Dr. Rebecca Harper, Associate Professor of Literacy at Augusta University, and Leigh Willmann, high school teacher in Cherokee County, bring practical examples of how to infuse writing throughout the middle and high school day.

episode 106

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Dr. Rebecca Harper, Associate Professor of Literacy at Augusta University, and Leigh Willmann, high school teacher in Cherokee County, bring practical examples of how to infuse writing throughout the middle and high school day.


Ashley Mengwasser: Greetings, educators. Thank you for joining us for another episode of Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. You know that's right. Classroom Conversations is presented by the Georgia Department of Education in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. And that's where I am right now at GPB studios. I'm your host, Ashley Mengwasser. You know, today's topic feels like a return to my natural habitat as an English major. What we are about to discuss is whack. Not that whack this WAC, Writing Across the Curriculum. There's only one way to introduce our studio guests, in haiku form.

Microphones, open. For win and wielding writing, to fuel student minds. That felt so right. A warm literary welcome to Dr. Rebecca Harper, Associate Professor of Literacy and director of the AU Writing Project at Augusta University. And having traveled from the land of Woodstock is Leigh Willmann, ELA, an ESOL or ESOL teacher at River Ridge High School.

Ashley Mengwasser: Welcome, logophiles.

Rebecca Harper: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: How you doing today?

Rebecca Harper: Great. Doing good.

Ashley Mengwasser: Doing good, Leigh?

Leigh Willmann: Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: Did the haiku inspire you?

Leigh Willmann: Oh, definitely. Having poetry is always inspiring. Poet and I don't know it and shouldn't know it.

Ashley Mengwasser: What did you think, Rebecca?

Rebecca Harper: Oh, I loved it.

Ashley Mengwasser: I could take writing project class any day. I could probably use some help. Well, we have a professor in the house, ladies and gentlemen, let me start with the fact that Rebecca is a published author of not one, but two books on the subject of writing. Her first is Content Area Writing that Rocks and Works. And the second is Write Now & Write On, Grades 6-12: 37 Strategies for Authentic Daily Writing in Every Content Area.

Ashley Mengwasser: Write Now and Right On. I do love a pun, Rebecca.

Rebecca Harper: Thanks.

Ashley Mengwasser: Talk about your work at Augusta University and your work in schools with teachers.

Rebecca Harper: Well, as you said, I'm an associate professor of literacy at Augusta University, and I've been there for about 14 years. And I mainly work with graduate students who are in our specialist program or our doctoral program. And when I first came there, I worked with undergrads, but I haven't just spent a whole lot of time with them here lately, but I am in the schools a lot. I do a lot of professional learning with teachers and I work with teachers all over the state and I get to go to classrooms and see kids. And that's one of the best part of my job.

Ashley Mengwasser: The outreach part.

Rebecca Harper: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: What is a writing project in a sentence or two for people who don't know about it?

Rebecca Harper: It's a life changing place. It is, it's totally different. It's unlike, I think, any kind of professional learning that I took part in, in anything besides writing project. It's just very different. It is transformative, it's a community of writers and teachers, and all we talk about is writing.

Ashley Mengwasser: Writing, yeah. That sounds like a fun Friday night. And Leigh has been through your program. What was that like, Leigh?

Leigh Willmann: It was nothing short of amazing. To spend time with other teachers, learning the strategies that we could take back into our classroom almost immediately, it just really changed how I was as an educator.

Ashley Mengwasser: Sounds like a five star recommendation.

Leigh Willmann: Oh, definitely.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tell us about your school and what you teach, Leigh.

Leigh Willmann: I am currently an ELA ESOL teacher in what I think is the best county in Georgia, and that's Cherokee County. I teach at River Ridge High School, which is located in Woodstock, Georgia. And we are a traditional public high school. We have about 1800 students in the building. And I am very fortunate in that I head up our ESOL program at our school. And we have about 90 students in the program currently

Ashley Mengwasser: In the ESOL program?

Leigh Willmann: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Well, Writing Across the Curriculum, that's really what we're going to be getting into today with you ladies. And I think writing across the curriculum described another way is writing in every content area or content area writing, which sets up my first question. In a nutshell, Dr. Harper, can you help us define content area writing? What is it?

Rebecca Harper: Well, I think the best thing to say about content area writing is that we want our students to be able to see that we read and write in a number of disciplines. And a lot of times we typically push that off to the ELA folks and say, I'm not a reading teacher, I'm not a writing teacher. But if you teach, you're a reading teacher and you're a writing teacher. But the way that we look at reading and writing in social studies and in math and in science is a little different than we do in ELA. So when we're talking about writing engagements in content areas like those subjects I mentioned, much of the writing that we do is going to help our students process, think through material, and help them digest that difficult content.

