Students CAN Write
Changing the Narrative of a Deficit Model
Kevin English: Wayne Memorial High School - Wayne, Michigan
Kirsten Melise LeBlanc: St. Paul Catholic School - Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan
Beth Shaum: St. Frances Cabrini Middle School - Allen Park, Michigan
Jessica Winck - University of Louisville, Kentucky
Students can’t write because…
In the 1970s and 1980s:
...they’re spending too much time watching TV
In the 1990s and 2000s:
…. they’re spending too much time online
In the 2000s and 2010s:
… they’re texting and tweeting too much
Students can’t write. Says who?
Teachers who don’t write
And who says what counts?
for writing do
ability to write.
The Need for Data
Students have to write a lot before
we know what they can do.
“Any one-shot assessment procedure cannot capture the
depth and breadth of information teachers have available to
them. Even when a widely used, commercial test is
administered, teachers must draw upon the full range of
their knowledge about content and individual students to
make sense of the limited information such a test provides.”
-NCTE’s Standards for the Assessment of Reading and
This is Just to Say I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
- William Carlos Williams
Lonely With Many
I sit in this laundry hamper all day.
Trying to find my one true match.
Searching through other lost souls
Who can’t find their way either.
I see white all around,
And the smell of Clorox lingers in the air.
Below me, the rolling hum of the tumble dryer
Makes me feel anxious to see
If my match will come out;
The only way I can catch a ride,
Is by a hand that reaches in.
Everyday I see all of my friends
Get pulled up by the hand and
As I sleep in my smushy
Suddenly I am swept off of
I come up into the air by the
Change our mindset…
We can obsess over what our students are doing
wrong, which is an exercise in futility because
developing writers will ALWAYS make mistakes…
… or we can focus on what our students do well
as an entrypoint for helping them improve.
“...good sixth grade writing may
have more errors per word than
good third grade writing. In a
Piagetian sense, children do not
master things for once and for all.
A child who may appear to have
mastered sentence sense in the
fourth grade may suddenly begin
making what adults call sentence
errors all over again as he
attempts to accommodate his
knowledge of sentences to more
complicated constructions.” -
Roger McCaig (1977)
“... it is not unusual
acquiring a skill to
get ‘worse’ before
they get better and
for writers to err
more as they
venture more.” -
“But they have to know the rules before they can
How do our beliefs about writing influence the work
How we spend our time matters. If we only show
students one genre of writing, i.e., the five-paragraph
essay, then that’s all we can ever
expect. There’s more to writing!
Subversion… it’s a Good Thing
Dear Big Fish from This is Not My Hat,
You are a mean-spirited and evil fish! The little fish did you a favor buddy. The hat you were
wearing was way too small for you. How could you be so mean to Little Fish after you saw how
cute he swam? He was adorable and you, I can't even talk to you right now...
You ate Little Fish! Have you no soul man! All Little Fish wanted to do was to look snazzy with a hat
(that fit properly). Yes, I'll admit it was wrong of Little Fish to steal it, but it was worse of you to eat
him! Now Big Fish, you sit down and think about what you have done.
Please don't get me started about that crab...
- Zoe, 8th grader (2012-2013)
Same writing, different students
“I’ve read the same thing
I’ve yet to read a five-paragraph essay that gave
Are we giving students:
● enough time to really
commit to a piece of
● a long enough leash to
wrestle with their own
“I need more
time to write
because I often
packets due in
Nurturing an identity as writer
“Some people listen to music. I write. I feel
like there is always someone listening. I can
be as blunt as I want to be.”
Sacred Writing Time
“There must be
time for the seed of
the idea to be
nurtured in the
mind.” -Don Murray
1. Write the entire
2. Ignore your
3. Have fun!
"I just need to write today."
When a football player asks for time to
write, you know you’re doing something
“I was never pushed out of my comfort
zone in this class. It actually made me feel
like I was a part of something. … Seeing
others happy to read made me think that
I could get excited and start to read on a
● Have you thought about...?
● I wonder what it would look like if...?
● Think about WHEN you give feedback, not
just what that feedback is
○ is a final draft really the best time?
The role of feedback
I wrote all those comments, and students
just ignored them!
