Write and Discuss

Influenced by Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden’s book, A Natural Approach to the Year (“ANATTY”), I have started using one of their core practices this year, that is, Write and Discuss (hereafter “w&d”). I think there is quite a bit of confusion over the what, how, and why of w&d. In addition, teachers are using w&d in different ways, especially when it comes to follow-up activities and assessments. I wanted to offer a brief description of the practice as I understand and use it, followed by a brief rationale. This way, teachers can try it out right away in simple terms, and see if it is a good fit in their classroom.

Quite a few years ago, on his PLC blog, Ben Slavic suggested that our classes should be “all frosting.” That notion really resonated with me, because at the time (and even now) I was struggling with my tendency to use engaging, conversational, CI-based activities merely as  a means to the end of getting them “through the chapter material.”

Ben understood this, and he encouraged us to abandon the “cake” altogether and make our classes consist of as much “frosting” as possible. This is because, from the perspective of acquisition, lighthearted, pleasurable interactions  are the most efficient way to get language into the brain. There doesn’t need to be any “getting back to work” after a language-rich interaction. The work has already been done.

That said, most of us teach in traditional school settings, where our classes need to resemble “school,” and so we need to compromise on this at times. Enter Write and Discuss.

Write and Discuss allows teachers to put the frosting into a more  cake-like framework. But the resulting “cake,” rather than a textbook, worksheet or traditional assessment, is the document that we create together, which merely describes all the positive interactions, conversations, etc. that you engaged in with your class during the period. Here’s one simple way to do W&D:

Step 1. Do something with your  class in the target language. This could be anything from creating a story, to reading a passage from a textbook, discussing what students did over the weekend, calendar or weather talk,  perhaps a movie talk, tpr commands and objects in the room.

Step 2. With 10-15 minutes left, tell the class what is going to happen next. “Please get out your notebooks/journals/blank page, etc. We are going to write up what we did/talked about in class today. In order for us to work together on this, I expect you to listen, provide information, answer my questions, and then write down exactly what goes up on the screen.” I have my students write in their weekly packets.

Step 3. Pull up a google docs or similar electronic document on your computer/device, that is projected on a screen or board. You can also use a document camera/overhead projector as you write on a piece of paper, or even use poster paper or your white board (just take a picture of on the whiteboard, as you want to save it). Position yourself so that you can write/type while facing and interacting with your students. If you need to turn the lights down, avoid turning them completely off, so your students will stay engaged. If you are not comfortable typing as you talk, or if your computer is out of the way, you could ask a student volunteer to type for you.

Step 4. Start with the date, day, and other calendar information. If you did calendar talk at the beginning of class, this is even better, because this information will be fresh in their minds, and they can use the calendar on the wall for reference. Then, simply revisit whatever you said or did at the beginning of class, even if it was just roll (“who is absent today?”)

Step 5. Don’t just write, but stop and check in with the class every time you start a new sentence or idea. Ask them what to write next.  Make it clear to your students that you and they are writing this document together. You can still steer the conversation while  asking for their input. As you write, be sure to write using vocabulary that students will understand. Recycle the language and content that you just spent your class working with, and if you have to use a new word, give the definition in parentheses. This is not the time to introduce new language or ideas. You are just summing up what happened in class. Was there a birthday? Did the class sing a song? What are some words in the song? How old is the student? Where were they born? etc. Anything from class is fair game.

Step 6. Re-read as you go. Before you start a new sentence, take a moment to read  aloud from the beginning, and look to your students to make sure they understand, ask some questions, have them translate a word or phrase. If you can get in an extra reading or two each time, that will help ensure comprehension . This is also a chance to check for errors, further modeling the editing process for your students. You may also stop along the way, commenting on transitional phrases, other ways to say the same thing, or any other detail that enriches the language.

Step 7. Make the document available online. This is especially important for absent students. I keep each class’s Write and Discuss paragraphs in a separate document (in Google Docs, one document per section), and share a link to it (read-only) on Google classroom, so students can always access the document, and copy down the text in their weekly packet. This is why I always begin each entry with the date, so that students will know exactly which text they are responsible for. If you hand-write your w&d, there is an extra step of typing it up, or posting a picture, but this is quick, and you could even designate a student to take a snapshot and type it up before next class. This last step builds in accountability, and students have to take this seriously as a core text for the class.

