rules. It’s about judgment.

I’m going to take each of those things - format, conventions, expectations and intentions - and briefly note some of the key issues involved. 


There is clearly a trade-off between length and depth. The shorter the piece of writing, the less detail you can provide. But that doesn’t mean that your analysis and major points change when you move from long to short.

Think about this as a bit like looking at a portrait of someone - when you stand up close you can see a lot of detail, but as you move further away, the more the key features stand out. By the time you are standing a fair distance away, you can only see the outline of the face and the features. But the nose is the nose is the nose, regardless of whether you are up close or far away. Or perhaps as in the picture below, you can see that you don’t need the detail to see a bird, and if you know birds, to see it as a pigeon.

This is how it is with writing. You might write the key moves of your argument as three sentences in a paragraph, as three paragraphs, or as three long sections. The focus of each of your three sentences in the one paragraph shapes the ‘topic sentence’ of each paragraph and the heading and opening and closing paragraph of each section. But they are basically still the same thing. Like the bird. Or a nose on the face of a portrait.

You don’t change your argument just because you write short or long. It’s detail that is added, nuance, and evidence. Adding detail to your basic argument moves, thus making them longer, is the logic of working from an abstract, a Tiny Text, when writing a paper or thesis. 


Whether we are writing a journal article, a conference abstract or paper, or a thesis we generally work with an explicit word limit. The word limit is usually a range, up to and around a particular number of words.

So the word limit on a thesis might be 80 to 100 thousand words. The range is explicit. You get to choose how many words within range. A journal article might be up to 6000 words. But that doesn’t mean you have to write exactly 6000 words. The convention is something around 6000 - so 5,600 to about 6,300 or so would usually be acceptable.

You can see from this example that a word limit is not an exact rule, but rather is something like - don’t write too much less than this and don’t write too much more. Too much less and we will think that you haven’t got enough to say. Too much over and we’ll think that you don’t know how to write things concisely (writing too much or too little for a journal article also create problems with publishers’ page limits). But there can be some variation. It’s always wise to check the length of papers in the journal you are submitting to, so do try to ascertain the range of flex you have within the set word limits. 


Expectations are often derived from conventions. A journal reviewer will expect to see a particular length of section about research design for example. They will expect a certain proportion of the paper devoted to discussion and conclusion. Their expectations are specific to the conventions of the particular journal and to the discipline.

Reviewers often address questions of detail. They generally won’t tell the writer how many words they have to make up or cut out, but they might say something like the conclusion is truncated or there is insufficient discussion of … or the paper glosses over … Or conversely, there is a very detailed report of x which could be presented in a table or some other form … or the balance between literature review and results seems somewhat out of kilter. These type of comments are clues that the writer has misjudged the tradeoff between depth and length.

Particular kinds of readers also have specific expectations. Some scientific and technical journal readers and reviewers expect that the writer will demonstrate technical expertise - they expect sufficient detail about this aspect of the research. A history reader might expect to see particular attention paid to sources.  Other readers might expect more elaboration of evidence or more literature work. These expectations are not necessarily about word length but rather about the nature, focus, and emphasis of detailed material that is provided. 


Despite format, conventions and expectations, you also have some say in how much detail, nuance, evidence and elaboration you provide, and about what.

If you think the conventions of the journal are somewhat restrictive you may want to challenge them. So, if your readers expect cursory details about your methods, but you think that is a weakness in the field, you may want to provide what you think is the depth i.e. detail that you think that readers/writers ought to aspire to. If you think that readers of a particular journal always encounter the same literatures, then you may want to deliberately pay more attention to the diverse resources you draw on, in order to make this point. And this may take more words and require more depth than is usually the case.

However, bear in mind that reviewers are likely to adhere to conventions and so the way that you chose to exercise your intentions may need some explanation.

So back to the beginning. Deciding how many words and how much detail is not about following rules. It would be easy if it was. You could just learn them and do it. Alas. It’s about judgment.

Understanding the ways in which format, conventions, and expectations come together around length and depth is about learning the mores of your particular scholarly community. This is often opaque. It takes time. You often find out how much detail is appropriate when you break the conventions and expectations and are told, no matter how politely, that you have either waffled on too much or have been too cryptic.

