Write With Them and Beside Them

This past week I attended a meeting at lunch for all teachers in my school that are functioning this year as supervisors for students who are writing Extended Essays. The Extended Essay is a ~4,000 word research paper that all students must write who are completing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Students research and write about a topic within a subject that is nested within the six subject groups of Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, the Sciences, Mathematics, and the Arts. The writing process takes from February of one year to February of the next year and spans a student’s junior and senior years.

During the meeting, a veteran teacher in the group spoke up, “I don’t know about you guys, but this is the worst group of extended essays I’ve ever seen.” The teacher continued, “Haven’t the rest of you seen a decline in the quality of student writing over the last few years? It’s like they don’t care anymore—they’re just playing the game.”

The teacher suggested that a way to fix the problem was to have student grades in their IB Theory of Knowledge course linked to their extended essays. The teacher argued that adding a school course grade would make the students care more about their writing.

No other teachers in the group spoke up. Perhaps it was because they didn’t agree that the student quality of writing had indeed declined, they disagreed with the proposed method to fix the problem, or they were anxious to end the meeting. I also did not speak up.

I am now.

I have supervised 28 students on their extended essays over the last five years. Each year I have students who take the process seriously, work hard on their research, and respond carefully to my questions and comments. I also have students who struggle with writing, research, and with the motivation to complete the process with a high quality effort. I see my role as their supervisor as that of writing coach, someone to challenge them and ask questions and to take the journey with them. But I have not noticed an overall decline in quality and effort over the years.

My Language Arts Teacher wife, Sarah (who also blogs about teaching and writing at The Paper Graders), and I discussed the extended essay and student writing in general that afternoon on a long walk with the dog—she is currently working on a book that, in large part, describes the workshop model she uses in her classroom for student reading and writing. Briefly, in Sarah’s workshop model, students revise and revise and revise their writing until they have learned what they can from the writing piece. Along the way, she gives them feedback, they talk in class about books, they work in writing groups, they use writer’s notebooks, they blog, and they have rolling deadlines. Ultimately, they all work toward an end goal of seeing themselves as readers and writers.

I teach a course called Science Research Seminar where, Sarah tells me, I use a modification of the workshop model. The ultimate goal for students in the course is to design and execute an independent research project that they present at our regional science and engineering fair. Beyond the fair, students present their work in the form of a Power Point talk at a school district symposium and write a manuscript following the Instructions to Authors for a technical journal of their choice. Along the way, students

  • practice presenting published research papers to the class and we as a class help them work on their presentation skills and science literacy,
  • analyze real data with statistics and practice writing what might function as a results section in a technical paper,
  • write a heavily cited research proposal for their independent project,
  • present their proposal as a Power Point talk to the class, and
  • practice presenting their results and conclusions to the class.

I constantly remind the students that my ultimate goal for them is not that they win awards at the competitive science competitions, but that they develop an understanding of how science works and how to effectively communicate science by actually doing it themselves and seeing themselves as part of the scientific community.

Part of the workshop model involves moving away from the traditional culture of grading. For the first time this year, and at the encouragement of Sarah, I have stopped attaching a number score or letter grade to the work students do in my class. They revise and revise and revise as I as coach, and their peers give them feedback on their written and verbal communication of science. The quality of student work is varied, but overall is soaring and their effort is outstanding. Ultimately I do have to give them a grade because the letter grade is still the model used by the school and district. The grade comes after a discussion with each student about their progress as we hit each arbitrary deadline called the end of the semester.

The morning after our walk, I reaped one of the many benefits of being married to a professional English teacher. Sarah read to me from a book she has been reading at breakfast each morning. The book is Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle.

“I have to admit that when I first began teaching, my stance was one of chief informant. As an English major, I was in the classroom because I knew things about language and literature that the students ought to learn. Unfortunately, that’s why I went into teaching—to inform my students about what they ought to know. In those early teaching years I did a lot of informing but very little teaching. I was too busy railing against the students who “didn’t get it.”

“But sound teaching means that we show children how to do things through our own demonstrations of learning. Listening to our students helps us to see the inner mechanisms of their learning. Of course, by revealing their learning their construct of students, we allow them to see themselves as learners.”

The teacher in my extended essay meeting was “railing against the students who ‘didn’t get it.’”

Perhaps we need to reimagine our roles as teachers in general. For me, that means to reimagine myself as a science teacher. If I am expecting my students to learn science content, then I should learn science content with them. If I am expecting my students to do science, then I should do science with them. If I am expecting my students to communicate science in writing, then I should write with them.

I chuckled as I wrote that last sentence because sitting on the office desk where I am writing at this moment is Penny Kittle’s 2008 book, Write Beside Them. The book belongs to Sarah and I am trying this year more than ever to let myself be influenced by what she knows about teaching and what she does in her classroom.

Perhaps I should start reading what Sarah reads.

