Learning Strategies

Three Principles of Writing Instruction in a Personalized Learning Classroom

By Amanda Zeligs Hand     Oct 16, 2017

Three Principles of Writing Instruction in a Personalized Learning Classroom

Writing is a deeply personal act. From process to deadlines, no two people approach writing in the exact same way. Take, for instance, environment. While some people prefer to write in complete silence, others need the din of a coffee shop to focus. Or, if you are like me, the friendly hum of the same song on endless repeat helps the words flow. These disparate settings have one thing in common: excellent writing can emerge from each. 

There is no right way—or place—to write. Similarly, there is no single right way to teach writing; effective writing instruction depends on the unique needs of each learner. In theory, this is a relatively easy idea to get behind. But in a traditional classroom setting, turning this idea into practice can be a challenge.

Shifting towards a personalized approach to writing instruction begins long before anyone actually picks up a pencil or taps a keyboard.

Every teacher well knows, for example, that each class is composed of individuals and that those individuals are inherently complex. Better understanding of that complexity can help schools and districts envision and implement their personalized learning approach. In his book “The End of Average,” Todd Rose, co-founder and president of the Center for Individual Opportunity and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, unpacks this complexity into three Principles of Individuality: Jaggedness, Context, and Pathways.

The first principle: Jaggedness

Rose writes that the Jaggedness Principle “holds that we cannot apply one dimensional thinking to understand something that is complex and ‘jagged.’” He explains, “almost every human characteristic that we care about..is jagged.” In school, this means that a student’s performance in one subject area, such as algebra, does not correlate to his performance in another, such as foreign languages. No single measure captures an individual’s varied strengths.

The jagged nature of individuals’ characteristics complicates the traditional approach of confining writing instruction to ELA classes. We cannot assume that an ability to write in an English class will transfer to other contexts. When planning curriculum, we need to create opportunities for students to develop their writing skills across multiple genres—narrative, argumentative, informative, analytical—and over varied subjects from math to social studies. By customizing writing assignments for subject areas, we create more opportunities for students to develop skills and succeed.

The second principle: Context

Rose’s next Principle of Individuality, Context, states that an individual’s “behavior is not determined by traits or the situation, but emerges out of the unique interaction between the two.” Rose cautions against making generalizations about an individual’s “average tendencies.” Rather, he recommends thinking about people in terms of their behavior in a particular situation or environment.

In writing instruction, context comes into play whenever feedback is offered. To begin, feedback should be personalized to the individual student. When giving feedback, consider the student holistically. Ask yourself: How has the student’s writing improved in this subject area and genre? What is the student doing well? How does she respond to constructive feedback? What is happening in her life outside of school that may affect her writing performance in this class?

In order for feedback to be effective, it must also must pertain to the context (genre and subject area) of the writing assignment. Feedback that’s appropriate for the narrative genre, such as how well a character is developed, will not pertain—or make sense—when applied to an informative writing assignment for a science class.

Feedback that is tailored to the student, task, and context is both an essential component of personalizing writing instruction and one of top instructional strategies for improving student achievement.

The third principle: Pathways

The third and final Principle of Individuality is the Pathways Principle. Rose writes, “This principle makes two important affirmations. First, in all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and, second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.”

The Pathways Principle tells us that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning to write. Instead, we need to explore writing instruction methods that cater to student voice and choice, such as writing workshops and student-led conferences. The challenge lies in providing standards-based definitions of writing excellence and determining the diverse paths and goals related to these definitions.

Teachers agree. Scott Rosenkranz, English Curriculum Coordinator for Southern California’s Fullerton Joint Unified High School District, says that when writing goals aren’t clear, students can feel lost. Many students “don’t know what they’re supposed to be learning and they kind of feel like being a good writer is some talismanic thing that is unclear to them,” he explains.

Define the learning path

To combat this confusion and help students define their learning paths, Rosenkranz uses pre-writing activities that promote goal-setting, metacognition, and agency.

  • Start with the rubric. To begin the pre-writing process, Rosenkranz breaks down rubric criteria. Take, for example, Revision Assistant’s narrative rubric, which describes an “advanced” language and tone score as using descriptive words, and sensory and figurative language to create distinct imagery and clearly convey setting, characters, and feelings.
  • Design lessons. He then extracts four of five goals from this criteria and designs lessons and activities around them. In this case, one goal could be improving the use of descriptive words, sensory language, and figurative language.
  • Personalize goals. To personalize this goal, a student may reflect on his own writing and set the individual goal of using more active verbs. This student would then brainstorm active verbs, write example sentences using those verbs, and share some sentences with the class. “I give them feedback during that process,” Rosenkranz explains, “and then I let them write.”

Rose’s Principles of Individuality are ideally applied to a district- or school-wide personalized learning vision and implementation. However, as indicated in the above strategies, they can have positive impacts at the classroom level as well. To teach today’s students to be the writers of tomorrow, we must first and foremost appreciate the individuality of each student. Only then can we conceive of writing instruction practices that will prepare students to be able to write about whatever comes their way.

