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Week 3 - Writing to Learn

For me, one of the most powerful shifts that I made as both a writer and as a teacher of writing is when I began to think about writing to learn, writing as a tool for learning, rather than just as a product of my learning.  

Once I did so, I was freed to use writing as a tool for exploration and thinking and wondering and all sorts of stuff that I didn't think the papers I nanded in as a student were allowed to be.  That idea changed me.

Here's a fine and short definition of writing to learn provided by Colorado State University's Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Clearninghouse.  Better yet, here's a short list of writing to learn activities.  (There's plenty more of interest in the WAC Clearninghouse.  Feel free to wander around.)

Let's talk a bit about how you encourage writing to learn in your classrooms.  Maybe you've never thought about this before.  Perhaps you always do.  But in the comments to this post, let's chat about how you are responding to the idea of writing to learn.

Task Discussion

  • firstgradeteacher   Oct. 29, 2011, 11:52 a.m.

    I love writing to learn. I don't remember doing it in school but I do it for myself whenever I'm learning something that may be confusing or challenging. I also like to write about decisions I need to make. Somehow putting things down on paper takes some of the emotion out of decisions--it allows me to focus on the facts. In my first grade class, I have a small group of students who can read very well. We are going to try reading journals with them and a small chapter book. I am hopeful it will work well. They are accustomed to writing daily although a lot of it is done together. I love the comment about how writing is a conversation on paper. That is a wonderful point of view. The children do need to feel safe in order to write. At the beginning of the school year, most first graders cannot spell many words. I tell them that spelling isn't important but it takes time for them to believe me (and to convince their parents that they are learning even though we are not focusing on spelling). It is a wonderful feeling when the class will just get busy writing without worry.

  • Susan   Oct. 31, 2011, 4:30 p.m.
    In Reply To:   firstgradeteacher   Oct. 29, 2011, 11:52 a.m.

    Such a truth: putting things down on paper takes some of the emotion out of decisions. I've found my head can get spinning around all kinds of thoughts/feelings. The act of writing clarifies this for me.

  • Fred Haas   Oct. 26, 2011, 7:57 p.m.

    After my delayed entry into teaching, I remember starting as a student teacher in the Chicago suburbs and being a bit taken aback at just how bad most student writing was. This was probably a seminal moment that would lead me to the National Writing Project, among others. Still, I was about two weeks into my new career when I discovered how much important and critical writing instruction would be in my practice. This was a few years before I even realized there was a Writing Project.

    I reference this because it was at that moment that I started diving deeply into a lot of texts about writing. I read Elbow and some Murray and began to swim in a whole new field that I hadn't really known a lot about earlier. I think that was the first time I ever had any genuine explicit exposure to writing to learn as a concept. Honestly, I am not sure that I would have even understood it completely prior to having worked in the creative and corporate worlds, prior to teaching. Having to do a lot of writing for an array of specific purposes, coupled with my discovery as a student teacher kind of carved a path for me to the concept. Then in my first year as a teacher I met Jim McDermott, former co-director of the defunct Central Massachusetts Writing Project and now member of the Massachusetts Board of Education.

    "Writing is a mind traveling, destination unknown," said the wise, veteran McDermott. Those words still ring like a clarion call in my head. In only two days spent learning from that individual, the foundation of my approach to teaching writing began to cure. The concept of writing to learn became a keystone, at least I hope so.

  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:31 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Fred Haas   Oct. 26, 2011, 7:57 p.m.

    Speaking of Jim McDermott and Common Core, he was the keynote speaker at our recent Western Mass Writing Project event in which our theme was "Uncommon Teachers and the Common Core" and his talk (I videotaped it) is posted at our homepage.

    His topic was about how teachers need to break the mold sometimes in order to reach kids where they are even as administrators try to set up rigid systems of instruction and about how teachers need to be open to new possibilities. His talk had a mix of humor and insight and passion -- all of which is no surprise when it comes to Jim.


