Writing with a purpose

I know I should incorporate more writing into my science classes, but I have several concerns. What kinds of writing would be appropriate, other than lab reports? How do I find the time to evaluate student writing (I meet 150 students per day)?
—Eddie, Urbana, Illinois
A few years ago, a speaker at our school’s career day was graduate who was an environmental scientist. A student asked her what she did all day. The audience expected her to say things such as I do chemical tests. I spend all day on the river. I look at things through a microscope. I walk through the woods. I work on research projects. But her answer surprised everyone. She said she spent a lot of time communicating, especially writing.
She described how much of her work involves taking notes, writing reports, preparing presentations, writing articles for publication, writing brief updates for her funding agencies, writing and answering emails and letters, conversing with her colleagues online, and writing entries in her daily log/blog.
If you’re looking for authentic science writing, follow her lead and use a variety of formats for writing. Check with your language arts department to find out if there is an established rubric for informational writing. Become familiar with it and post it in your classroom or website. Many students, however, may need some guidance in informational writing. Provide examples of quality writing in each format and use think-alouds to model how to write for various purposes.

A lot of our guest scientist’s writing was brief and focused (updates, summaries, journal entries). This type of writing can easily be incorporated into science classes. For example, students can write a summary of the day’s activities as their “ticket out the door.” Some teachers ask students to add their summary to a class blog or to a section of their science notebooks.
Use writing activities that serve several purposes. One of my favorites was a word splash, which can also be a vocabulary assessment. Using a prepared word list or one the students generate (perhaps related to a current event or inspired by a picture), teams of students write sentences including two or more of the words. You can also challenge students to write an entire story using the words. In a quick write, ask students to write several sentences about a topic. (This could also be the K column of a KWL chart). You can also use this to determine prior knowledge or misconceptions students have about a topic or as a formative assessment tool.
Lab reports are certainly authentic and appropriate writing activities. You could reframe other writing assignments as letters, fact sheets, position statements, or presentations. Other real-life activities could have students work cooperatively to peer-edit documents, especially with technology applications such as Google Docs or wikis.
I know exactly what you mean about reading and responding to 150 writing assignments. My big “aha” was realizing the difference between providing feedback and editing a student’s writing. Resist the temptation to highlight every error in spelling, usage, or punctuation. Identify and post some non-negotiable criteria for communicating clearly and don’t spend a lot of time correcting other errors (that should be the student’s job).
If you teach more than one subject, you can reduce your load by not giving a writing assignment to all of your classes at the same time. If you teach the same subject all day, there are no rules that say every class has to have the same assignment or that everyone’s work is due on the same day. You can alternate from week to week. If you use differentiated instruction, you can give students a choice of writing assignments and due dates.
When you do give a comprehensive writing assignment, tell the students up front you might not be able to return the assignment the next day. You want to read each one carefully, and most students understand this. But you do need to return them in a timely manner with focused feedback.
It may encourage students if you allow them to use their creative writing skills occasionally (incorporating accurate content), as described in the article A Tale of Four Electrons from the February issue of The Science Teacher.  (One of my students wrote a set of several poems about a coral reef ecosystem and won a creative writing prize for it.) Other short writing assignments could be a haiku or a tweet, challenging students to choose their words carefully (and creatively).
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cristic/3297941286/

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