If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or if you’ve attended one of our workshops, you know that we believe that good history teaching starts with teaching the story first, and you know that we believe that you should make time to formatively assess your students’ abilities to tell the story you taught them. We often use four-sentence stories to do that assessment: require students to tell the story of the industrial revolution, or the Meiji restoration, or whatever you’ve taught them, in only four sentences. But what if your students struggle to write good sentences? I have found myself in that situation this year, and over the winter break I started reading a book that gave me tremendous insight into and practical tools for solving that very problem. This post is a straight-up plug for The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler.
SUBURBAN V. URBAN STUDENTS
I started my teaching career at a small Catholic girls high school in the South Bronx called Saint Pius V. There were no white kids at the school, and our families were all working class or poor. When I moved back home to the Boston area I ended up taking a long detour into suburban district schools. But this year I’m back in the city, teaching tenth grade at an urban charter high school that reminds me a lot of Saint Pius. It’s been great to get back to my roots, and it’s been an intense (re-) learning experience. One of the most significant differences between my suburban students and the kids I teach now is their writing. I’ve always prided myself on teaching writing well, but this year I realized that my pride was misplaced. In the suburbs I only had to coach writing for a few students each year, because most of my students already knew what to do when I told them to “make this sentence more clear” or “tighten this paragraph.” I just had to tell them what to do — for the most part they already knew how to do it.
My current students are different. Many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and English is not their first language. Most of them have parents who did not go to college, and many have parents who did not complete high school. They need much more explicit instruction about how to write well in standard English. I realized right away that we needed to start with a focus on sentences, (their badly written paragraphs or essays were usually just the cumulative result of grammatical and syntactic errors at the sentence level), and I found that I already had a perfect tool for the job: The four-sentence story. I can use it to assess student learning, as I did in the suburbs, and I can also use it to teach good sentence writing. But having the right tool is no guarantee of using it well, and I have found it challenging to coach students who don’t who don’t have many models of good writing in their lives.
THE WRITING REVOLUTION
Enter The Writing Revolution. I started reading it over this winter break, and I got that excited feeling you get when you read something that seems to be speaking to you directly. The authors validated my students’ struggles to write clear sentences: “Producing even a single sentence can impose major cognitive demands on students, especially if it requires them to explain, paraphrase, or summarize sophisticated content” (10). They validated my decision to coach them on writing clear sentences: “Sentences are the building blocks of all writing” (10). They validated the Four-Sentence Story as a formative assessment: “When students write, they — and their teachers — figure out what they don’t understand and what further information they need” (11). They validated the 4QM emphasis on content knowledge: “The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing activities” (13).
Beyond giving me all that validation, Hochman and Wexler also gave me some specific tools for teaching writing well. The book breaks down writing instruction into explicit pieces that make it accessible to everyone. I’m already revising my coaching on how to write Four Sentence Stories, and thinking about how to integrate the book’s techniques into my coaching students to write paragraphs and essays. If your students are struggling to write good four-sentence stories, I recommend prompting them with the ten subordinating conjunctions listed on page 43. Tell them to start each sentence with one of these words: before, after, if, when, even though, although, since, while, unless, whenever. So a four-sentence story on the industrial revolution in Britain might look like this:
- Before 1750 most cloth was made by hand, by farmers working in their houses.
- Since this method was slow and inefficient, inventors created machines to do the various jobs of cloth-making and put the machines in water-powered factories.
- After the steam engine was perfected, factories could be built anywhere, so businessmen put them near ports and transportation hubs.
- Since factories needed large numbers of workers, cities quickly grew up around them, and Britain had a period of rapid urbanization in the nineteenth century.
A WORLD-VIEW IN COMMON
Along with The Knowledge Gap and Reading Reconsidered, The Writing Revolution is one of a set of books that share a world-view about teaching with the Four Question Method. They believe that complex cognitive tasks like reading, writing, and thinking about history can be “x-rayed” and explained in ways that are comprehensible to everyone. They believe that content knowledge is crucial and ought to drive rigorous instruction for students of all levels. And they believe that social justice demands that low-income students be given explicit access to this knowledge and these skills. As I’ve been reminded this year, there are myriad academic skills that middle-class students seem to simply absorb, but that low-income students need to be taught in school. If you’re using the Four Question Method you’re already explicitly teaching the four thinking skills that are at the heart of the disciplines of history and social studies. These three books can help you do that even more effectively.