28 July 2015

Extreme Writing in Secondary Social Studies

Yesterday I read "The Power of Extreme Writing: How do I help my students become eager and fluent writers?" by Diana Cruchley. Two thoughts stuck with me. The first was that I did a variation of Extreme Writing with my fifth and sixth graders when I first started teaching. It was fun and addressed some of the early writing standards. The second was that with its emphasis on more creative styles of writing I couldn't see much opportunity for using Extreme Writing in secondary Social Studies.

This morning, as I was out walking, I had another thought. "WAIT! Extreme Writing WILL work in secondary Social Studies!"

First, here's a little bit about Extreme Writing. Cruchley explains that the purpose of Extreme Writing is to build fluency in writers. In other words, students have to get their thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. The way to do that is with practice. This can be accomplished with several cycles of 10 minutes of in-class time for 10 days (with follow up time at home).  Years ago, I read Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" where she recommended something similar for writers. In fact, Goldberg recommended setting a timer for five minutes and writing. If you don't know what to write about, write "I don't know what to write about" over and over and over until what's trapped inside comes out. Cruchley recommends providing prompts that will spark interest and engagement in students. Cruchley and others have gathering prompts and posted suggestions to the web.

So where does this fit into secondary Social Studies? My 9th and 10th grade geography and history students had a difficult time with essays. In class essays were the worst (and I'm sure my students would agree). Despite reviewing the prompt and thorough planning, they still struggled to put pen to paper and get the essay completed. My AP students also struggled with timed writings. I frequently heard "I don't know what to write" or "This is really hard." I always suspected that part of the issue was lack of confidence in their own ability to express themselves on paper.

Extreme Writing can address this struggle. Most of my students didn't come to me with a lot of in-class writing practice. In most of their other classes, these students were assigned take home essays to be completed over the course of a week or more. This gives students LOTS of time to revise and refine their writing. In a pinch though, some students are nearly paralyzed with fear of the in-class essay. Taking 10 minutes of class time a day for 10 days is worth the "lost" content time to build fluency and confidence in students.

Here are a few other questions to consider:

  • But what about my content? These prompts have nothing to do with my content! That's actually the point. Extreme Writing builds fluency and confidence in writing. It will start out as a pretty messy process, but over time as student fluency improves, you'll start to see more thoughtful pieces and new skill that will transfer to writing about the social studies.
  • I'm a History/Social Studies teacher! Why do I need to do this? Check with your colleagues in your students' other classes. Are they doing Extreme Writing or something similar? Perhaps you can share the task. The Common Core Literacy Standards clearly outline shared responsibility for reading and writing development. If writing is a challenge for your students and if no one else is doing it, it's on you. In the long run, Extreme Writing will help make your job easier because your students will be better prepared for the writing demands of social studies courses.
  • Clearly this is just for younger students, right? Cruchley recommends Extreme Writing for 4-9 grade students. However, in my own experience I was not a super-confident writer when I got to my senior year of high school. I had good teachers who emphasized writing, but getting the words down on paper still was anxiety-provoking. Mrs. Hanley, my senior English teacher, fixed that with her own version of Extreme Writing. We wrote in journals, we wrote essays, we wrote and wrote and wrote. By the beginning of second semester we could write a full essay in 20 minutes with a cold prompt.