The idea that students should be “college and career ready” when they leave high school has become a major focus in education, but much of this conversation has been on reading readiness. What about writing readiness?
Today on the Heinemann Podcast, author Liz Prather. In her book, Project-Based Writing, Liz shows us how teachers can bring students into the lesson planning process, inviting agency, independence, and inquiry into the classroom community.
By creating this community and granting students autonomy, students care about what they’re writing, and learn to manage their time to write. Liz argues that teaching students the real-world lessons they need to become real-world writers begins by inviting their learning preferences into the classroom.
My colleague Michelle began by talking to Liz about the primary goals behind Project-Based Writing and how it came to be.
Below is a transcript of our recorded conversation:
Michelle: What are the primary goals of project-based writing?
Liz: When I think of project-based writing, I ask myself really two questions. Does this exist in the real world of writing? Does the thing that I'm asking my students to do, is this actually what I do as a writer? If it's not, why are we doing it? Right? This second thing is I want to develop the student agency. I want them to be able to exist outside of me, outside of my classroom. Those two things, independence and learning and for the students to learn about their own leaning. So much of what we do in education, and I hate to day this, I'm a veteran teacher, but so much of what we do it's just done in education. Nowhere else in the real world does this actually apply. I wanted to make sure that every skill that they were learning would absolutely come into play no matter if they went into a college path or a career path.
When you think about time management and task management. When you think about he speaking and listening skills inherent in an inquiry group of peers. When you think about the collaborative power of working with a team to produce a creative or even an analytical product, it doesn't matter if you're an engineer or you work for Pixar Films. It doesn't matter where you are. Those skills are huge. I say more about this in the book, but I have these four themes if you will that course throughout my classroom. One of them obviously is reading. One of them obviously is writing, but the other two are the community, the big community strand and then project management. When I say project management to kids, when I'm “selling” this idea to them. Project management sounds so foreign to anything they've ever heard of in the English classroom. Right? It sounds almost cold and kind of clinical and business-y and they don't really trust it maybe.
Project management is the way any artist, any creative person, any thinker actually manages the logistics like the nuts and bolts of, how do you take an unformed nebulous idea and take it through all of the necessary steps to be able to communicate it to another person whether that is a movie audience of millions or that is your parents who are trying to convince to allow you to get your license or whatever it is? It's just one person communicating to the other, but being able to take it through all those steps really actually engenders so many more skills for kids.
Michelle: You make it explicit. I love that. Like you said, this nebulous thing, make it explicit. You talk about in the next chapter transparency. The question I had was, can you talk about the ways teachers can build this classroom community the way you let the kids know right away?
Liz: Within the first two days, I let them in on the specialness of what we're doing, and it feels a little transgressive. I say this in the book. We're in school, but we're not of the school. It's like when you come into this classroom, what we're doing is very different. This is like a laboratory, or this is like a think tank, or this is like a research facility in some way. I really want my students to buy in early with what we're doing. This is not something I impose on them. This is something that I am saying to them. This is a brave new world and I want you to see the benefit of each of these steps, and so that's number one. Really selling them on the specialness of this and the utility of this, how functional this process is.
Then, the second thing is being incredibly transparent about what I'm doing. It's like a lot of times I think, and I did this for years as a teacher. You do all this planning and then you turn around to your class, and you do the show. Right? Well, why not let the kids in on all this planning? You're cutting them out of the very thing that makes learning really powerful. Right? Is all that struggle and that cognitive dissonance that you have when you don't understand how something works, and you got to figure out how to work it, and all of that stuff. That's what teachers are doing. When you turn and you do the show, then the kids are just the audience. They kids have become just the audience. Allowing them in on all of that messy stuff in the background is really critical to creating community.
I also have them create group norms. I could impose and I do have some non-negotiables in my classroom because I'm still the authority in the room. I mean, not really, but I am there as a representation I guess of our district. I have kids ... I have the groups of kids within the first couple of days think about, what makes a good learning environment? What do you need as a learner, as a writer, as a thinker? What are you going to need from each other, and you have to come up with five group norms. Every class has their own group norms. Helps them to regulate, but the other benefit is just that they can actually create the norms by which they are going to regulate themselves, is a really powerful lesson in doing it. It also sends another message in that I am a co-laborer here with you. I mean, I have a lot more experience in teaching and writing, but we're co-laborers in this process, in this business.
