When everyone teaches writing, everyone wins.

A girl with white skin and a boy of Asian descent smile while looking at a computer.

Whether we want to admit it or not, writing is still the basis of communication for almost all core academic subjects. Today many teachers (and those who came before us) have done incredible work to create innovative projects that allow students to demonstrate learning using different media (think video, podcasts, book talks, PechaKucha), but they all have a basis in written communication. A video project without a script is pretty much guaranteed to be a disaster. An off-the-cuff PechaKucha will put an audience to sleep.

Then, of course, there are all those essays, lab reports, stories, blog posts, explanations of solutions to math problems, and exams; each one has a legitimate place in students' toolboxes as they learn to communicate ideas, information, and opinions. And they all depend on the ability to write. Even for those who dictate their work, it's still writing -- only there's a device hitting the keys instead of human fingers.

Writing instruction, however, remains primarily the domain of the language arts teacher. It's not only the commas, periods, and semicolons but the organization of ideas, the clarity of expression, and the use of language that fall, in most cases, to language arts. The better that students write, however, the more successful they will be in all subject areas. Plus, imagine how much happier the science teachers will be with coherent lab reports that follow a solid organizational plan. Or the math teachers who can actually make sense of the steps students describe in their explanations of problem solving.

So how do we make the teaching of writing a shared endeavor?

1. Share those rubrics!

We language arts teachers can start by sharing our writing rubrics with our colleagues in other departments. Imagine the science teachers deciding to take only one column of a language arts rubric (say, writing organization) and adding it to their lab report rubrics. The teachers get a ready-made tool for assessing the skill, and students get reinforcement of a skill they're developing in another class.

  • Suggested tools: Google Drive is a simple, free way of sharing rubrics among courses and teachers. You can make them view-only if you want, and your colleagues can make a digital copy. They can then use and edit that copy, perhaps simply by copying a column to borrow the language for their own rubrics for something like a lab report.
2. Invite teachers from other departments to anchoring sessions.

At our school, we start and finish each year with a common writing assessment to determine individual and group writing needs. Why should that meeting be open only to language arts teachers? Bring in reps from other departments and have them weigh in on what our collective goals should be. It gives them a voice and a stake in writing instruction. Perhaps most importantly, it reinforces the idea that writing is a team effort.

3. Design some units that have crossover.

Let's say students are working on sentence structure or language clarity in language arts class. Students could apply those new skills by peer-editing lab reports they write in science class. Or take an example such as writing conventions. In middle school, we often work toward building sentence sophistication. Let's say we do a mini-lesson on compound sentences -- for example, I multiplied the speed (42 km/hr) by the time (45 mins. or .75 hrs.), and the result was 31.5 km -- and we share that with our fabulous math colleagues. They could ask for and expect students to incorporate them into their problem-solving explanations.

  • Suggested tools: Google Drive could work for this to share ideas and resources, but if you really want to move toward integrated units, try creating an integrated digital space. If your school is willing to pay for it, you could go with a learning management system (LMS) bursting with features, such as PowerSchool. Haiku allows multiple teachers and class rosters and comes with built-in discussion functions, drop box space, and assessment tools (quizzes and grading). 
4. Celebrate writing. 

Invite the other departments to take part in a school-wide writing celebration. Students and teachers join by writing, sharing, and judging. It sends a huge message that the school culture embraces writing.

  • Suggested tools: You could use any of the above learning management systems to take submissions, create polls and nominations, or collect comments on writing pieces. Invite parents to view as well. For the writing celebration itself, try digital slide shows running throughout the day in your library and showcasing particularly elegant turns of phrase or short excerpts of bold prose. Consider author or reader interviews (with students) in iMovie and play them for students over school broadcast or in the cafeteria.
5. Design integrated units that culminate in multidisciplinary projects.

It was always a dream at our school to take one of our humanities units (such as "Adaptation") and tie it into math and science. We already looked at Adaptation from a social studies perspective and intertwined it with personal narrative writing and literature. Why not take science (plant adaptations under different growing conditions, for example) and math (calculating growth rates given different variables) and weave those in as well? The result would be a multidisciplinary project with instruction and assessment from all teachers involved.

  • Suggested tools: This one is ripe with possibility. Think of something where students can combine writing, video, images, and graphics (just as examples). In one day, students could write in science, screencast in math, present in language arts, and film in social studies. Something like Google Sites would allow them to then combine all the elements of their multidisciplinary projects in one place where they can be viewed by peers and teams of teachers and even parents.

When everyone teaches writing, everyone wins.

Photo "Pen and Paper" by Lucas. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

James Denby

I have been a teacher for over twenty years and joined the Common Sense community to connect with other educators and hone my teaching practice . My goal is to engage, connect, and support teachers in order to enhance their practice in the classroom. These days I do a lot of teacher training around coding and design thinking - helping teachers to find ways to bring those skill sets into their classrooms and existing curricula. This fall I will be joining the Faculty of Education at NHL Stenden - a university in the Netherlands.

As a teacher since 1991, I have now worked with every grade from K-12. In the time that I have been an educator, I have seen an incredible variety of powerful digital tools emerge that support instruction and learning. Making sense of those tools is what the Common Sense community is all about (and what Graphite Mentors like me are here to help with).

My career has taken me to 4 countries but only five schools. My most recent classroom position (and love) is middle school Humanities (integrated language arts and social studies). Throughout my career, I have worked primarily with English Language Learners (ELL) and students with mild to moderate learning needs. As a sometime language teacher and a permanent learner of languages, I understand the incredible role that technology can play in language acquisition.

Outside the classroom, I am working on several big education-related projects:

1. Creating learning materials for teachers that combine design-based learning and technology .
2. Writing and publishing teacher resource books in Language Arts and Social Studies for Teacher's Discovery.