Ashley Mengwasser: And probably retain information too, if they're having to put pencil or pen to paper. Or how are kids writing these days? Are they just using computers?

Rebecca Harper: Well, I think they write in a number of ways. I think that you see a lot of social media happening. You see them a lot posting a lot on social media and then they're doing the traditional academic pieces. But unfortunately, what happens sometimes with kids is they don't see that that personal writing that they're doing on Snapchat and wherever else, that that counts too.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, it's a reflection of their writing abilities.

Rebecca Harper: Absolutely. And we can use that in the classroom as spendable capital that can get students to say hey, you actually do know how to do this. You're already doing it at home and nobody's even asked you to do it. You're just doing it because you want to.

Ashley Mengwasser: Way to leverage that. That's really smart. Leigh, why is this content area writing approach so powerful for students, including your ESOL students? And why is it powerful for teachers too?

Leigh Willmann: It's very powerful for students because if you think about it, a student who does not like the English writing or reading, they're going to resist or come to the English classroom with this oh, I don't want to do it. But if they're in the content area that they love, whether it's science, math, history, and they like the content, they're going to dive right in into the writing assignments because they're interested in the content. They're not going to think of it, oh, I got to write this research paper. They're going to think, oh, I get to do some research on something that I'm interested in, and then I'll produce either a one pager or I'll produce a presentation or I'll make a post about it. And it really allows them to not only enjoy the content, but also produce something that's creative.

Ashley Mengwasser: And how's it powerful for teachers?

Leigh Willmann: It's very powerful for teachers because it allows them to see a different side of their students. Imagine you're in a math classroom and you only see your students doing math problems. But if you throw in a writing assignment, you might actually have the opportunity to get to know your students on a personal level and make some connections other than oh, you did that problem correctly. Good job. You might be able to say, oh wow, you grew up in this area. I once went and visited there. Because if they're doing a activity related to writing and math, you might actually get to know your students.

Ashley Mengwasser: You might get to know them better. Anything to add, Rebecca?

Rebecca Harper: No, I think Leigh is exactly right. I think that writing is powerful, no matter where it's used. And we only get better at doing something if we practice. So in order for our students to get better at writing, they have to write.

Ashley Mengwasser: They have to write. And I think that's one of my favorite phrases of the writing vernacular is the practice of writing, which forces us to understand that writing is a practice, that it is taught. I think that's comforting for teachers and for students because it's in the working on it, the exercising that muscle that it gets good. It's just not inherently good. And we'll talk more about that later. It sometimes helps to define a thing by what it is not. Let's take that approach. To understand what content area writing isn't, can you share some common misconceptions with us? You first, Rebecca.

Rebecca Harper: Well, I think that at what I see with teachers when I go out to do professional learning, is that a lot of folks who are in math, science and social studies think that the writing that they have to do in their classes has to look like what it would look like in an English language arts classroom. They think that it has to go through multiple stages, it has to go through all the pieces and the process, and then it should end up being polished. And that's not accurate. Really the writing that you're doing in content areas should look drafty. It should look rough and ugly like in the school.

Ashley Mengwasser: Not perfect.

Rebecca Harper: Exactly. And one of my favorite poets, Brod Bagert, said to us one time when he came to visit my students, "Write your worst." Because anybody can do that. And so I think that in content classrooms, most of what we are going to have our students do is not going to ever make it to a publishable piece. But it's more thinking through and writing through the content.

Ashley Mengwasser: Writing through the content. What are some common misconceptions you see, Leigh?

Leigh Willmann: I think, like Dr. Harper says, when you're writing in the content area, you're writing to develop skills and you're writing about stuff that you're interested in, whereas in the English classroom, you're writing to learn about grammar and syntax and mood and tone. And those are not the kind of skills that you're going to be teaching in a math, history, or science classroom. Really, in the content area, you want the kids to get writing, but you don't want them to be worried about the little details that often we think about when we're in the English classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: Why do you think some of these misconceptions persist?

Rebecca Harper: Because most teachers have not had professional learning in writing, nor did they have college classes that address, how do we teach writers. And I say that as I was a middle grades writing teacher. That's that's what I was hired to do, was to teach writing. I had four classes of writing and one class of history, and I had no undergraduate courses that focused on that. And the only way that I figured out how to do it was being part of a writing project site, which is why I go back to transformative. That's how important that time in that writing project was for me, because it transformed my teaching.

