In this post Jon plugs an awesome book on teaching writing, and explains why templates are a great tool for teaching students to think.

“They Say, I Say”

On the recommendation of the presenter at an AP workshop I attended this summer I recently picked up a copy of They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. This book does a truly excellent job of breaking down analytical writing into its component parts (“the moves that matter”) and teaching them to students. The major tool the authors use to do that is templates. Graff and Birkenstein give a whole series of sentence frames — sentences with blanks for the specific information — that show students precisely how good writers do things like, “Introducing Quotations,” “Explaining Quotations,” and “Disagreeing, With Reasons.” Their chapters explain how to use the templates to create powerful academic essays. It’s a great book.

Interestingly enough, the book’s preface makes it clear that not everyone shares my opinion. There’s a whole section called, “OK – But Templates?” that opens with the acknowledgment that “some instructors may have reservations about templates” (xix). But the authors respond with this explanation: 

The trouble is that many students will never learn on their own to make the key intellectual moves that our templates represent. While seasoned writers pick up these moves unconsciously through their reading, many students do not. Consequently, we believe, students need to see these moves represented in the explicit ways that templates provide. (xix)

This passage resonated strongly with me for two reasons. First, as a veteran history teacher who spent years in wealthy suburban district schools before returning to urban education in 2018, I am constantly reminded of how many intellectual moves middle class kids learn unconsciously that less privileged students need to be taught explicitly. Second, explicit instruction in intellectual moves — through templates — is precisely what we offer in our own book, From Story to Judgment

Make The Implicit Explicit

Most social studies teachers and students are only unconsciously aware of the questions that define our discipline. Consequently, most of us don’t think explicitly and carefully about the intellectual moves required to answer them responsibly. I know I didn’t, until developing the Four Question Method with Gary and writing a book about it forced me to. The goal of our book is to allow everybody in the social studies classroom — those who pick up the intellectual moves of history unconsciously through their reading and those who do not — to have an equal shot at understanding and success. We’ve seen the Four Question Method improve teaching and learning in all types of schools, from wealthy to high-poverty. While the leverage is greatest for students who face great disadvantages, it turns out that everyone benefits from more intellectual clarity in the social studies classroom.

That goal, and our use of intellectual templates to achieve it, means that From Story to Judgment shares a world-view with They Say, I Say. I’ve written before about other books that have this same outlook, most notably  Reading Reconsidered and The Writing Revolution. Like the authors of these books, Gary and I 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. And we believe that social justice demands that all students be given explicit access to this knowledge and these skills. We hope that our book will join these others in helping to achieve that goal.