And it’s also about exercising your power as author, working out what is required and then deciding what you want to do about it. You can choose to bend the format and the conventions, but be careful where you do this and in whose company. Some readers and reviewers are more tolerant of, or even excited by, this than others.

Your supervisors obviously are one source of help. See those feedback comments as long term helpful advice about the hidden conventions and expectations. But getting a more experienced writer to read through what you have written before you finalise your paper is also helpful. Researching a journal or a set of conference abstracts is similarly worthwhile.

And simply understanding that depth and length are in an ambiguous relationship and need to be thought about can also be of some use. Well that’s my hope!

Free Up Academics to Solve UK Higher Education Problems

Puppet, control, strings, freedom
Source: iStock
by Toby Miller, Times Higher Education:

I’m a relative newcomer to UK academia, having moved here after 20 years teaching at New York University and the University of California.

I had a very interesting conversation the other day with a senior academic who recently travelled in the reverse direction, from the UK to the US.

He’s astonished by what he is experiencing. After a quarter of a century socialised into the English academic world, he keeps asking people in his new job the following question: “Can I do this?” Their answer? “Why are you asking us? Just do it.”

He can’t believe this after the extraordinarily hierarchical nature of English academic life, where departmental meeting agendas are set by management and monitored by bureaucrats; where faculty participation in search committees and mentoring is subject to scrutiny and “training”; where curricula are established by bureaucrats and imposed on faculty; where there is uncritical adoration of student evaluations, despite the spuriousness of such alleged “science“; oh - and where even supervisors’ interactions with graduate students are under scrutiny.

The history of excellent research universities around the world can be seen as a complex, contradictory, but nevertheless distinctive struggle over many centuries for autonomy from church, state and capital. That struggle is entering a new phase - where governmental control and commercial imperatives are generating a mimetic managerial fallacy: the imagined efficiencies of companies (or the military) are meant to indicate how universities should operate.

I’d like to suggest an alternative to these anti-democratic, anti-professional, anti-intellectual tendencies. It may well be that what I propose already happens in some UK schools. If so, great.

One model is the University of California, where senior bureaucrats have control over budgets. Faculty run most other things (for example, establishing or closing departments). I’d like to see something like that here, and an additional change derived from parts of the Hispanic world, where rectors - the equivalent of vice-chancellors are (wait for it) often elected by faculty.

We need that sort of democracy, from the apex of power down. Deans, who are often apparatchiks serving at the pleasure of vice-chancellors, should be voted into office by faculty, administrators and graduate students. Departmental chairs should be elected by the same groups, and decisions on admissions should be taken by faculty, not target-driven, unqualified people.

That way lies, ironically, greater efficiency and effectiveness, but more importantly, a model of workplace relations characterised by employee participation.

This should help us overturn the baleful norms that are coming to characterise higher education in the UK, including the lack of diversity among senior management, unrepresentative decision-making and a lack of faculty authority over admissions, research and curriculum. Is this so difficult? 

Toby Miller is a professor and director of the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Your Job Is Not You
by Sarah Peterson, Inside Higher Ed:

Many people decide to get a Ph.D. because they feel a strong personal connection to the subject matter. Thinking, writing and talking with people who appreciate a subject or field of study as much as you feels validating.

For some, the discovery of that subject may have clarified a sense of educational purpose. Perhaps it even illuminated a sense of individual purpose or a frame through which the world makes more sense.

Of course, not everyone feels that way about the material they research and teach during graduate school. But for those who do, it can be easy to tie one’s sense of identity to the academic enterprise. “I am a scholar of 19th-century German painting.” “I am an ecologist.” Rather than “I am currently teaching a course on the figure of the child in British poetry.” Or “Right now I am working on understanding the how the charter school movement impacts social mobility for low-income children.”

The difference might seem purely semantic. Yet the length of time spent in graduate school can enculturate students to feel a deep sense of connection between their identity and their field of scholarly inquiry.

This sense of intense personal investment in a subject can make you feel engaged, invigorated and interesting. When you are reading or talking about it, you feel smart. You have unique and meaningful knowledge to contribute. Spending time learning more about this topic, asking new questions about it and sharing new ideas with others who value it can make you feel a greater sense of purpose -- or just feel good about yourself.

