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The Power of Project-Based Writing in the Classroom

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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As some of my readers may know, I had an awakening of sorts this past summer: I am NOT going to teach so test driven, I told myself. I'm tired of the five-paragraph essay! Where does it exist anywhere but in school? Instead, I decided, that everything I did this school year would have some connection to the world outside of school. The plan: to immerse my lessons and my classroom assessments in authenticity. And test scores be damned.

OK, so maybe I wasn't that confident. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my plans and devised units based on project-based writing.

Now, I'm lucky. I work in a district and, more specifically, in a school, that permits me to develop units and lessons that align to our tests, but they allow me my better judgment in how to prepare for them. So this year, I chose authentic lessons and authentic classroom assessments to prepare my students for our more traditional district assessments.

However, my luck is not the norm. Too many teachers are told that the classroom tests, the district tests, the state tests, and the federal tests are the driving force of the curriculum. They are not permitted the freedom to use their own training, their own expertise, and their own instinct to look beyond the test prep lessons.

But in this day and age, with textbook adoptions on hold, and the era of democratization of information upon us, this economic era of cuts can be an opportunity. Teachers can supplement in a way they have never been permitted before and design in a way that they have never been permitted before. (But only if they're lucky enough to be in a district that trusts their professional judgment.)

Believing the Publicity

But that's not to say that all teachers are eager to start. So many have been brainwashed. Yep, I said it. Brainwashed. I think some teachers have actually started to believe what the media and politicos would have us think: that we aren't capable of creating. That all we can do to prepare for standardized tests is regurgitate the canned lessons from the textbook and test prep companies. But this year I planned to prove otherwise to myself.

Taking what I know about PBL, I spun the concept for a writing focus. That is, our writing units became based in real-world scenarios for real-world audiences using writing as the means to communicate the answer to real-world problems. The first unit was called The DARPA/NASA Unit (a topic of which has led to serious blog fodder over these past few months).

We then quickly moved into our next unit, this one focusing on a blend of Advocacy and Memoir similar to those performed for TED. We are currently presenting our TED-esque speeches in class over this next week. The students will then evaluate each other and select the best presentations to perform in front of a wider audience as a book drive for our school library.

But not once did I teach to the five-paragraph essay that my students are tested on twice a year. You know the ole' format: Intro, Reason, Reason, Counterargument, and Conclusion. Yawn.

In other words, I created units that I believed to be more authentic to the real world. But I didn't see this as preparing them for a test, I saw it rather as preparing them for something more altogether important: life.

Proof in the Data

My project-based writing units allowed total student choice of topic, involved the students in creating the rubrics upon which they scored their peers and themselves, and required students to blend genres rather than segregate them into different assessments.

Yet I heard from some colleagues that I was taking a risk. That my students weren't going to do well once it came down to it. Sure, they acknowledged, the students learned a lot. But did my students learn how to exceed in the school-unique genre that is test taking?

In the end, my scores from the district assessment came back with an enthusiastic answer to that question. This group of students performed better than any of my classes in the past. Whew. With this victory of test scores, will hopefully come encouragement to others in my department that authenticity is the way to go for both more enjoyable teaching and more successful learning.

I have little doubt that it was my leap of faith into project-based writing that got them there. I also have little doubt that I will never look back.

But to all naysayers out there, to all those who believe our thrust should be prepping kids for assessments they will see nowhere else, I present to you this:

Ten Reasons to Teach Using Project-Based Writing

  1. It is an organic way to integrate all CORE subjects: math, science, history, and language arts
  2. It proves to students that imagination and creativity are connected to research and expository writing
  3. It hits all the major elements of the higher level of Bloom's Taxonomy: analysis, evaluation, and creation
  4. By allowing a student to choose their format of showing what they know, the buy-in for the quality of the final project is tremendous
  5. Students develop projects individualized, unique, and specific from each other
  6. It is a powerful way to incorporate all multiple intelligences: visual, audio, kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical, etc.
  7. It desegregates non-fiction and fiction, blending the two
  8. It integrates the CORE subjects with non-core subjects, potentially using technology, art, music, etc.
  9. It is a rigorous assessment requiring high-levels of thought and communication
  10. It requires use of the entire writing process from brainstorm through revision, editing, and final draft regardless of the genres picked and the topic chosen

The list above is an excerpt from a workbook on Project Based Writing that Heather wrote for Teacher Created Resources, due out in 2013. In addition to teaching middle school by day, Heather Wolpert-Gawron currently teaches an ecourse in Project Based Writing for Powerful Learning Practice.

