We’re focused on writing this month, and the Big Skills blog gets specific about our approach. For middle- and high-school teachers, it’s difficult to address the entire range of students’ writing skill level. The Big History Project course helps teachers with scaffolding strategies and tools—including a single rubric, frequent formal and informal writing activities, and BHP Score, for essay scoring and immediate feedback. The next natural step is to share how real teachers are making these tools work in the classroom. In this Teacher Takes, our most experienced BHP teachers offer a range of tips, including successes and missed opportunities. As always, the conversation doesn’t stop here. Once you’ve had a chance to dig into these Teacher Takes, join the discussion in the Writing Group on Yammer.
Practice, Practice, PRACTICE!
Big History writing is an opportunity for students to think about and apply large-scale and complex ideas that they might not grapple with as much if they were only taking in the content day, after day.
In my freshman class, writing is a major skill focus. We start with how to construct a paragraph and then move on to the structure of an essay. We cover a lot: how to make a claim and support it, as well as how to paraphrase, quote, cite, etc. Time is probably our biggest enemy because there is so much to tackle.
Writing as frequently as possible in shorter and longer formats for formative and assessment tasks, as well as doing revisions, is really what I believe makes the most difference. Basically, practice, practice, practice.
— Natasha McKeown, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Frequent, Formative Tasks
I find that having frequent, formative tasks helps students practice their writing on a smaller scale than the Investigations. I often have them read an article, watch a video, or examine some artifacts and then write a short response. The standard requirement is that they have a claim and at least two specific pieces of evidence to support the claim using the sources they worked with. I find that this supports students’ ability to make a claim as well as construct a body paragraph, which is similar to what they do in an Investigation essay. The most frequent areas of writing we work on are making a claim and using evidence to support a claim.
— Brian Moore, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Building Trust, Confidence
I am with Brian—lots of daily small/quick writes with claims and evidence following reading and video and discussions. My mostly lower-skilled seniors are reluctant to write early on, perhaps due to a lack of positive feedback in the past or a lack of confidence, but they learn to trust me and share their writing with one another regularly. Mostly, I emphasize that being effective communicators will benefit every avenue of their lives, because good writing is part “listening” (reading, watching video) and part “talking/sharing” (ideas in their writing).
— Michael Doherty, BHP Teacher, Grade 12
Writing Tests Clarity of Ideas
Writing is important for Big History because the act of putting our thoughts into text clarifies the thought itself. Not until we write something do we realize that we do not have a cohesive thought or a complete narrative. Writing helps the learner make connections and fill in the gaps in his or her own understanding. Without the skill and practice of writing, our ideas exist only in fragments.
My greatest challenge to this is not having the requisite teaching skills to aid the students in writing well. I lack the vocabulary and comprehensive understanding of the technical aspects of writing, and therefore struggle to articulate to students where their flaws lie.
— Brian Keenan, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
North Carolina, USA
Claim Testing and Citing
One of our greatest challenges is getting students to cite relevant text evidence and explain the evidence in their own words. We do a lot of practice with citing and explaining text evidence in sixth grade. We use an Odell Education graphic organizer throughout the year to help students practice writing claims, citing evidence, and connecting the evidence to the claims.
— Devon Rose, BHP Teacher, Grade 6
North Carolina, USA
Focus on Vocabulary
Big History students write to put into practice BH concepts like collective learning and claim testing. Writing is a way to gather one’s thoughts, analyze, summarize and describe—all of which are important skills. In our BH class for eighth standard, students write an essay each week pertinent to the topic being discussed. This week it is: “You are a hunter-gatherer who has decided to drop anchor and stay in one spot. Describe the changes in your daily life.” Teaching writing is challenging, especially when your students are second-language learners, as mine are. Vocabulary becomes an important tool in expressing oneself. I make vocabulary PowerPoints, each slide containing a word, a definition, and its use in a sentence. I’ve found that second-language learners can remember vocabulary better when it’s associated with an image. In sum, writing is a way of extending the pleasure of studying BH and communicating that pleasure to others.
— Suzanne Buckley, BHP Teacher, Grade 8
Teaching Across Skill Levels
I think the biggest challenge I have with writing is teaching to a variety of ability levels in my class. There are students who are already writing beautiful thesis statements with clear topic sentences, but many can’t even answer a prompt with an arguable thesis. I’ve found that differentiating with outlines and graphic organizers is really important.
— Jenny Holloway, BHP Teacher, Grade 9
Vocabulary Focused Recipe
Of all the writing strategies I use, this one garners the most consistent success: Play around with the unit vocabulary with an activity, game, etc. Give students 7 minutes (no more, no less) to respond to the DQ. Their pencils must stay moving this whole time. During their 7-minute write, they must include x number of vocabulary words (x = your choice, always less than 10). Read responses with a peer, or volunteer responses, or call for responses. Heap abundant praise on students. Repeat in 1 week. Watch scores improve. There’s my recipe for writing success. It really is grounded in vocabulary!
— Erik Christensen, BHP Teacher, Grade 10
A Formula of Sorts
The greatest challenges that we have in our class with writing is knowing when to use someone else’s words, and when to use our own. Many students can respond to inquiry questions using the words of someone else, but struggle when they are tasked with responding in their own words. Some strategies that I have used to support my students involve breaking down the writing process into a formula of sorts. Following the claim, evidence, and reasoning format has helped some students build their writing skills. I often remind kids that the claim and reasoning are “our words” but the evidence is “their words.” I also prompt students to think about claim testers when they are writing the “reasoning” portion of a paragraph. We are working hard in the seventh grade at being strong writers!
— Seth Thompson, BHP Teacher, Grade 7
We have tried to incorporate various “mini” writing assignments throughout the course so students can get some practice with CERs (claims, evidence, and reasoning). We try to make these unit specific so that they fit naturally into each of the units. Since our sixth-graders have very little background when it comes to argumentative writing, these smaller writing assignments don’t feel as daunting as the Investigations.
— Zach Cain, BHP Teacher, Grade 6