Over the five-plus years you spend as a graduate student, you begin to feel the subject matter is inherent to who you are. So the thing you get paid to research, teach and present is no longer just a professional identity but also foundational for your whole identity. One of the consequences of that tie between sense of self and subject matter that informs professional identity is that if your professional identity changes, you may feel like you will also lose your sense of self.

Among other possible life challenges, this false equivalence can make a nonacademic job search, in particular, really difficult. It also creates challenges for efforts within the academy to normalize career pathways where the focus of the work is not one aligned to their scholarly interest or self-determined - in other words, it looks different from that of a typical tenure-track faculty member. Further, when seeking positions outside the professoriate, an applicant must widen interests after years of narrowing them and seek out jobs described in terms of skills and responsibilities rather than a body of knowledge. In general, few of the common assumptions about nonacademic work seem to align with the value system of the professional community to which Ph.D.s have belonged for the previous nine years or more.

Graduate students and recent Ph.D.s can find this perspective shift a bit startling. It then becomes not only an intellectual challenge to identify and articulate transferable skills persuasively, but also an emotional one. If I take a job fund-raising for a natural history museum, for instance, I will no longer be developing new research on Mesoamerica - I’ll just be asking people for money, so I won’t be intellectually fulfilled. If I am developing marketing materials for consumer product companies, I will be wasting my Ph.D. If I work for a pharmaceutical company, I’ll be a sellout. It is difficult to imagine how a new context for work will create the same sense of intellectual engagement and gratification that so often enlivens people, inspires their pursuit of the Ph.D. and shapes their sense of self.

And so graduate students considering nonacademic career paths may wonder: Does someone managing grants at a think tank feel the same sense of intellectual fulfillment she did as an academic? When she goes to work, does she feel unstimulated and without a sense of identity? Such questions may crowd out the consideration that she goes to work, engages many of the same intellectual muscles she did as an academic and comes to recognize meaning and value in the application of her knowledge - not in the knowledge itself.

How can we shift mind-sets that equate identity with academic work? And in doing so, can we relieve anxiety about exploring unfamiliar career pathways? We can: 

Talk to graduates who have been gainfully employed for more than two years. Being employed full time in any capacity, particularly in a nonfaculty position, is different than being a graduate student, even if much of the day-to-day work looks similar. The things we find most impactful about our work or where we take the most pride are often not what we expected. Listening to the stories of friends and colleagues who have some distance from their initial job search often provide a useful perspective about the evolution of the professional identity in their sense of self. 

Participate in activities unrelated to your research and teaching sooner rather than later. When you spend the large majority of your days thinking about topics related to your academic identity and talking with other people who do the same, it is easy to lose sight of all that provides your sense of self. Volunteer in your community. Spend time with friends and family outside your academic community. Get a part-time job or internship to learn about other professional opportunities that interest you. That will broaden your network and skill set, clarify your values, and connect you with fulfilling opportunities outside your academic research and/or teaching. 

Learn about aspects of higher education beyond your discipline. Becoming knowledgeable about or involving yourself with other units of your university demonstrates higher education is an industry that does more than just support and require scholarship and teaching. You’ll find that student affairs, fund-raising, government and public relations offices, and many others are doing important and rigorous work. 

Practice thinking and talking about your academic work differently. Pay attention to the intellectual muscles you exercise when writing an essay, teaching a course or presenting a conference paper. Which aspects of the writing process do you enjoy most? Is it the research, the planning or composing the sentences and paragraphs? When you leave a class feeling energized, which aspects of teaching made you feel most fulfilled? Was it the moment you confidently explained a complex concept? Or when the student who had not said a word in class all semester shared insights into the text under consideration? Identifying the specific experiences and activities that create the feelings of engagement and intellectual satisfaction we often align so closely to the academic enterprise can help broaden our sense of self as constructed and fulfilled more by how we work rather than what we work on.

People feel personally invested in their work for a variety of reasons and at different levels. Broadening the way you understand your work and its role in your life helps avoid a merging of professional and personal identities and the challenge of disentangling them if and when your career shifts. The best approach is to try to clarify the values that make your work feel self-defining. Doing so can make the process of identifying other career pathways that feel similarly fulfilling much more gratifying.


Sarah Peterson is associate director for student support services and professional development and career planning, and director of the Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity Program at the Laney Graduate School at Emory University.