In this short piece from our Students Speak video series (watch it at the end of this post, or click here), we pose the question, “What do teachers do that help to improve your writing?” In our high tech world where there seems to be an app for just about everything, the answers we heard from students may surprise you with their simplicity.
Ava, age 14, explains that an engaging class discussion is the best thing that her teachers can provide in order to help her writing improve. Andrew, age 15, reflects on a recent successful experience of collaborating with a peer in order to focus and refine his written work.
What is revealed in these answers is that writing, as a tool of communication, is inherently a social activity. The key to improving writing for many students seems to be quite simple: give them the opportunity to talk to one another.
Social experiences are extremely powerful for pre-adolescents and adolescents. Students of this age, in middle and high school, are highly attuned to the social atmosphere. They listen to each other and are very easily influenced by each other’s ideas. Peer discussion is the perfect tool to help expand ideas and understanding around any topic. During dialogue and discussion, students are able to explore a variety of perspectives and debate points of ethics and morality while also expanding their understanding and general knowledge on the topic at hand. As opposed to teacher-centered instruction, “in participatory classrooms, students use texts as tools for learning and constructing new knowledge“ (Alvermann, 2002). Engagement in a class discussion encourages higher level thinking. Students have the opportunity to view themselves as resources for one another, instead of relying on the teacher to disseminate knowledge. They are motivated to search for evidence, pose alternative hypotheses, and debate as they rarely would with an adult.
In the video, Ava explains that prior to a class discussion on marriage equality, she thought her mind was made up on the matter of a city official who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. However, as she listened to the arguments of her classmates, she recognized that her initial idea may have been a bit rash. Via the class discussion, Ava was able to open up to a variety of perspectives on the issue, and ultimately view the issue from multiple points of view.
This ability to examine an issue from multiple perspectives is an essential social skill that all children practice and learn. Instruction starts in toddlerhood, when young children begin to understand how their actions impact others. By middle school, students are able to grapple with increasingly complex issues of ethics, values and morality, and debate opposing sides of an issue. Discussion with peers, coupled with appropriate support from a trusted adult, enables students to develop the critical thinking skills necessary for thinking about and communicating new ideas verbally, and in their writing.
An important component to peer discussion is an adult facilitator. Teachers and parents should model higher level thinking skills, such as inferential understandings, or comparative analysis. They may also help to further the discussion by asking provocative questions or posing alternative perspectives. Adult facilitators have an important role of setting the boundaries of a discussion. Care should be taken to value all voices equally and ensure that conclusions are consistent with fact. Students need to hear each other’s voices and have the opportunity to share their own opinions and ideas, but they need adults to act as the “guardrails” and maintain expectations and a positive climate for class discussions.
Today’s students have access to loads of technology and innumerable online resources. It is remarkable, and wonderfully refreshing to hear from our Students Speak panel that the most effective support that a teacher can offer to help them with writing is a social experience. This reminds us that despite all of the technological advances in education, the best methods are often the tried and true.
Sources: Alvermann, Donna E. "Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents." Journal of Literacy Research 34.2 (2002): 189-208. Sage Journals. Web.