  • Susan   Oct. 27, 2011, 8:36 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:31 a.m.

    Thanks for posting this, Kevin. I needed to watch this today. Jim is certainly inspiring--and his talk should be seen by all teachers. He says: People who have learned how to become "fake writers" "fake thinkers" --wow. So much to think about here.

  • Fred Haas   Oct. 27, 2011, 10:56 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:31 a.m.

    Awesome. Thanks, Kevin.

    Jim is definitely one of those Yoda-like figures to me. I wish I had a lot more contact with him. Even though I only cross paths with him occasionally, he has had a huge influence on my thinking and practice as a teacher. He is one of those few benchmark individuals, by which I measure my teaching. I hope to be that good one day.



  • Joe Dillon   Oct. 27, 2011, 11:48 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:31 a.m.



    Thanks for passing sharing the video. It got me thinking about writing instruction and the student writers who depend on us to weather the changes on the horizon in education with their interests always in the foreground.


    McDermott cites a writing teacher at the University of Toronto who claims that more than 95% of his students have a negative perception of themselves as writers and a negative perception of writing in schools. These are college bound students, so we can assume that they generally had at least a small amount of success in high school.

    When I work with early elementary teachers, they generally have a desire to celebrate the writing students do daily. This generality I make about early grade teachers held true when my wife and I attended Back to School Night for my daughter's kindergarten class. Her kindergarten teacher, a 33 year veteran, instructed the crowd of parents to respond positively to all of their childrens' writing. She warned that we would see a range of developmentally appropriate errors- wild errors- and told us to applaud them all.  I know that many of the secondary teachers I work with don't feel as protective of their students' efforts, worrying perhaps that students will be ill-prepared for the next grade, class or assignment. There is clearly a connection between teacher responses to student writing and the perceptions of students about writing.    

    When McDermott says writing project teachers are uncommon, writing project teachers have to consider what makes us uncommon. Is it the shared experience of writing, and then reading our writing, for weeks on end in institutes and workshops? We have all had the uncommon opportunity to listen to teachers share, prefacing their reading with, "This isn't very good, but I'll read it..." Then we had the uncommon opportunity to respond in that fragile moment.

    Maybe writing project teachers are uncommon because we somehow represent the 5% of students in the University of Toronto classroom who have a positive perception of writing, and we refuse to accept a negative perception of ourselves as writers.
  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 29, 2011, 1:12 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Joe Dillon   Oct. 27, 2011, 11:48 a.m.

    Good points, Joe.

    Maybe we can hijak the "I am one of the 99 Percent" from the Occupy Movement to say "I am one of the Uncommon 5 Percent."



  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 29, 2011, 1:14 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Fred Haas   Oct. 27, 2011, 10:56 a.m.

    I edited out his quote of "Good, writing is."



  • Cindy Minnich   Oct. 25, 2011, 11:01 p.m.

    (I am clearly having tech issues since Sunday because I have drafted various versions of this over and over and NONE of them have posted. Between internet connections lost and being logged out...)

    Writing to learn is my favorite kind of writing in my classroom.

    It allows us to flesh out what we think before we discuss.

    It allows us to make connections and experiment with ideas.

    It allows us to preserve our thinking for later reference - the truths, the misconceptions, and everything in between.

    It allows us to have a source of our thinking, our ideas, our brilliant (or not-so-brilliant) insights to mine for later more-formal writing.

    It offers us these brief glimpses of serendipitous insight that we might not otherwise get if we hadn't slowed down to just think.

    It allows us to remember.

    So many opportunities arise for us in my classroom to address what doesn't make sense, to share what does, and to add details the rest of us hadn't thought of yet by doing this in just a few minutes of class each day. It's not threatening. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be.

