I teach in East Longmeadow Massachusetts, a sleepy little suburb of Springfield located in the Connecticut River Valley of Western Massachusetts. School has begun, but I am feeling in control of it all. This is indeed a change from last year when I embarked on a new venture, to add “claim writing” to the seventh grade geography curriculum.
I had recently completed the week long College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) with the the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. The program provides mini-units on skills students needed to write well thought out and supported claims. There were also text sets on a variety of topics that worked with the mini-units. There were meetings and webinars scheduled across the year and a group of wonderful experts to support the teachers. However, the truth was that, very shortly, it would be me and 115 middle schoolers and claim writing.
Prior to registering for the C3WP, I met with the school’s administration and shared my plans and concerns about the program and its impact on my curriculum and students. After all, taking time to teach claim writing could take time away from the geography curriculum. I continued the conversation with administration across the school year. The principal had but one request: test the program. After the students wrote their big research piece that was a requirement of the program, the students would then write a shorter piece in a testing environment. Read the required text and write the claim. Let’s see if the program works!
As I developed my lesson plans for C3WP for the school year ahead, I had four goals in mind. Improve my student’s writing skills, use the C3WP program with fidelity, embed C3WP into my geography curriculum, and stay true to the state geography framework.
To meet my goals I had to create my own text sets. In the beginning, I saw this as a new skill but over time realized that teachers do this work all the time. Choose a skill and a topic and then search for readings, videos, images etc. that meet the needs of the students and their interests.
The first step was to chose mini-units and I did so with the help of my school’s ELA coach and fellow C3WP participant, Heather Brown. I then used the school’s geography scope and sequence to choose topics that aligned with the needs of the mini-unit, the timing of the teaching of the mini-unit, and the subject matter being taught. Happily, World Geography is filled with compelling topics that draw students in and hold their attention.
Two mini-unit text sets were built around readings and topics that were already part of the curriculum. The first text set asks students to decide if life had improved for Black South Africans since the end of Apartheid. This is such a salient topic for American students since the prominent reporting of racial injustice here in the U.S. The second topic revolved around the Bangladesh garment industry. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza Factory in Bangladesh brought much attention to the dismal working condition, poor wages, and impoverished lives of the workers that produce the clothes that seventh graders wear every day. Two text sets were created from scratch. Students were asked: Which is better, paper maps or GPS? And should U.S. companies do business in China in light of the fact that China censors its internet?
It is important to know that I did not work alone in this endeavor. I created the text sets but worked collaboratively with our ELA coach a wonderful source of all things ELA, my fellow geography teacher Kim Kehoe who agreed to pilot the C3WP program with her students as well, and the seventh grade ELA teacher, Miranda Kavanagh who supported this work in so many ways. For the big writing project students wrote an op/ed on Bangladesh. I introduced the topic to the students, taught them how to organize their notes and conduct their own research using the op/ed mini unit and the text set I developed. Then the students went across the hall to what can only be described as the week-long Kavanagh writing camp where they wrote their claims under the guidance of this wonderful educator. We both corrected the papers, Miranda for writing skills, myself for the geography content. It was a home run for sure.
By the end of the school year, I developed a profound respect for all things C3WP. I appreciated the fact that the program encourages teachers to help students to understand the topic before they write through the use of whole group and small group discussions. In addition, It is such a gift that note catchers, graphic organizers, and worksheets are provided within the mini-units. No need to create my own. But most importantly, students today take in information in many different forms and this is true of C3WP as well. Within the text sets, the variety of materials that are use to convey the content information such as readings, videos, images, infographics, Interviews, audio recordings etc. reflect the world we live in. Reading about the horrors of a factory collapse in Bangladesh is good, but add a video that shows the panic on the faces of the families waiting as rescue workers search through the pile of rubble that was once a factory, gives a young seventh grader a new understanding of a very different world and also, something very compelling to write about.
By the spring of 2018 I realized that I met my goals. I did indeed apply the C3WP program to my geography curriculum, and I taught the program with fidelity. But most importantly my students grew as writers. You remember the test I was asked to give students after the big writing piece on Bangladesh? I gave that test. Students read a text and an infographic on the Three Gorges Dam in China, developed a claim, and wrote independently. There was no discussion on the topic, they had no prior knowledge to draw from, and no help from me. They had two class periods and a computer. Their writing proved that the C3WP works. Students who started the year with solid writing skills soared. Students who had struggled to organize their thoughts and write clear sentences wrote claims based on fact and presented their ideas in a simple but orderly manner. Due to the C3WP mini-units and my text sets, by the end of the year, my students, all of them, each and every one, had grown as writers.
Want to know more about C3WP? Read about the program and register for this year's institute, which begins on September 20, at https://www.umass.edu/wmwp/pathways-teacher-leadership-programs-science-and-civics-literacy-institutes-and-college-career.