Leigh Willmann: Yeah, and that's the thing, is when you are learning the different strategies on how to teach students to write, it really changes how you are as a teacher. And there's just been so many times when I've taken a strategy from the writing project and brought it into the classroom and it's been a success. And that's huge as a teacher because oftentimes you have a great idea, you bring it to the classroom and it's not the success that you thought it would be. But every strategy that I learned through the writing project that I brought back to the class has always been a success.

Ashley Mengwasser: I'm curious, what makes it successful? Do you gauge that by your students?

Leigh Willmann: Yeah, it's always judged by your students and their reaction and what they produce.

Ashley Mengwasser: Very nice. The conversation about content area writing often focuses on the commonalities, but I want to know about the differences. What are differences between writing in an ELA classroom versus writing for social studies, for example?

Rebecca Harper: Well, in ELA, you might focus on things like vivid vocabulary and voice. And as Leigh mentioned, mood, tone, those pieces. In math, we don't care about that. We don't care about voice. We care about academic vocabulary. We care about succinct explanations of what we did. Can I justify my answer? So there are lots of things, you're not necessarily going to tell a story in science, you're going to maybe lay out a procedural text.

Rebecca Harper: So there are different demands in different subject areas, but you will see that there are some overlap, because no matter whether you're writing in whatever content, you have to know how to organize your writing. So you have to be well organized when you explain what you did in math, but also when you write that person on narrative and ELA. So there are pieces that overlap and that work in tandem, but then there are also ones that function in that specific discipline.

Ashley Mengwasser: So it's really the application. You still need the basic mechanics of writing, but the way you use it is different in every subject area.

Leigh Willmann: Yeah, I agree. I think that when you are in the ELA classroom, you're looking for specific skills related to writing. Whereas when you're in the content area, you are just simply looking to see if your students can take the skills that they're learning and apply it to what they're doing. For example, in the math classroom, we always got asked, well, what am I ever going to use this?

Ashley Mengwasser: So sassy.

Leigh Willmann: Oh, yes. And I love it. And my math teacher and I, we took those opportunities to tell the students like, this is how you're going to use it. I'll tell you when. Yeah, exactly. It's like when you go to make a recipe or when you're trying to determine, well, what's 50% off or this top that I want to buy, stuff like that. But when I brought in the writing component to the math classroom, it just opened up the student's imagination and it really allowed my math teacher and I to connect with the students because they began telling us their personal narrative through numbers. And it was just an incredible experience.

Ashley Mengwasser: I want to hear about that. Leigh, tell us about a particular strategy that you've used with students. What was your learning target? What did you do? What did you ask them to do? Tell us everything.

Leigh Willmann: So what I did was, this is a strategy I learned in the writing project. It's not so much a timeline as it's you telling your story through numbers, and because it was in a math classroom and we were talking about numbers, it could be related back to math. And so what I did was I told the students my story using numbers. In other words, the birth date, the address where I lived, how many years I lived in this place, how many people I lived with and for how long.
And so I took them from when I was born up into the current year of teaching, and then the kids all got a piece of paper and they were given the freedom to write their own timeline.

Ashley Mengwasser: Using numbers.

Leigh Willmann: Using numbers. And it was just amazing because students literally for the time ever, high school students were coming up to me at the end of class and being like, "Look at my timeline, look what I wrote, look what I did." And I have students who never talk or who have a lower level of English proficiency who were able to draw their story and write it out and show me what their personal narrative was using numbers. Whether it was a date, an address, they talked about animals, they talked about siblings. They talked about where they had lived. And it was just really powerful.

Ashley Mengwasser: And look what you did. You had them telling stories about themselves. I bet they enjoyed that self reflective part of it.

Leigh Willmann: They really did. And it's funny because I teach a lot of the same students this year. And I mentioned to them that I was going to be talking about that project. They're like, oh, can we do that again this year? And I'm like-

Ashley Mengwasser: I got more to add to my story.

Leigh Willmann: Yeah, exactly.

Ashley Mengwasser: Did that build bonds between students in class because they're sharing details about their personal lives.

Leigh Willmann: Yes and no. It was more them telling their story to me.

Ashley Mengwasser: To you.

Leigh Willmann: Yeah. And they were doing it in a safe way in that they could put it on paper and they didn't have to share it if they didn't want to. But so many of them wanted to share it with me that I felt very, very fortunate in that moment.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's special, letting you in. Well, I want to hear more about this. I want to mine you both for tricks of the trade. What tips do you have for teachers of all content areas who are ready to enhance their writing instruction?