    I have had the opportunity to hang out in a colleague's class over the past weeks every afternoon at the beginning of my prep period (so she can make a run to deal with more pressing issues for a few minutes...). It's another 9th grade class so I know all of the students. Vicki has been beginning her class with a "bellringer" question that gets them writing every. single. day.

    It's a thing of beauty.

    Sometimes they are writing about their impressions of the video they were watching.

    Sometimes they are writing about a concept that was introduced the day before.

    Sometimes they are writing to gather what they know about a concept they are about to study.

    They are usually more than happy to share their answers. And that opportunity for sharing, in and of itself, is motivating. (I'm not surprised when they read directly from what they wrote.)

    I think I will try to use her science class as my subject area to work in. I was a dedicated science student in HS and college (did the whole pre-med program before I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do with my life) - but Earth Science wasn't really my thing so I'll be a  bit out of my comfort zone on this, but I think that is partly the point.

    Maybe I should warn her and her class tomorrow. :)

  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:37 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Cindy Minnich   Oct. 25, 2011, 11:01 p.m.

    Cindy: I like this:

    "It allows us to preserve our thinking for later reference - the truths, the misconceptions, and everything in between."



  • Bud Hunt   Oct. 31, 2011, 11:43 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:37 a.m.

    Last night, I was listening to _Einstein_ and the author recounted when Einstein was reunited with papers he left behind when he left Germany in the early 1930's.  He was deeply moved to rediscover those bits of himself, smuggled out of the country by his stepdaughter, even as he doubted, in jest, that he was the writer of the journals and notebooks he was rediscovering.  It's good to rediscover ourselves like that, I think.  War and smuggling excepted.

  • Paul Oh   Oct. 25, 2011, 7:05 p.m.

    I think of many things in relation to the phrase "writing to learn," such as writing as a way to organize my thoughts or even the famous adage "writing is thinking on paper."

    But I also thought about a story Charlie Moran once told me. Which involved one of his children playing the piano. Charlie said that he once came home while his child was in the middle of a piano lesson and the child was, in his mind, just fooling around, playing nonsense, banging on the keys. Charlie was incensed! He couldn't believe he was paying for this. Charlie spoke to the piano teacher, who explained his methods this way: it did not make sense to always have his students practice as though they were playing at a recital. They also needed to learn through exploration - both to understand the piano AND to understand music.

    Oh, and Charlie was explaining to me how he came to understand the importance of low-stakes writing opportunities for students. (Charlie is a retired English professor at UMass-Amherst and founding director of the W. Mass Writing Project.)


  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:44 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Paul Oh   Oct. 25, 2011, 7:05 p.m.

    Charlie Moran's (and then Bruce Penniman's) ideas around low/medium/high stakes writing really opened my eyes as a second-year teacher about the ways that writing can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes for a variety of audiences.

    And I think I heard that piano story, too ...



  • Paul Oh   Oct. 31, 2011, 4:15 p.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:44 a.m.

    Doesn't surprise me in the least that you heard this one, too, Kevin. :-)

  • Susan   Oct. 25, 2011, 5:24 p.m.

    My students' blogs proved to be the best place for their writing to learn. I asked them to reflect on their nightly reading, sharing whatever they found confusing or inspiring. Or dull. That way they would be ready to talk the next day:) Plus we could project a post fairly easily so the class could respond together.

    They also found vocabulary they found challenging or quotes they particularly liked.

    Our seniors reflect on their senior exhibit throughout the two-year process. I am convinced, It is in the writing that they are able to sift and sort through their thoughts.

  • Shelly   Oct. 25, 2011, 7:25 a.m.

    I make a connection to writing to learn because it makes thinking visible (and therefore, my job easier).  It is the same as looking at a young learner's writing.  What they show in writing is what they notice in reading.  When I look at it this way, it seems much less daunting!

  • Joe Dillon   Oct. 24, 2011, 10:43 p.m.