It sends a message to kids whether you explicitly say that or not. That's what that does. When you allow them to create their own rubrics for example about how their creative projects will be scored.
Michelle: How can teachers help students discover topics for their projects? I was curious about that process.
Liz: A couple things have to happen before students can understand that anything they can write about it wroth writing about. You have to convince students that their own mind has to be significant enough to them. They have to believe in the significance of their own experience and the significance of their own mind before they're willing to put all of it down on paper for other people to read it. I'm from Kentucky, and in Kentucky a lot of kids have this idea that culture happens elsewhere. It happens in LA, or it happens in New York or someplace, but it doesn't happen in Kentucky. Right? They don't understand how rich their culture is. They don't understand, or they don't feel as if their culture is rich, and they don't understand that they can take something as simple as snapping beans with their grandparents sitting on the porch and make a beautiful rich narrative out of that.
Michelle: I love that you share too when the kid isn't connecting with something. You can get down to how you really need to push them to find a topic.
Liz: I have kids writing about whatever they're interested in. Korean pop music, or some video game, or if they're interested in seltzer water. I have a girl right now that's writing a blog on different kinds of sparkling water. I'd be, you know, what? That's what she wanted to write about, so whatever, you know. That's part of our lives. I would have never ever in million years put that on a topic list.
Liz: I would have never put sparkling water. It would have never occurred to me, but for some reason she wants to write about this. That's why we limit kids, because we create these topic lists. It is the limits of our mind that will be the boundary for theirs.
Michelle: Well, we talk about time management and how project based writing helps students manage their time. Can you speak a little bit to that as well?
Liz: I have project cycles, and I have a couple of non-negotiable dates in the project cycle. We do two days of pitches, and then they have to have their community scores in by a certain date. In between those two dates, they manage their time. They have to figure how to take a large topic and break it into small manageable chunks, and they fail. They fail at this over and over again, but the way project based writing is built is they can fail at that, and they're still not going to be failures at the thing that we're trying, the skill that we're trying to ... because it's a practice field. The very first time that I introduced this to a class, the number one question is, I don't know how long it takes me to do these things, because who's been directing the work? The teacher has been directing the work. You have two days to write a rough draft. You have three day to do ... or one day to do research, and we're going to do revisions.
They have no idea how long it takes them. You'll have the kid who thinks he can write a blog post on baseball, and he thinks that it's going to take him a week to write this blog post, and he gets it done. He does the research, and he is able to interview the people that needs to interview, and he's able to draft it and frame it, and he's done in three days. That tells him something about the way he works, but it just tells him about the way he works with blog writing. If he decided the project cycle to do the first couple of chapters of a novel, or he decided to do an essay, an analytical essay. They learn all kinds of things about different projects will create different time issues. I have to be able to be knowledgeable and honest about my own time habits. Time management is such a personal thing. The time management that kids have right now, every kid that walk in my room, they do it the night before it's due.
They learn nothing, and they say to you, "I work better when I have the pressure of the clock." No, that's not true actually. You don't work better, but you think you work better because you're up against the clock at that point, and so you have to do this, and it's the only skill that you've developed, is panic and pressure. That's the only skill. What this does is it releases the pressure, and you have to create actual mini goals everyday. How they work is they create a timeline or a schedule or a calendar for themselves, and they put in daily goals, but they also have to track themselves. For example, I write a lot about this in the book.
Michelle: You have charts I think in the book.
Liz: I have charts, yeah.
Michelle: Love that.
Liz: Yeah, I have charts in the book, and you can see how kids do this. It's a great analytical and reflective tool for kids. It creates such self-awareness about who they are as humans, really. They'll have their goal for Monday, is to do research. Then, they have to say at the end of the day what they actually did. It is so illuminating when you go back and read that. I'm thinking of a couple of kids who were going to do research. What happened was the internet was down, so they couldn't do research online. They had to then fall back and think, what could I do that would be productive in this space? They said, "I wasted about 30 minutes organizing my book bag." They had to put that on ... they put that. Even though that was wasted time, they had to put it because learning about how you waste time is learning how you sabotage yourself. That's really critical. I don't know that I knew that at 17, or was even aware that that was a thing.
