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Giving us a level playing field

Giving us a level playing field

Assignments Matter by Eleanor Dougherty.

Written by Wendie Burbridge
July 19, 2018

Before this year, my understanding of Science and how my fellow Science teachers taught their subject, was akin to my knowledge of how to change a tire. I basically know what the act entails, but I would be hard-pressed to actually execute the process. All that changed, however, when my fellow faculty members and I at R.F. Bumpus Middle School in Hoover, Alabama, started a year-long professional development with Red Mountain Writing Project (RMWP) out of the University of Alabama-Birmingham. RMWP created a cohort with our faculty in order for us to improve our collaboration and curriculum planning using Assignments Matter by Eleanor Dougherty.

The year was transformative, not only for our curriculum groups but also for me as a teacher and writer. I went from being a teacher who really didn’t know what happened in our Science classes, to being a teacher who visited Science classes to see how they tackled their writing assignments, and invited students to bring their Science essays into my Language Arts classroom for workshopping and revision sessions. And while I am nowhere near able to teach any aspect of Science, after a year of working collaboratively in our professional development curriculum meetings, I now understand how my Science friends teach their content. What was even more eye-opening for me was how similar their approach to writing is to our Language Arts writing process. I’m not surprised by this revelation– but I am certainly more appreciative of their content and feel better able to help my students when they run to my classroom for help on their Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI) papers and writing up their lab reports.

We started this year-long professional development activity with RMWP, and while several of our faculty members were not fans of the idea of meeting once or twice a month, or getting together to create a task jam that every teacher would have to execute in their classrooms, much of that attitude changed once we completed our final assignments with our students. The original thinking behind the professional development was that it would help to create a framework for us to continue to develop our teaching skills using our one-to-one technology, give us a way to collaborate as a curriculum, and inspire everyone, not just ELA teachers, toward including more writing in their curriculum.

The Assignments Matter sessions, even though there was a lot of moaning and groaning about going through the process– really changed several disciplines, particularly Science, who seemed to embraced the book’s tenants and practices into their ADI experiments and paper assignments, as well as in their amazing “Barbie Bungee Drop” culminating task jam at the end of the year. I twice observed my fellow teammate, Jonathan Daughtry, a veteran Science teacher and expert Escape Room artist, go through his ADI writing lessons in his class, and together we came up with a plan to help our students workshop and revise their essays in my Language Arts classroom.

Our students conducted the Action Figure Leap Experiment in Mr. Daughtry’s class, organized their findings in a graphic organizer, came up with their argument, and wrote up their ADI paper with the support of their lab groups. Then they brought their drafts into my classroom to go through “Speed Dating” peer evaluations with their Science writing. This was a way for them to quickly get feedback on the organization and support of their arguments like they would get if they were writing a Language Arts essay.

Our students were the ones who saw the connection. “Mrs. Burbridge, our ADI paper is just like your Glory Essay– only Mr. Daughtry makes us do a hard experiment first, and we have to write about numbers and junk like that,” said one of my intuitive 8th graders. He understood that the “numbers and junk” he used to support his argument in his ADI paper in Science, was like using textual evidence to support his claim in his “Glory” Argumentative Essay in Language Arts. It was also like the reference material from non-fiction articles and historical documents he used to support his claim in his Hammurabi’s Code essay in Social Studies.

So while our students– and our teachers– were making the connection that writing across the curriculum meant that we were all using the same process with our students to write. We might use different content or curriculum specific topics for our students to write about– but the process, and for the most part the structure, was the same. Once students caught on– writing essays became easier for everyone.

We could all say “You’ve done this before– in Science, in Social Studies, even in Math when you write out your problems– you created a claim, you used evidence to support, and you justified your claim using your examples and experiences with your fill-in-the-blank-with-any-of-your-core-classes content.”

So while our experience with Assignments Matter helped all of us collaborate more and come up with opportunities for our students to write, I really loved watching the Science department change from a group with pretty strong reluctance, to see them use what was introduced in the book within their comfort level. They went from “We’re not teaching writing– we’re not Language Arts!” to understanding that they already WERE writing– very much like Language Arts– and that was not a bad thing! It was the collaboration within the disciplines that caused us to come up with better writing assignments and better projects that students not only enjoyed but felt confident they could master.

At the end of the year, I still did not know how to change a tire. Nor did I understand how an Action Figure can leap two feet based on how hard a kid hits a ruler, or how Barbie will be saved by a smashing plastic death depending on the number of rubber bands strung together. But I really get how Science uses writing, and they seem to understand that when we– meaning the Language Arts teachers– want to talk about “using writing in our lesson plans”– that they are right there with us.

This experience with Assignments Matters gave us all a level playing field. It gives the beginning teacher, the seasoned pro who has changed little, the teacher who has lost confidence or doesn’t know where to start– all can embrace the book, understand it and implement its teachings. It also encourages all levels of teachers to collaborate and share and come to a conclusion or consensus about writing with a purpose in their classrooms. It also gives all of us a place to start that is tangible and useful.

Featured image by Lauren Truelove.
R.F. Bumpus Middle School Science students participating in the 8th grade Barbie Bungee Drop experiments. 

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