    In my middle school writing workshop, I have students perform timed writings, sometimes using the freewrite prompts from Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind, the book where I found the timed writing idea. The students become accostomed to freewriting with the goal of generating ideas and experimenting with writer's craft ideas. After students are comfortable with trying to write a lot in ten minutes without concern for editing, I find that they are able to apply that skill to writing self-assessments, reflections and exit slips. They try to get a great deal about a concept or topic down on paper when I ask. By collecting informal writing with greater length, I can better assess what students are learning and what questions they still have. 

  • Bud Hunt   Oct. 25, 2011, 12:15 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Joe Dillon   Oct. 24, 2011, 10:43 p.m.



      How much of what you ask your students to write do you collect?  I always wondered how much I needed to have in my possession versus how much writing we did together.  Seemed like I always collected too much.  I'd be curious about your process of collection and assessment.

  • Joe Dillon   Oct. 25, 2011, 5:20 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Bud Hunt   Oct. 25, 2011, 12:15 a.m.

    I tried not to collect or keep too much, instead showing the students how the writing would be helpful for larger projects, or how their writing would prepare them for a discussion the next day. In general, I'm a big believer in asking the students to write more while I try to grade less- an idea that resonated with me from the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students, by Robyn Jackson.

    Generally, since I always used a writing workshop model, I collected student draft books at a rate of about 5-6 a day in class and tried to respond to student work on sticky notes and keep formative records of their progress toward a standard or progress within a project. After I got daily netbook access for students through a grant, some of the notebook writing moved off the paper and onto a Moodle site or the class wiki. I still tried to provide written feedback to each student once a week, which wouldn't have been enough if I wasn't providing strong verbal feedback and examples of strong student work daily. 

  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:47 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Joe Dillon   Oct. 25, 2011, 5:20 p.m.

    One of the advantages of a shift (like my district) into standards-based reporting is that not everything has to be graded and counted. So, as you say, Joe, that opens the door for more variety in writing as some pieces float to the top to become the writing I do look at. But there is plenty of student writing I glance at, help with but never ever grade.

    What I find important is setting that tone of "we will be writing" early in the year -- the first days of the school year. This establishes in their mind that they will be writers, not just students. This perception shift is important, I think.


  • Joe Dillon   Oct. 27, 2011, 9:17 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:47 a.m.


    I agree with you about the importance of establishing a tone that writing is a part of the daily work. Early in the year, I show a small stack of my notebooks and explain how a lot of the writing I've done was informal work that I forced myself to do in order to get to ideas and writing that I liked. To press the same point, I read essays by authors about their own writing processes that explain their rationale for writing on a schedule and describe helpful excercises they come back to in their work.

    Still, when students write to learn regularly in the classroom, there is the sticky consequence of all that student writing that accumulates, a mountain of exit slips- half-sheets of paper covered in the hurried scrawl of 7th graders who want to get to lunch, or rambling reflections crowding comp books. Part of setting a constructive, positive tone means being prepared to respond positively and constructively to informal student writing without feeling that you must respond to every student response. 

  • Paul Oh   Oct. 31, 2011, 4:20 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Joe Dillon   Oct. 27, 2011, 9:17 a.m.

    I was very much struck by this sentence from your post, Joe:

    Part of setting a constructive, positive tone means being prepared to respond positively and constructively to informal student writing without feeling that you must respond to every student response.

    That has always seemed like a concept teachers struggle to negotiate for themselves and feel comfortable with; and likewise something that students need to feel comfortable with - that they're not writing for a response from the teacher, but for other, perhaps more authentic, purposes.

  • Amanda   Oct. 24, 2011, 1:25 p.m.

    The idea of writing to learn was also difficult for me to wrap my brain around at first.  Writing used to be a "finished product" for me rather than a process or a journey.  I try as much as I can to reinforce to my students that writing is a conversation on paper, something that is able to evolve over time.  Students should realize that their writing isn't always the answer to a question, but the place to find the questions.   I really like some of the examples on the WAC page for writing to learn activities.  The "Believing and Doubting Game" would be really useful in brainstorming ideas for debates and position papers. 

