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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Tour of High-Quality Open Education Resources (OER) for Writing

Did you check out Open Education Week this month? The international event highlighted free lesson plans and materials, searchable by subject, grade and quality. I spent a couple days throwing keywords into OER (open education resources are digital materials freely available through open licenses) search engines to assess the quality of secondary and higher education writing curricula.

About 10% of the lessons and/or courses met my criteria, which meant the writing courses and lessons had to:

  • Be free, permanent and public
  • Support the writing process and involve students in the application of multiple literacies: reading, writing, speaking listening and visualizing
  • Be take-and-bake, with activities intuitive and/or simple enough to teach next period
  • Encourage student inquiry, autonomy and high expectations
  • Prompt me to wonder, "Why didn't I think of that?"

I rejected lessons that were too complicated, too reductive or too traditional. Curriculum that featured hamburger diagrams was rejected with malice. Some of the lessons on my winner list would not technically be considered OER, but were useful and free. Why quibble?

If you are in search of great writing curricula, start with the links in this paragraph; these resources contain abundant, rigorous and delightful (yes, delightful!) writing lessons that are bookmarked by English teachers in the know: Web English, ReadWriteThink, Steve Peha's TTMS.org, Traci Gardner's Traci's Lists of Ten, HuffEnglish, WritingFix, Peter Smagorinsky's Virtual Library and Jim Burke's English Companion.

Below are resources that I never would have found without the OER databases listed at the end of this blog.

The Winners

  • Writing What You Know is an entire course about composing, with multiple elements that can be quickly adapted to different grades. One ingenious activity directs students to read the world like a writer:
    "Close your eyes for a few moments and think of the room or place around you. Think of the details that you would include in any description and make a mental note of them. Open your eyes and, without looking around, write down what you thought of. Now look at your surroundings and write a paragraph (no more than 150 words) describing them, picking out at least three things that you haven't noticed recently -- things you didn't think of when you closed your eyes."
    The activity continues with five more versions of the prompt listed above and extensive readings, exercises and discussion questions.
  • A chapter by Jen Jebens in the superbly designed CK-12 FlexBook Library, Writing about Literature: The Basics, defines and explains formal literary terms using prompts to help students critically analyze Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. BetterLesson's Reading YGB and Writing Introductory Paragraphs also uses the classic Hawthorne text.
  • Randy Friedland's Great Depression Writing Activity directs students to view images and reflect on life in the Dustbowl -- an engaging lesson for teachers who want students to consider social justice issues.
  • Dr. Andrea Walsh's MIT course on Expository Writing: Analyzing Mass Media contains excellent writing prompts, revision guidelines and an elaborate writing workshop protocol. Her Writer's Letter helps writers take responsibility for their own development. Prompts and supporting materials for Writing on Contemporary Issues: Social and Ethical Issues are also exemplary.
  • WikiPremed targets future doctors studying for the MCAT. The writing section helps students develop critical arguments built on thesis, antithesis and synthesis and will challenge advanced writers.
  • Selecting Evidence to Form an Argument, created by LEARN NC's Caroline Sain, is a two-day lesson aligned with the Common Core. The activities involve whole and small group instruction and use rich texts by Frederick Douglass and Chief Seattle.
  • The Not-So-Famous Person Report by David Walbert, also housed at LEARN NC, is my favorite lesson of the group.

    "Suppose you are studying the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of having students write another report on Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, ask them to investigate the impact of the Movement on their own community. A possible focus would be the integration of a local high school: have students interview individuals who were students and teachers, both white and black, during integration. After doing their interviews, students can share what they've learned and perhaps do collaborative projects to help them put the experiences of individual interviewees in the context of the community and of the broader events of the time."

    Dr. Walbert's oral history report lesson includes reflective activities, creative reporting models and guiding questions for primary source research. I strongly recommend this project to K-12 teachers.
  • Bonus I: Writing Instruction PD

    As I searched materials, I bumped into two professional development resources that are worth mentioning. P2PU National Writing Project study group, Writing and Inquiry in the Digital Age, allows you to interact with some of the brightest (and friendliest) thinkers on the subject of technology-enhanced composing. Another resource, Linda C. Mitchell's FlexBook, Glyfada Method: A Writing Process, elaborately describes a composing method that helps students begin writing and "determine what to say about the main point."

    Bonus II: Instructional Video for Writers

    Educational materials don't have to bore. Six Traits of Writing for Stick People is an amusing video made with Xtranormal Movie Maker. There are two videos on writing a thesis: a) How to Write that A+ Paper by 60SecondRecap (preceded by a short advertisement) features a giddy narrator, and b) Sunyulsterinstructs covers the subject more deeply.