Michelle: Definitely not.
Liz: That what I was doing was really sabotaging and creating a dysfunctional use of time instead of a productive one.
Michelle: I wanted to ask you a little bit about if could touch on project based writing helps teachers address Common Core and other standards.
Liz: Sure. I think it hits every single standard, and I have a nice ... in one of the appendix in the book, it has a nice little foldout chart where you can see where every single deliverable. I have about 14 to 16 deliverables, depending on how you set up project-based writing in your classroom. I have full fledged project-based writing in the classroom so I have all 16 deliverables, and you can see on those different standards so many of them are duplicated and so many of them are hit multiple times in the project cycle. It's not an isolated skill that you're teaching. It's not isolated content that you're teaching. It's just this large, very rich task-based thing that we do, which hits all these things and in multiple ways.
In the inquiry week, for example, students have to bring their projects to the table, and they have to present it to their peers in a process we call ... well, it's annotation and say back. We call the whole week inquiry week. They bring it in and it's like, "Here's my prototype of this product, and how does it work, and how does not work?" They have to come up with inquiry questions. The kids come up with inquiry questions that direct the conversation. If they have written a blog post, and they want feedback for example on, how do the images support the the text? How is my voice? Is my voice credible, and did you learn anything? If those are the three things that they want feedback on, then the group then gives them feedback just on those things. What happens then, they can say, "This is what I wanted my blog to do. This is the information I got from my peers. This is where my blog is not working."
It allows them to take all this feedback. Some of the feedback's not going to be useful to them. Some of that feedback will be beyond the scope of what they originally wanted to do. I have this one kid in my class who always, doesn't matter what you write, he'll say, "You know, this would make a great movie." We're all like, please. The student who's presenting this thing is the final arbitrator of the thing, and so he knows or she knows his vision for that product. Toni Morrison has this great line where she says, "Failure for writers is just information." If you can teach that to a kid, to dispassionately disconnect yourself, your words, you thought, your life, whatever that is on the page, to disconnect self from that and look at it like a product just for a moment. Long enough to hear how I can make this a better product, and listening to what they're saying like, "This isn't working yet", "This is really working well", "This is not working yet", and say, "This is not the end of the road for the project."
I am hearing the data that you're giving me, and I'm using it as information to make this product better. That's the key. I know that sounds so totally unsexy. Right? It's so not what we think of when we think of writing, because we have this romantic notion about writing and all this, but really, it's a project.
Liz: It's a project.
Michelle: Who are the kids that project-based writing most resonates with? What kids get it?
Liz: Yeah, that's a great question. The kids I found are at two ends of the spectrum that really get it. The kids that are checked out with school. They have been checked out since fifth grade. They get it. They know what we're trying to do, and they're just no longer ... They may be really bright, they may be performing poorly, but they're just not into the game. They're done. Right? They're doing just enough to get by and keep their parents off their backs. The other kids that are really receptive to project based writing are your super gifted kids. They might not even be gifted in writing. They have been limited by every rubric that they've ever met, and they see this as an opportunity that is limitless to them. They're only boundaries are the boundaries of their own mind, and they can take their project wherever they want to take. Those two populations are incredibly receptive to this.
The middle population, which is the kind of kid who not only understands how school works, but is really good at how school works. They are not receptive to project-based writing, but it is to their advantage to actually be challenged by the demands of what the system does. What the system does is it makes them aware, makes them actually control their own learning. It's no longer this thing like the teacher will give the information, the student will repeat it. It's this thing like I have to create my own information. I have to create this thing, and I have to learn myself as I'm doing it. I have to reflect on it, and I have to analyze how I've used time, and I have to be able to talk about ideas, and I have to be able to talk about other people's ideas. I have to listen, all those things.
It's really uncomfortable for those kids, but it doesn't take long. It takes maybe two project cycles before a kid like that is really on board with it. It doesn't work for every single kid. I mean, I don't know of any framework that does. For the majority, I found for the majority of the kids, they really understand, and they do eventually get why this is so much more powerful than just normal business.
To learn more about Project-Based Writing and download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com.
Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.