The role of feedback
Recently a student
wrote, “I know I
should read your
that’s another thing
that can help me, but
I’m too scared to do
Mockery is a type of feedback.
“How many students would be thick-skinned
enough to laugh along as an instructor and
colleagues used his or her mistakes as a pretext to
lament the state of Western civilization?”
-Phoebe Maltz Bovy, “When Teachers Talk about Their Students on
Students are writers in the room, too!
They know what they need!
“I need to know what other words I could
use except ‘he said’ and ‘she said.’ I need
more descriptive words.”
“I’m not sure how to end it, or even how to
lead to the end. Does it need dialogue?”
And they know how to help!
“Other people like my work,
but they said I needed
more details about Chuck
and if he got in trouble by
“My peers wanted me to
explain more about Danny.
I only mentioned his name.”
“People seemed to like
how I played with
colors… but they also
said I need to go
deeper into her goals
Write Beside Them
What we discover when
we write with our
students is that this
writing thing is HARD...
… and we begin to show
a little empathy toward
our students’ plight.
Write Beside Them
"For years I had expected
my students to go on
swimming without me
while I barked orders from
my chaise lounge." -
Visit the EMWP website:
A place to
“Writing is how we think our
way into a subject and make it
~ William Zinsser
Students Can’t Write in Math...
● Writing has no place in the math
● Elementary students are too young to
express their thoughts in writing.
● It’s too hard.
“If I can think about it, I can
talk about it. If I can talk
about it, I can write about it.”
~ Lucy Calkins
In Order to Own the Concept...
Students need to be given time to:
about the concept at hand, in their own words.
Let Me Think About That
Thoughtful reflection is an integral part of the
Let’s Talk Math!
A meaningful discussion leads to in-depth writing.
Write Now...A Window to their Thoughts
Wrap up discussion with written responses.
Allow students to apply, analyze, evaluate
Writing Samples…Direct from a 3rd Grade Math Class
The Progression of Learning
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
~ Benjamin Franklin
“I don’t know.” “I don’t get this.”
“Do you mean…?
“No, wait...I got this…!”
I Got This!
● Created a multistep
● Identified strategies
needed to solve it.
● Broke it down into
● Solved with detailed
● Presented final
answer in a
“There will always be an error, a
refusal, an inadequate paragraph. Student
writing will never be perfect. We live
among the mess. We can choose to
wallow in the doom. Or we can choose
joy.” - Ruth Ayers
Find this presentation on Slideshare
Kevin English - firstname.lastname@example.org
Kirsten Melise LeBlanc - email@example.com
Beth Shaum - firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Winck - email@example.com
Ayres, R., & Overman, C. (2013). Celebrating writers: from possibilities through publication. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.
Bovy, Phoebe Maltz. “When Teachers Talk about Their Students on Facebook.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Magazine, 12 Dec. 2014.
Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
Kittle, P. (2008). Write beside them: risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
McCaig, R.A. (1977). What research and evaluation tell us about teaching written expression in the elementary school. In C.
Weaver and R. Douma (Eds.), The language arts teacher in action (pp. 46-56). Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University.
Distributed by the National Council of Teachers of English.
Shaughnessy, M.P. (1977). Errors and expectations: A guide for the teacher of basic writing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sheils, M. (1975, December 8). Why johnny can't write. Newsweek, p. 58.
Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
Bibliography - Math References
Chapin, S., O’Connor, C. & Anderson, N. (2009). Classroom Discussions Using Math Talk to Help
Students Learn. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions.
Smith, M. & Stein, M. (2011). 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions.
Reston, VA: The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
Van de Walle, J. & Lovin, L. (2006). Teaching Student Centered Mathematics Grades 3-5. Boston,
MA: Pearson Education Inc.
Trade Books Referenced
Gaiman, N., & Young, S. (2013). Fortunately, the milk. New York: Harper.
Levine, G. C. (2012). Forgive me, I meant to do it: false apology poems. New York: Harper.
Lloyd, N. (2014). A snicker of magic. New York: Scholastic.
Winter, J. (2011). The watcher: Jane Goodall's life with the chimps. New York: Schwartz & Wade