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We had our first official professional development day as a precursor to returning to school. While I know some parts of the world still have a month or more, we in the southern US are down to a couple weeks.

The topic of the training was teaching writing across the subject areas. We were two of the only three English teachers in attendance. Most of the teachers taught Social Studies or Science. It was nice to see so many teachers visibly open to the idea of having their students write in other subjects.

The presenter did a great job of reinforcing what we have been preaching for what seems like forever. Teach mechanics through writing, not in isolation. She also said that each subject must have their students write regularly. As English teachers, it usually falls upon us as the only writing teachers in a school. In reality, however, a biology teacher is highly qualified in his/her field. That should be the teacher responsible for ensuring that the writing suits the requirements of that subject.

The discussion turned to “How do we get them to write at all?” That, we had an answer for. We explained that kids love an authentic audience. Writing a lab report for the sole purpose of letting it get stacked on a desk and never really read does absolutely nothing to encourage the student from wanting to write a quality report next time. In fact, it discourages the very thing you seek to encourage. So, some tips to get kids writing in each subject area.

  • Audience- Audience is everything to a teenager. They live for attention, and somehow or another, they will get it. Give them an audience who they want to make sure they don’t look bad in front of. Peers, Parents, Principals, etc.
  • Subject- Let’s just face it. There are some things people like to write about, then there are things that we trudge through for the sake of getting it done. Don’t lie to the kid and say it’s exciting when it’s not. Instead, give them a purpose for getting it done. Explain why it is important to them. And, no… the answer to why it is important is NOT that it is on the test.
  • Difference- Kids are funny creatures. They have not developed the attitude that they can’t change things yet. Capitalize on that. Science is all about making advancements, new discoveries, etc. Never let a kid think that what they say and do can’t make a difference.
  • Fun- Yes, I said it. Let the kids have fun with writing. Let them share documents on Google Docs and chat about them. Writing fiction is the perfect area for that. They want to have fun reading other stories in addition to making others what they are writing. See what I did there? Yeah, they end up enjoying reading and writing. Pretty nifty trick.

We did get a chance to read an article on the teen brain.  In the article, it explained that as kids, we used a very small section of the brain for processing thought, the Striatum. Kids have not developed strong links to other parts of the brain, so that region reigns supreme on governing a kids actions. This is the section of the brain that controls impulsivity and desire for rewards, among other things.

We have always known that teens are a different beast altogether, but make sure you actually understand it as the year starts out. A teen is often doing the best they can. It is our job to help build the links to the Prefrontal Cortex that helps buffer some of those impulsive decision.

Oh, yeah, one last thing. As little kids, we develop billions of links for thought. What ends up happening is the brain learns what it uses, and what it doesn’t use over time. The links it finds it doesn’t use, it cuts off, or prunes. Think about that. My pet peeve in school is teachers spoon feeding kids answers. It does more than just not teaching, it actually harms the kids brain. Their brains learn that they don’t need those critical thinking links, and it prunes them. So, for the sake of our kids, don’t prune kids’ brains.