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Author Interview: 'Preparing Students for Writing Beyond School'

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Maria Grant, Marisol Thayre, and Diane Lapp agreed to do an interview (in writing) about their new book, Preparing Students for Writing Beyond School.

Marisol Thayre is a national-board-certified teacher, an author, and a presenter. She currently teaches 11th and 12th grades at Health Sciences High and Middle College, an urban high school in San Diego.

Diane Lapp is a distinguished professor at San Diego State University and an instructional coach at Health Sciences High and Middle College. She has taught elementary, middle, and high school students and is a member of both the California and the International Reading Halls of Fame.

Maria Grant is a professor in secondary education at California State University, Fullerton, where she teaches courses in the credential program and supports pedagogy development for new teacher candidates, as well as a K-12 classroom teacher.

LF: "Learning Transfer" or "Knowledge Transfer" seems to me like the number-one priority for us teachers—helping students apply what they learn in our classrooms to other contexts.  I'm not sure how well many of us teachers do that when it comes to writing. I'm assuming that you have found this to be a gap in many schools and that you've written this book to help fill it. 

Why do you think that many of us are not successful in supporting students to transfer their writing skills to outside arenas?

Maria Grant, Marisol Thayre, and Diane Lapp:

Writing is a complex process that must be taught to students. "Good" writers often can't explain how they learned to write well, and teachers aren't offered much in their own preparation that is explicit about teaching writing. To expand writing teaching and learning, our text applauds teachers for all of the successful writing instruction they are sharing and also supports them in teaching students to understand that what they learn about effective writing practice while in school can be transferred to every context throughout their lives, where writing is a factor for success.

The impetus for encouraging this connection is that in many classrooms, writing instruction focuses primarily on the five-paragraph essay or argument writing. While these types of writing are essential, they do not represent all arenas of writing, and it's important that students realize that writing, like reading and talking, will be a part of their continuing lives.

In preparation for this text, we interviewed young graduates starting their first post-college jobs who were lamenting the inability to tackle their work-related writing tasks, which, for some, involved constructing a proposal for a client or drafting an email to a boss to explain a new project. What became apparent was that the demands of workplace writing were broader than what they learned in school. The modes of writing instruction they experienced in school were not complete enough to support their job performance. We realized that, because teachers can't possibly teach all the types of writing to be experienced in work and careers, we had to develop a schema of thinking that would offer a solution in any situation where writing is required. Specifically, writers should: identify the purpose of the writing task, seek models of similar writing, identify appropriate language, use suitable evidence to support the writing, and adjust for their audience. Additionally, the understanding must be developed that successful writers read extensively, they study models of expert writing, and they consider how to identify and address their target audience. 

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LF: What do you think are two or three actions teachers can take fairly quickly to make their writing instruction more applicable to "writing beyond school"?

Maria Grant, Marisol Thayre, and Diane Lapp:

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to engage in situational writing by considering audience, purpose, language, evidence, and the power of revision and editing. Additionally, teachers can gather models from workplace writing situations. With students, they should examine, discuss, and consider aspects of each model to identify intended audience, purpose, format, style, language, and evidence. Students can become self-actualized in this process by interviewing professionals about their workplace writing. To support this investigative learning, we offer guidesheets, templates, and lessons to help teachers instruct students to practice writing from various workplaces or 'beyond school' settings. The intent is for student writers to become confident and proficient in learning how to write for any situation they encounter.

We advocate a process that promotes student self-actualization as writers by:

* Including "real world" texts from careers students are interested in, guiding them to analyze and compare the audiences, intents, language, and structures of each. 

* Interviewing folks from different careers about the types of writing they do in the workplace; analyzing the skills and styles seen in these writing texts in class.

* Inviting guest speakers to talk about writing in their fields. We were surprised to learn just how much writing a firefighter or a landscape architect does while on the job. 

* Reinforcing, through example, that writing is a lifelong skill that supports workplace success.

LF: You write a lot about the value of revision, and it's often a challenge encouraging students to put time into that kind of editing. What's your best advice to teachers about what we can do to help students see its importance?

Maria Grant, Marisol Thayre, and Diane Lapp:

Writing can be an extremely personal, revealing act, and many students (and adults) avoid the feedback they may get from peer revisions because they get too tied to their first and only draft. To become less sensitive about one's writing revision should be viewed as the polishing of the message, before it is shared.

Teachers can model getting a draft written, then, with students, polish the content and presentation before sending. This helps students realize that revision is a must to ensure that a message is ready to be shared. Teaching this doesn't have to be laborious or embarrassing. If the writing is an email or a one- page brief, the revision might be a quick, thoughtful review to be sure that the tone is appropriate for the audience and the language is on target. Students can practice revision and editing by reviewing the following: Who's my audience? What was my purpose for  writing them? Did I use a style to match them and share my intent? Does my language and the way I shared the information accomplish my purpose and respect my audience? Did I say enough? Are my grammar, spelling, and format perfect? Revision may be holistic, addressing all of these points, or is may be a single trait analysis (focusing on any one of the areas addressed by a single question).

LF: If teachers want to make this kind of writing more common in their school's curriculum, how would you suggest they go about talking with their colleagues and administrators?

Maria Grant, Marisol Thayre, and Diane Lapp:

Writing for careers and beyond K-12 schooling is for every student. It has relevance and it helps students address ELA standards that relate to literacy in all genres, contents, and disciplines. In school, students typically learn how to share information through descriptive and argumentative essay writing, but once they exit the K-12 system, they often need to know how to share information through data charts, advertisements, briefs, emails, blogs, and other forms of writing. Each of these "beyond the classroom" formats requires that the writers know the information well and then can decide how to communicate most effectively with the targeted audience (Grant, Lapp, & Wolsey, in press, July 2019).  

It can be daunting to design and implement new units within your "tried and true" curriculum, so we suggest that you team up with colleagues to design writing assignments that call upon career-writing skills. English teachers are not the gatekeepers of literacy. Collaborate with your grade-level colleagues to create interdisciplinary writing, like an "Expert Project" in which students research an area of interest in a content area like science, then work with an English teacher to document their studies in writing; this reinforces the idea that writing happens beyond the English class and beyond school. 

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LF: What would you like to share that I haven't asked you?

Maria Grant, Marisol Thayre, and Diane Lapp:

Writing beyond school involves all disciplines and identifies the need for writing instruction as an integral dimension in every school subject. By teaching students to address a wider array of audiences, we are empowering them to be comfortable when called upon to convey their thinking in real-world settings, in formats that vary, and are yet unforeseen by them. We can't restrict students to one or two ways of writing. That's limiting, and we know that writing today is varied and dynamic. Twenty years ago, no one was blogging or tweeting. Who knows what types or processes of writing we'll be doing in the next decade, but in preparation, students must be exposed to a thinking process, learned at school, that enables them to tackle their future workplace writing endeavors.

LF: Thanks, Maria, Marisol, and Diane!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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