Rebecca Harper: I think you've got to know your students, and you ought to know what is it that they enjoy and like doing. That, I think, gives you spendable capital in the classroom. The activities engagements that work best with students that I interact with are ones that are relevant to their lives. So getting to know your kids and then figuring out what are they already writing and how can I leverage that? So if I know my students are on Snapchat and Instagram, and I know they're proficient in the, these, these captions and what's a post worthy versus what's story worthy, I use that to teach main idea and extra detail.
I've asked random kids. So how do you decide what's going to be posted and what goes in your story? And they are able to explain, and basically what they're telling me is they know the difference between what's an important detail, post worthy, versus what's something that's an extraneous detail, story worthy, because it's going to go away in 24 hours.
I have to teach that anyway. [crosstalk 00:17:02] I have to teach main idea and summary. So I took that and used that in my teaching, because what that tells me is that child already knows what that skill is. But in the real world, we don't call it the same thing that we do in the academic world. So we ask students for summaries and we ask them to compare and contrast. In the real world, we don't say things like that. We function in hashtags and tell me about your day. Those are all summaries. Hashtags are main ideas.

Ashley Mengwasser: Hashtags are main ideas.

Rebecca Harper: That's all they are. 
And the other thing too, is the generation that we're teaching right now did not have to learn that hashtag meant anything but hashtag, that's all it's ever been.

Ashley Mengwasser: Right. It was never the pound sign.

Rebecca Harper: It was never the number symbol, it's always been hashtag. Use it in your teaching. That's what I do.

Ashley Mengwasser: That is so smart. So you're taking common practices out in society and in their social worlds, the worlds that excite them and extrapolating that to the instruction.

Rebecca Harper: Yeah, why not? Because just this past week I was talking to a group of teachers about informational text and how that's structured, and a lot of our students attack an informational text the same way they would a narrative and they don't look at subtitles and subheadings and such. But so I asked the question, "When you go to the grocery store and you're at a new Kroger, how do you find bread?" Well, you look at the signs at the top. Those are nothing but subheadings and main ideas. That's how you know bread's here and not milk.

So I tell students, if you're reading an informational text and the question asks you about this one thing, don't be that person in Kroger, on the bread aisle, looking for milk. Use those subheadings. Those are main ideas in the real world. So making those connections because to Leigh's point, our kids often ask us, why do I need to know this? What's a real world example? I can give you real world examples of literacy all day long.

Ashley Mengwasser: All day long.

Rebecca Harper: Just give me time, and I will.

Ashley Mengwasser: You mentioned the person in the aisle. That person is there all the time. We see them when we go grocery shopping, right?

Rebecca Harper: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: You just want to say, "Ma'am this is not where the eggs are stored."

Rebecca Harper: Look at your subheadings and your main ideas.

Ashley Mengwasser: Look at your subheadings, ma'am. I'm going to use that next time at Kroger. Thank you. What tips do you have for teachers, Leigh?

Leigh Willmann: I would just say don't be afraid to think outside the box. And maybe even if you're interested in a podcast, have your students do a podcast, or like what Dr. Harper says with social media, instead of having them write a summary, let them do a one pager, let them use Canva or Adobe Spark and let them try and be flexible and be creative with their ideas. And it's going to come naturally.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's going to come very naturally. Are there any other tips you would like to share?

Leigh Willmann: Oh my gosh. I have so many.

Ashley Mengwasser: You have so many. Where do we even start? If you think of any others, let me know. We're not done with this conversation. But how do you both think a school-wide effort in content area writing could take root? What could teachers and administrators do to spread the good gospel here?

Rebecca Harper: Well, I think that the first thing is we have to ask teachers what do they need. A lot of times we come into professional learning and teachers are told they have to come to a session and nobody's asked them, what is it that you need? So I think getting teacher buy-in is really important. Writing is one of those skills that it doesn't matter what you plan to do in your life. You're probably going to need to know how to write in some form or fashion for some type of audience or for some different purpose.

Rebecca Harper: But finding out what is it that my teachers need. And so when I go out to schools, the very first thing I ask teachers that are in front of me, I don't assume that I know what they need. I ask, what are your students doing well, what are they still struggling with? And then that's I frame whatever we're going to talk about, because if you know summary cold, we're not going to go over that. So getting teacher buy-in is huge and letting them feel like they are part of that conversation and that process.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. What about you Leigh?