  • Bud Hunt   Oct. 25, 2011, 12:13 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Amanda   Oct. 24, 2011, 1:25 p.m.

    The Believing and Doubting Game comes from the work of Peter Elbow.  As I've been in a big research project lately, Elbow's work has been heavily in my mind.  I particularly am struck by his notion that, as a writing teacher, the best feedback he could give to his students was to respond not as an evaluator, but as a reader.

    I wonder if that would be a useful way for us to think, too, Amanda, about your beautiful phrase - "writing is a conversation on paper, something that is able to evolve over time."  That's a fine way to think of it.

  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 24, 2011, 5:30 a.m.

    Writing to Learn:

    It's funny but I never really even thought about this concept until I jumped into the Writing Project and then saw that much of what I was doing as a writer was making sense of the world through my writing. That's when this switch went on and I began to see that more clearly as a tool in my own classroom. My students use low stakes writing to process what they know and what they have learned, and as a way to get us started before we start talking.

    I think, in terms of the literacy across the content areas, this kind of writing to process knowledge could be very valuable in the other disciplines. Instead of shouting out questions and seeing the same hands being raised, it might be better to give time for the ideas to sink in and time for even the slow processors to reflect. Then, ask the question and spark a discussion.


  • Bud Hunt   Oct. 25, 2011, 12:09 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 24, 2011, 5:30 a.m.

    I've often found it difficult to convince other people of what you and I know to be true of writing, Kevin.  I wonder about writing to learn as teachers.  In some of my professional development work, we've made writing together a habit.  And it took a year into the work for folks to begin to see the time writing was important - treasured, almost.  It worries me that it takes a year for that habit to develop for teachers.

    And then I get excited.  Maybe real reform is as simple as asking people to write together for a while. 

  • Deb   Oct. 25, 2011, 8:51 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Bud Hunt   Oct. 25, 2011, 12:09 a.m.


    "Writing together" seems to capture the idea of WtL. That's what gives this kind of writing its importance, potential, and context. The conversation of teacher and learner and learner who becomes teacher and teacher who becomes learner.

    Are exit slips writing to learn? Or are Post its that you write on your own then organize with others' notes and circle the similar concepts? Is Get the Gist when you summarize a part of a reading in, say, 10 words as a collaborative group of readers and writers? 

    Can we expand WtL to include poems and short stories, too, or must writing to learn be utilitarian and unpolished?  Is it defined by the purpose and context?

    Whatever the form,  I can see that this kind of writing (when it works as it does here) gives us permission to write a line or a few paragraphs, to respond to others' ideas or to share a recent insight, to question, and to do all of the things that we do when we speak, but when we write our words down, we can revisit them, re-use them, or throw it out and start over. 

    Speech (everyday) disappears into the ether, but written words are our transient, profound, foolish, creative thoughts become visible.

    As we compose, we have our Vygotskian inner speech, and when we publish as we do here, we invite dialogue and trialogue, and then we can listen and talk and finally return to inner ruminations.

    This class continues to bring me back to fundamentals--of learning, of writing, of humanity--create a place that is comfortable for people to interact and begin to exchange ideas. 

    In that space made safe, we all learn more than we could have learned on our own about thinking, about our craft and our world, and about ourselves.

    Our work--Adrienne Rich calls it helping our students  become "released into language."   Through writing they begin to use and to understand the power of language,

    What an essential and important job teachers have even when the writing and the words are pragmatic and fragmentary.



  • Susan   Oct. 26, 2011, 9:40 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Deb   Oct. 25, 2011, 8:51 p.m.

    Gosh, Deb, I am still thinking about your comment here. This line, in particular, speaks to me:

    In that space made safe, we all learn more than we could have learned on our own about thinking, about our craft and our world, and about ourselves.

