Gloria Carter's Reflection

As an experienced language arts teacher, I have developed a few good practices in writing instruction but have never been satisfied with the results. At times my instruction feels fragmented, and I often struggle to explain to a student exactly what is lacking in technically correct but stylistically problematic writing. The unit of study approach in which a teacher supports student inquiry and discovery through the use of anchor texts is a perfect solution to my struggles; and, for the first time in my teaching career, I feel I have the means for presenting effective and coherent writing instruction. Instead of trying to explain to learners how good writing should “sound,” I can let professional authors do the work for me as learners closely read genre-based anchor texts, record detailed observations, and imitate in writing the stylistic choices that characterize expert writing in a particular genre.

I learned a great deal from producing a sample unit of study. I selected expository pieces as anchor texts in order to develop a better methodology for approaching the expected writing for the STAAR end-of-course English test. In place of using formulaic four- and five-paragraph essays as anchors, I selected six expository articles published by Smithsonian Teen Tribune (2015). I observed that the selected anchor texts use “catchy” titles printed in lower case and include photographs to introduce the article topic and draw readers in (Ask Smithsonian, 2015; Catalfamo, 2015; Keyser, 2015; Lewis, 2015; Sailor gets snoring, 2015; Vertuno, 2015). For my individual piece I selected the topic of dyslexia, as this condition affects approximately one in five teens and would likely interest and encourage students that struggle with reading. Like the anchors, I developed an explanatory title— “Does dyslexia help people become successful?”—and inserted the photograph of a new font designed to simulate what text looks like to a dyslexic reader. I was careful to include a caption and to cite the source of the photograph, as I observed this practice in the anchor texts. The selected texts were written in short paragraphs with a few paragraphs consisting of a single sentence; and, typically, transitional words were not used to connect paragraphs. I feel this writing structure was used to maintain reader interest through concise writing and by emphasizing key facts or details in single-sentence paragraphs. So, in my individual piece I also used short and single-sentence paragraphs and largely omitted paragraph transitions.

Many years ago, after a lengthy hiatus from teaching, I observed many changes in teaching practices, including the arrangement of desks in groups rather than in rows. I eventually realized that small learning groups are an outward manifestation of a significant pedagogical shift from teacher transmission of knowledge to a sociocultural constructivist approach in which student learning is understood to be the result of individual knowledge construction achieved through experimentation and social interaction (Alvermann, 2001; Wink, 2011). The unit of study approach to writing instruction is resoundingly supported by sociocultural constructivist theory as learners use individual experience, engaged inquiry, and social interaction to construct writing expertise.

In addition to theoretical support, experienced researchers and practitioners promote the unit of study premises that learners need to see themselves as writers and must read authentic texts that provide writing models in order to gain confidence and competence as writers (Newkirk, 2009; Smith, 2006). Practicing the unit of study approach offered me an opportunity to develop instructional skills supported by research and practice. I registered for the Sam Houston Writing Project (SHWP) Summer Institute in hopes of gaining insight into excellent teaching practices in writing—and I have not been disappointed. I am looking forward to applying the unit of study approach in order to see young writers succeed.

References

Alvermann, D. E. (2001). Some ‘wonderings’ about literacy teacher education. In  Historical, Theoretical, and Sociological Foundations of Reading in the United States (2011), J. B. Cobb & M. K. Kallus (Eds). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Ask Smithsonian: Does acupuncture work? Smithsonian TeenTribune, The Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/tween56/does-acupuncture-work

Catalfamo, K. (2015). Baby orangutan gets help from sister. Smithsonian TeenTribune, The Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/tween56/baby-orangutan-gets-help-his-sister

Keyser, J. (2015). College recognizes video games as varsity sport. Smithsonian TeenTribune. The Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/ tween78/college-recognizes-video-games-varsity-sport

Lewis, D. (2015). Reading Harry Potter might make you a better person. Smithsonian TeenTribune, The Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/ tween56/reading-harry-potter-might-make-you-better-person

Newkirk, T. (2009). Holding on to good ideas in a time of bad ones: Six literacy principles worth fighting for. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sailor gets sleeping sea lion shipmate (2015). Smithsonian TeenTribune, The Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/tween56/sailor-gets-snoring-sea-lion-shipmate

Smith, F. (2006). Reading without nonsense (4th ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Smithsonian TeenTribune, The Smithsonian Institute (2015). Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/teen

Vertuno, J. (2015). She’s a pole vaulter, and she’s blind. Smithsonian TeenTribune, The Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved from http://tweentribune.com/tween56/she-s-pole-vaulter-and-she-s-blind

Wink, J. (2011). Critical pedagogy: Notes from the real world (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.