Leigh Willmann: I think that that is absolutely accurate. I think that if it's going to be a school-wide initiative, you need to have teachers from all content areas be a part of the planning process. It can't just sit in the English department. It's got to be history, math, science, CTAE. It's got to be all your departments who are at the table ready to plan the school-wide initiative. And then like Dr. Harper says, the teachers have to buy into it and be ready to flex their writing skills and flex their muscles.

Rebecca Harper: Flex their writing muscles.

Ashley Mengwasser: So you need passion from teachers in every content area, who are willing to come together and be creative.

Leigh Willmann: And you might be surprised at who really just has the creative skills and who has the writing skills who are actually not teaching writing in their school.

Ashley Mengwasser: What a discovery. Well, I'd like to leave our teachers with some strong leads to sharpen their writing toolbox. So what resources are out there that can help them hone their content area writing strategies.

Leigh Willmann: I would say look to your local colleges and universities to see if they have a writing program, like what Dr. Harper runs.
And I think that also look at the teachers in your building. You never know. Look to your instructional coach, look to your ILS, look to teachers within your department and say, I have this idea. What do you think? And oftentimes there will be at least one or two other teachers at the table who will be like, "I know exactly what we should do." And they'll just take it and run with it.

Rebecca Harper: I agree. I think definitely my first thing would be find a national writing project. That's the first thing, because that's the pivot point for so many teachers. But even if you can't connect with the writing project, that's a great resource, their website. NCTE, National Council of Teachers of English is another great resource for writing frameworks. And then finding that community of teachers, being able to say, my students are struggling with this, or I'm struggling with teaching this, could you help me?

Rebecca Harper: And sometimes you find these allies in your school that are from unlikely sources. You might not think, but there's a lot of really great literacy things that are happening outside of the ELA classroom. I see it all the time. So just being able to talk to your colleagues and say, "Hey, I'm a want to think about incorporating a new novel that maybe addresses something you're teaching in history. Can you tell me about your content?" Those kinds of things I think open a lot of conversations and have a ton of potential for teachers.

Ashley Mengwasser: It sounds like there are resources inside your school system and outside and making use of both is really the way to success there.

Rebecca Harper: I think so. And I don't think you ever should be satisfied with doing what you've always done. I never teach the same lesson twice the same way. There's always something different. Either there's a new resource I pull in or there's a new strategy or there's some new little subtle piece. I never do the same thing, I just don't do it over and over again because you want to refine your craft. So just don't be okay with what you've always done.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. Keep it fresh, like produce at Kroger. I need to go back to Kroger.

Rebecca Harper: Well, yeah. And you've got to be willing, I think, to try something and fail forward, and just keep doing it, just keep doing it. Because the reality is that sometimes you're going to teach a lesson and it's not going to go well. That's okay. But that's just as important as the one that was off the charts awesome. You learn just as much from that one that went off the rails.

Leigh Willmann: Right. I agree. I think that you need to just keep trying different ways to teach. And I have found that one lesson will do great with one group of students and that same lesson with a different group of students will just fall flat on its face.

Ashley Mengwasser: Know your audience, right?

Leigh Willmann: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: The number one rule of writing and speaking. Any last words on writing?

Leigh Willmann: Just keep doing it and don't stress out about it. Just do it. You're already writing every day, whether you're making grocery lists or you're writing down directions, or you're trying to get things organized. You're already writing. Just keep going.

Rebecca Harper: Yeah. I think getting students to see that it's really easy for me to prove that I'm a reader. In order for me to prove that I am a reader, I just have to read something to you and you know, you've seen it. But a lot of students and adults think that being a writer means that you publish something, but we're all writers. And I think the thing that teachers have to remember is in order for us to get our students to want to do something, we have to be willing to do it with them. Otherwise it's like telling students it's important for you to learn how to swim, but we don't ever are going the water.

Rebecca Harper: So I think as teachers of writing, you have to be willing to wade into the shallows.
And then you have to be willing to jump in the deep end with them and swim, because that's one of the best pieces. That's just as important for students. As much as important as to have great resources, it's so important for them to see you, as the teacher, as a writer too.

Ashley Mengwasser: Excellent. Thank you, Dr. Rebecca Harper and Leigh Willmann, you've blown us away. Is your version of a mic drop, a pin drop? I'm just curious. That would be perfect. That's what we need. That's what we need around here. Well, go ahead and drop your pins because your work is transforming how teachers teach writing and how kids engage with writing. So thank you for that.
And that is all she wrote. Thank you for tuning into Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. It's true today and it's true every day. You're a great teacher. Goodbye.