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Aimee Peters's picture

I'm curious - how did you initially frame this type of writing for your students? I try more project-based writing all the time, but I find that my students have become so to being told WHAT and HOW to write...down to the number of sentences...that they have trouble generating their own, unique pieces.

Aimee Peters's picture

I'm curious - how did you initially frame this type of writing for your students? I try more project-based writing all the time, but I find that my students have become so to being told WHAT and HOW to write...down to the number of sentences...that they have trouble generating their own, unique pieces.

Amy T's picture
Amy T
High school math teacher in North Carolina

I've been an advocate for project-based writing for the past several years. I had the experience of teaching in a school where that was not only encouraged, but required. We, as a whole, out performed many schools in our district and our state on the mandated tests. Now I'm in a more traditional school where every teacher that has the same subject is expected to teach the same way, use the same assessments, blah, blah, blah. I've been sneaking some of my writing ideas out to the other math teachers here and have been well-recieved for the most part. I'm actually teaching a mini-staff development next week for the whole school on this very idea.

Writing in all subject areas forces students to see the connection between effective communication and the content areas. It also, as you mention, provides an organic way to incorporate other subject areas.

Congratulations on stepping out and doing things your way! We are the professionals, after all!

Cheryln's picture
5th & 6th teacher from NYC

Reading about how you "took a risk" to teach your students based on the real world and not on test scores makes me realize how lucky I am to teach in a private school. We have the option to take the state tests. We do most of the tests, but we aren't required by the principal to teach to the test all year. Yes, she wants us prep them when the test gets closer, but she wants us to be creative and have the students love learning instead of just drilling test taking tips and practices into their heads. Most of my writing is real world based. I go by the state standards of course, but I want to make sure the students have a connection to the world around them. They will remember those lessons more. Since I am connecting their learning to the real world, I believe they will do better on the standardized exams because they actually paid attention to the lessons I created and therefore learned. I didn't have to teach only what was on the test in order to get better scores.

Janet Moeller-Abercrombie's picture
Janet Moeller-Abercrombie
International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

I'm lucky enough to be out of the testing loop - we don't have the high-stakes testing in International Schools.

That said, we have our own internal and external assessments. My students have done best in the years we have intentionally taught standards through writing projects.

I'd highly recommend teachers look into the Columbia University Teacher's College summer institute for reading and writing

Also, Matt Glover has some interesting books and articles on reading/writing using authentic mentor texts ("feature articles" rather than 5-paragraph essays).

Janet |

Jenie's picture

I admire you for stepping out of your comfort zone and giving your students what they need to be successful in the real world. Not only does this prepare them more effectively for their futures, but it also shows them that you respect their ideas and abilities and believe that they have something more to offer this world than simply repeating a series of steps in a writing "formula".

I am an instructional coach in a junior high with supportive administration; however there is still a fear among the teachers that deviating from the "traditional" test preparation lessons will affect their scores negatively. My vision is that the teachers at my school will focus more on preparing students for life than for standardized tests. As you have proven, this instructional focus will actually benefit students in both areas. Do you have any advice on how to bring about this change in perspective? Is there anyone else reading this who has had success with bringing about a change in perspective who has advice to offer?

Thanks for the inspiration!

Lisa Morein's picture

I appreciate your comments and agree with you about project-based learning. However, we do disagree about the five paragraph essay. The first and most important thing to remember is to know your community. What is the reading and writing level of a community? You say that the five paragraph essay does not take into account writing in the real world. Again I disagree, I have been teaching writing (successfully) for 13 years. My work has included college and high school level students. I have experienced the frustration when college students cannot write a well structured essay. Whether one writes a paragraph, three, five, or twenty-five, structure is needed, especially in the real world. I recently took a workshop at the University of Penn, a writing workshop for those in the business world, and structure continues to be empasized. In order to convey solid critical analysis, one must learn to write a structured essay, just as you have in your article which structurally follows closely to that of the five paragraph essay.

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