Why do this?

W&D allows you to engage and reflect with your students using ALL FOUR ASPECTS of language simultaneously (reading, writing, speaking, listening), processing relevant and personalized content (classroom discussion based on students’ lives and interests) in the target language, employing and modeling editing strategies to create (high on Bloom’s taxonomy) a collaborative document in the target language that shows rich use of that language, which is fully comprehensible to students. And the product is a tangible, meaningful, comprehensible, and accurate documentation of both the content and language elements that were addressed in class on that day. When you do this,  you have a very detailed document of many of the cool things that happen in your class, which would normally be forgotten. And, the process of creating this document is an enriching thing for your students, from the perspective of language as well as classroom community building (the two are really inseparable).

Often (for me at least) simply talking about stuff in the target language, while it may be the best way to promote student acquisition, is not always taken seriously by students, as compared with more “academic” activities that have structure, a purpose, writing, etc.  Some students will try to check out when they think we are “just talking” in the target language. In addition, administrators may also come away from such a class with this impression, noting things like “teacher-centered classroom” “passive/disengaged students” “lack of rigor,” etc.

Ending class with w&d serves to legitimize whatever casual use of language occurred during class, and puts that content into a framework that is tangible, and can be revisited. For students, this provides some academic accountability. For teachers, the class document can be used to answer critical questions like: “What do you cover on a daily basis?” “How do you implement reading and writing in your classes?” “Billy said that your class doesn’t really do much, and he isn’t sure if he is really learning  anything. Can you provide a concrete example of…?” “What level of reading are your students capable of?”

So much of the magic that happens in a language classroom, is in those fleeting moments when a connection is made, or a joke, or a crazy recognition of something.  This is often the result of spontaneous moments that cannot be manufactured or reproduced, and they are often forgotten by the end of the day . With write and discuss, we can record some of those moments, while the collective memory is still fresh, and add those to the official class narrative. What fun it could be at the end of the year, instead of boring review activities, to read through a year’s worth of these reminders of  more than  just what words or concepts were “covered” but a class’s efforts at using the language to record and remind us of the jokes and birthdays, fire drills, and other random details that really stay with kids.

W and D also provides structure to each class, at the end, when sometimes teachers (and students) are not sure how things will wrap up. Sometimes, if you have a multi-day activity, it may be best to simply work until the bell, but often this is not the case. Having W&D as an exit strategy is a great way to avoid having to extend an activity past its usefulness, just for the sake of time. We’ve all been there. It’s 18 minutes to go during your most challenging class, you’re exausted, and you are thinking “Crap! what are we going to do now?” For most of my years of teaching, I was always worried about how I was going to fill up the whole period, knowing that activities have a way of running out of steam with time left in the period. W&D has the opposite effect, so that now I have to remind myself to stop early, when the energy is still relatively high, which is far more preferable in a room full of adolescents. For more on structuring your days, see this page.

What about block schedule?
David Maust, Latin teacher at California High School in Whittier, CA. just told me that during his 90-min block classes, he will stop and do a few 5-10 minute W&D sessions periodically. This not only breaks up the routine, but allows students to stop, reflect, and absorb what they had been doing for the chunk of the block that they just finished.

For even more structure, I combine this with the weekly packet, so that every day students have a place to write their W&D paragraphs, with built-in accountability, since  they I will be collecting their packets at the end of the week. For a simple take on daily lesson structure, see THIS PAGE

METACOGNITIVE: Personally, I really like to spend some time at the end of my day writing in my journal. It helps me to make sense of whatever happened during the day, as well as my responses to whatever happened. Often I find that the act of reflecting and writing makes me aware of things that I would have simply forgotten otherwise. Then, when I look back over what I have written, I can trace a narrative, see progress, difficulties, and how I attempted to resolve those difficulties.

Write and discuss is a way for me to engage in this process with my classes, and even model this kind of reflection, but in the target language.

Further Reading and Resources for Write and Discuss

Here is a 20 min video of Tina Hargaden doing this with her Spanish class (you can fins other examples on the “CI Liftoff” youtube channel)

Mike Peto describes the process, and includes  a video. In this post, he also shows visually how easily we can use daily routines to “bracket” our lessons.