Learning Strategies

Three Principles of Writing Instruction in a Personalized Learning Classroom

By Amanda Zeligs Hand     Oct 16, 2017

Three Principles of Writing Instruction in a Personalized Learning Classroom

Writing is a deeply personal act. From process to deadlines, no two people approach writing in the exact same way. Take, for instance, environment. While some people prefer to write in complete silence, others need the din of a coffee shop to focus. Or, if you are like me, the friendly hum of the same song on endless repeat helps the words flow. These disparate settings have one thing in common: excellent writing can emerge from each. 

There is no right way—or place—to write. Similarly, there is no single right way to teach writing; effective writing instruction depends on the unique needs of each learner. In theory, this is a relatively easy idea to get behind. But in a traditional classroom setting, turning this idea into practice can be a challenge.

Shifting towards a personalized approach to writing instruction begins long before anyone actually picks up a pencil or taps a keyboard.

Every teacher well knows, for example, that each class is composed of individuals and that those individuals are inherently complex. Better understanding of that complexity can help schools and districts envision and implement their personalized learning approach. In his book “The End of Average,” Todd Rose, co-founder and president of the Center for Individual Opportunity and faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, unpacks this complexity into three Principles of Individuality: Jaggedness, Context, and Pathways.

The first principle: Jaggedness

Rose writes that the Jaggedness Principle “holds that we cannot apply one dimensional thinking to understand something that is complex and ‘jagged.’” He explains, “almost every human characteristic that we care about..is jagged.” In school, this means that a student’s performance in one subject area, such as algebra, does not correlate to his performance in another, such as foreign languages. No single measure captures an individual’s varied strengths.

The jagged nature of individuals’ characteristics complicates the traditional approach of confining writing instruction to ELA classes. We cannot assume that an ability to write in an English class will transfer to other contexts. When planning curriculum, we need to create opportunities for students to develop their writing skills across multiple genres—narrative, argumentative, informative, analytical—and over varied subjects from math to social studies. By customizing writing assignments for subject areas, we create more opportunities for students to develop skills and succeed.

The second principle: Context

Rose’s next Principle of Individuality, Context, states that an individual’s “behavior is not determined by traits or the situation, but emerges out of the unique interaction between the two.” Rose cautions against making generalizations about an individual’s “average tendencies.” Rather, he recommends thinking about people in terms of their behavior in a particular situation or environment.

In writing instruction, context comes into play whenever feedback is offered. To begin, feedback should be personalized to the individual student. When giving feedback, consider the student holistically. Ask yourself: How has the student’s writing improved in this subject area and genre? What is the student doing well? How does she respond to constructive feedback? What is happening in her life outside of school that may affect her writing performance in this class?

In order for feedback to be effective, it must also must pertain to the context (genre and subject area) of the writing assignment. Feedback that’s appropriate for the narrative genre, such as how well a character is developed, will not pertain—or make sense—when applied to an informative writing assignment for a science class.

Feedback that is tailored to the student, task, and context is both an essential component of personalizing writing instruction and one of top instructional strategies for improving student achievement.

The third principle: Pathways

The third and final Principle of Individuality is the Pathways Principle. Rose writes, “This principle makes two important affirmations. First, in all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and, second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.”

The Pathways Principle tells us that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to learning to write. Instead, we need to explore writing instruction methods that cater to student voice and choice, such as writing workshops and student-led conferences. The challenge lies in providing standards-based definitions of writing excellence and determining the diverse paths and goals related to these definitions.

Teachers agree. Scott Rosenkranz, English Curriculum Coordinator for Southern California’s Fullerton Joint Unified High School District, says that when writing goals aren’t clear, students can feel lost. Many students “don’t know what they’re supposed to be learning and they kind of feel like being a good writer is some talismanic thing that is unclear to them,” he explains.

Define the learning path

To combat this confusion and help students define their learning paths, Rosenkranz uses pre-writing activities that promote goal-setting, metacognition, and agency.

  • Start with the rubric. To begin the pre-writing process, Rosenkranz breaks down rubric criteria. Take, for example, Revision Assistant’s narrative rubric, which describes an “advanced” language and tone score as using descriptive words, and sensory and figurative language to create distinct imagery and clearly convey setting, characters, and feelings.
  • Design lessons. He then extracts four of five goals from this criteria and designs lessons and activities around them. In this case, one goal could be improving the use of descriptive words, sensory language, and figurative language.
  • Personalize goals. To personalize this goal, a student may reflect on his own writing and set the individual goal of using more active verbs. This student would then brainstorm active verbs, write example sentences using those verbs, and share some sentences with the class. “I give them feedback during that process,” Rosenkranz explains, “and then I let them write.”

Rose’s Principles of Individuality are ideally applied to a district- or school-wide personalized learning vision and implementation. However, as indicated in the above strategies, they can have positive impacts at the classroom level as well. To teach today’s students to be the writers of tomorrow, we must first and foremost appreciate the individuality of each student. Only then can we conceive of writing instruction practices that will prepare students to be able to write about whatever comes their way.

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