Office Desk

I haven’t read Kittle’s book (one of many she has written), but I did just take the time to read chapter two, “This I Believe,” which is complete with underlining and annotating by Sarah. As a scientist and science teacher, I bristled a bit at the title of this chapter. I don’t think Penny Kittle believes at all what she writes in this chapter. Indeed, in my world of science, a belief is a claim of truth with no evidence. No, Penny Kittle knows what she describes in this chapter to be true, as well as the entire book, and she backs it up with an evidence-based argument.

In my brief read of this one chapter, what Penny Kittle helped me realize (and what Sarah would rightfully argue she has been telling me for years) is that all teachers, regardless of content, are teachers of writing, just different kinds of writing. For example, in my science classes, I mostly teach technical writing. In chapter two, Kittle summarizes her ideas by arguing that in addition to having our students read the products of other writers—scientific papers, in my case— we must show them what the process of writing looks like. Kittle writes that early in her career, “My teaching was all tell, no show.” As Kittle reveals her epiphany to us, she makes these four statements that particularly resonated with me:

  • “[T]he only way I’m going to be able to teach writing tomorrow is because I did it today.”
  • “[R]eading this book is a waste of your time if you aren’t going to write as well: Important things aren’t going to change in your classroom until you do.”
  • [Y]ou can’t tell kids how to write; you have to show them what writers do.”
  • “[Y]ou have to be a writer, no matter how stumbling and unformed that process is for you; it’s essential to your work as a teacher of writing.”

I don’t think of myself as a terribly sophisticated teacher. Indeed, I often feel like an impostor in my own classroom—I’ve even written about it here in this blog. However, I am committed to improving my teaching of content and my teaching of writing and I have been trying to move toward more show and less tell. Fortunately, I have taken my time (actually, not had the time!) to publish the chapters from my dissertation on the effects of climate change on the forest tree-caterpillar-bird community during spring migration in the Midwest. One dissertation chapter was published in 2003, another in 2009, and a third just last month. Each paper has taken from two to five years to publish. I have also recently had a manuscript on teaching the hypothesis accepted for publication by The American Biology Teacher. I have shared the process of this writing with my students in all my classes, including rejection letters, acceptance letters, and voluminous, challenging, and frustrating comments and suggestions from reviewers. I also share this blog with my students and my colleagues as part of my teacher effectiveness growth goals. I am attempting to write beside them and with them.

As my thoughts now come back to the IB extended essay, a 4,000-word research paper, I wonder how many teacher supervisors of the extended essay have written a research paper since they were in school themselves. If indeed the quality of our student writing has fallen in recent years, the solution isn’t to throw up our arms, conclude that they just don’t get it, and bribe them with a grade. The solution is for us to teach writing by showing our students what the process looks like and to join them in the process.

Truly helping our students become the writers they all want to be requires us, the teachers, to expose our own fumblings and insecurities and frustrations as writers to our students. Isn’t that what we are asking them to do?

Literature Cited

Kittle, P. (2008). Write beside them. Risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Newkirk, T., & Kittle, P. (Eds.). (2013). Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Strode, P. K. (2009). Tree species use by a migrant warbler in relation to phenology and food availability. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 121:457-468.

Strode, P. K. (2003). Implications of climate change for North American wood warblers (Parulidae). Global Change Biology 9:1137-1144.

Strode, P. K. (2015). Phenological asynchrony between migrant songbirds and food resources during early springs: initiation of a trophic cascade at a stopover site. In E. M. Wood and J. L. Kellermann (editors). Phenological synchrony and bird migration: changing climate and seasonal resources in North America. Studies in Avian Biology, 47, 97-116.

Strode, P. K. 2015. Teaching scientific methodology, starting with the hypothesis. In revision. American Biology Teacher.


  1. There are more books on the desk for you to read now: The Essential Don Murray, Read Write Teach (Linda Rief), and That Workshop Book. Also a book I just got about (not) grading (The Power of ICU).

    By the way, moving away from traditional grading is not a typical articulated stance of workshop, but I am working on a book chapter that argues that it must be. I’ve had more luck getting students to focus on the writing and reading if I can deflect their gaze from the grade. Read this: http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/


  2. I love your positivism (is that word?, it is now, my students would reply. Really like the stumbling and trials indicated by your 4th bullet point. Every day I sit down and try to write about gene expression for teachers, I realize I don’t quite know how to articulate what I know.

    Something to consider…as we get more immersed in science, our language changes and our a approach to ideas and facts also changes. I see this occurring in my classroom, and I heard echos of my thinking while listening to Carl Zimmer last night. I’m not suggesting I’m on his level, but he, you, and I do the same thing…deconstruct complex ideas for lay people. Our layity just happen to be teenagers.
    In closing, the EE marks will be their own reward…it will help them earn the diploma or not. I don’t think it needs a grade. I try to inspie an coach intrinsic motivation. I also model it. I’m not a gambler, but I bet you start your conversations with a question like this, “What are you interested in?” I’m interested in continuing this converation with you.


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