Resource for Teachers
Write to Learn
As a teacher, you know that learning styles vary. Some students are visual learners, others learn better by using mnemonic word games. Some students have very little trouble with memorization, others suffer from in-one-ear-out-the-other syndrome.
One thing we all have in common: it’s easier to remember information when we feel connected to it. When we build a personal connection with a subject, it sticks in our minds. We synthesize it with other ideas--connect it to people we meet or events that we witness. The subject is no longer a handful of facts balanced precariously on the towering stacks of facts we attempt to file on a daily basis. It becomes part of who we are.
Naturally, writing offers a way to build a connection between student and subject matter. But to build a truly strong connection, the level of engagement should go beyond dutifully transcribing facts. When you tap into your students’ imaginations and ask them to explore the facts on an imaginative level, you initiate the process of active inquiry-based learning. Inquiry-based learning activates higher level thinking activities, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
Write to Learn principles can help students make dramatic advances in math, geography, history, science, and, of course, language arts. Writing creatively across disciplines aids more than memorization—it helps students explore varying perspectives, and gain a deeper understanding of the breadth of human experience. When we ask students to imagine themselves in the shoes of a historical protagonist or a player in current events, they begin to synthesize recently ingested information, and redirect it creatively, building critical thinking skills and writing skills in the process.
Everyone has heard the phrase, ‘Write what you know,’ but ‘Write what you learn,’ and ‘Write to learn more’ both offer greater potential for growth. At Seeds of Learning, we have experimented with several types of learning activities that we categorize as ‘Write to Learn’. The simplest, most direct approach is the ‘First-Hand Witness’ approach, wherein students are asked to imagine that they are witnesses to, or participants in, a real event or environment. We also use a second method in which we ask students to synthesize information by writing about real life concepts and ideas within an imaginative framework. For a geography lesson, students might create an imaginary country and choose real geographic terms to describe its landforms and climate, or, for a history lesson, they might study the biographies of U.S. founders in order to construct plausible life stories for the founders of an imaginary country.
The activities in the 'Write to Learn' program make creative writing a vital part of the learning process, and can be adapted to diverse disciplines. This article introduces the research-based principles of Write to Learn teaching, student examples and stories from our own classroom, and practical strategies for implementing 'Write to Learn' strategies in the classroom.
At Seeds of Learning we ask students to imagine that they are first-hand witnesses or participants in events and environments discussed in social studies lessons. After reviewing facts, looking at relevant photographs, and (if possible) reading real first-hand accounts, they write fictional monologues based on the lesson.
When students write fictional ‘first-hand’ accounts based on information they are studying in class, they participate as active learners: instead of just reciting facts, they are envisioning facts. When they imagine what a place or event would feel like to a first-hand observer, the related facts gain a more personal relevance. We have found that students have an easier time remembering the facts that they synthesize through writing, which is hardly surprising. But the learning potential doesn’t stop with better memorization.
Writing is a powerful thinking tool. When students write creatively about a real life event or environment, they suddenly face a bevy of questions. For example, as part of a history unit on child labor, we asked students to write monologues from the perspective of a child laborer from the late 19th century. We asked students to describe what the factories the children worked in looked like, smelled like, sounded like, and felt like, and how the children felt about the situation.
“What types of clothes would the girls at the factory wear?” Pam immediately wanted to know. It was the first of a barrage of questions from our students.
What would they eat for lunch? Did they get breaks? What languages did they speak? What kind of machines did they work on? What happened to them when they got in trouble? Did they go to school?
When writing the answers to reading comprehension questions represents the entirety of a student’s previous writing experience, he or she may be hesitant to write statements that can’t be verified in the text. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although you’ll want to assure students that it’s okay to invent small descriptive details, you can also encourage them to answer their own questions by exploring multimedia reference sources.
Needless to say, when conducting this type of activity it’s a good idea to have a supply of reference resources on hand. To answer their questions, we directed students to the Library of Congress American Memory Project, where they were able to see photographs of child laborers, working conditions, and living conditions. They were also able to use the search option to find answers to their own specific questions—they listened to audio files, read first hand accounts, and watched film footage. Students also visited PBS kids and other online educational resources.
Several students asked questions that had already been covered during the introductory lecture—apparently the information hadn’t sunk in. These students were directed to reread their texts and lecture notes with an eye for answers. In doing so, they read with active intent. Students were more excited to look for answers because they were answering their own questions, not questions posed by a textbook or work sheet.
This activity is distinguished by a high degree of personal choice—students were allowed to choose whether they wanted to write from the point of view of a girl or boy, how old their character was, and what industry he or she worked in.
Because each student generated his or her own questions, the array of information gathered by the end of the lesson was considerably more impressive than the typical end results of an exercise in which every student is assigned the same group of questions.
This is where blogging comes in. Students posted their monologues and fact sheets to their blogs, and we gave the class time to read each other’s work. They were thus able to learn from each other’s research while simultaneously gaining a sense of accomplishment from providing others with valued information. This observation has been corroborated by various studies, including the 2003 eMints study that concluded that technology was a more effective educational tool in classrooms where the teachers encouraged students to share gathered information collaboratively and learn from the work of classmates.