    In many classrooms and in many places, writing is not a safe activity. Yet it is essential in Writing to Learn, isn't it? Creating that classroom climate that says "do" and "be" in a shielded environment, where it is ok to be vulnerable, allows us to grow and learn. It's mostly about trust, isn't it?

  • Deb   Oct. 26, 2011, 7:37 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Susan   Oct. 26, 2011, 9:40 a.m.


    I am struck by what we are building here and by what Kevin and Bud do to invite everyone in. And from their demeanor, we all at first timidly begin, but as time goes on, can join in with more confidence.

    It's a relationship or a space that continues to develop over time (just like a classroom) and it has a predictable way of behaving with one another.  Yes, Susan, that's it exactly, with the ability to trust that you'll be respected and heard and invited in.  

    It's just like Maslow's pyramid with safety first. Then, we can build to higher and higher levels of human culture and actualization.'s_hierarchy_of_needs:  Safety, then belonging, then self-esteem, then perhaps even self-actualization.

    Yesterday, one of the wonderful English teachers that I work with showed me what she was doing with her students on her newest internet space on, a private space like Facebook. She said that the students had started to talk to one another and pointed out a conversation between a very outspoken junior boy and a somewhat quiet girl, but on line, the girl had disagreed, and on line, the boy had listened and had reconsidered and modified his statement and then others joined in.  She said that face-to-face, the immediacy of who they are may speak so loudly that students just respond to the externals of gender and social group, but on line, this teacher is helping them to have a thoughtful dialogue and to learn from one another. 

    She makes her classroom as safe as this space is. By the end of the year, students produce skits and plays, satires and analyses.  The course is American Studies and when half of the students went to New Orleans on a community service trip and the others stayed back, she created a unit in which all (on the return) presented who they were as Americans.  The principals and assistants and some parents sat in to hear these presentations as students demonstrated how they participated in their world; from cleaning houses in New Orleans, to giving violin lessons, they told their moving stories--every one of them.

    I think that teaching literacy (English included, and maybe teaching any content area) well requires a philosophical stance that includes respect for all as well as tolerance for one another's variations.  Without that stance, students learn some things, but I don't think they can get to self-actualization.

    Just as you say, Creating that classroom climate that says "do" and "be" in a shielded environment where it is ok to be vulnerable....allows us to grow and learn. 

    Here, too. I am learning so much.




  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:40 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Deb   Oct. 26, 2011, 7:37 p.m.

    There is much to be said about "curating" an online space for interaction that allows many voices to flow, and how to set a tone for discussions and debate and connections. It's not enough just to set up a space and say, "go at it." As your example shows, the nurturing aspect takes time and that vulnerability as a writer .. that's difficult for a lot of our students.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas here, Deb.


  • KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:42 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Bud Hunt   Oct. 25, 2011, 12:09 a.m.

    I know this course is not an advertisement for the writing project, but one of the elements that always hooks me is that we always writer. Even at leadership meetings, we begin by writing our way into the meeting. What if more staff meetings started like that? And I agree -- it does take time for that habit to settle in.


  • Bud Hunt   Oct. 31, 2011, 11:45 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:42 a.m.

    I start lots of courses with writing - and it's still hard.  Hard for me to set that mood of quiet contemplation, hard for folks to settle into the words, hard for some even to know what to write down.

    It's worth doing, though.  The NWP's certainly taught me that.  

  • Susan   Oct. 31, 2011, 1:57 p.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   Oct. 27, 2011, 5:42 a.m.

    I really love this idea, Kevin. I wonder how long it would take people to get used to it? I'm on the Vestry at our church, and we started doing contemplative prayer at the beginning of our meetings. At first, I was frustrated. I wanted things to start happening, move along. Now, though, several months into it, I look forward to my meditation time, my quiet time before the start of the agenda. Writing before school staff meetings just might center us and prepare us for whatever discussions might come up.