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Q&A with Cincinnati Teacher Michael Armstrong


How to manage expectations for student work during a Writing Lesson



How do you empower students to share their ideas with each other?

From day one in my class, my students practice sharing their thoughts and their writing with each other. Every day we work on developing ideas based on facts and research, and on supporting those ideas with the best evidence we can find. We also work on honoring and respecting each other's thoughts, and on arguing respectfully.

What role does peer collaboration play in your classroom?

Collaboration happens constantly in my class. My room is set up in pods, so students know that they are expected to work together on classwork. We practice listening to each other, and commenting on each other's thoughts and ideas in order to understand each other better. We write in pairs and groups to begin, and then we work on peer editing. When we edit each other's writing, we practice offering positive and constructive feedback.

How do you set and manage expectations for students during a ThinkCERCA Writing Lesson?

We did our entire first lesson together, slowly, mostly aloud. We went over all the resources in a whole group. We spent time translating the rubric into student-friendly language, and we made sure that they understood why we are doing what we are doing. As we have completed other modules, the students have become more and more independent. We set a timer for each section, and we get faster with the modules as we go through them. Our first module took a whole week. In the module we just did, most students completed it in two classes. The modules are major writing assignment/project grades, so they know that the modules can really help them raise their averages.

How has ThinkCERCA enhanced your classroom instruction, and therefore, student growth?

Because of ThinkCERCA, every student has improved in argument writing in some measurable way. They can reproduce the process independently, and they can apply it to other styles of writing as well. They are more comfortable with the multi-paragraph format, and are now working on making their writing stronger and more interesting. Their reading has improved in that they are reading more closely to find strong evidence for their arguments. When they highlight information supporting two opposite sides of an argument, they practice being strategic about their reading. They then have to process their reading into a written argument, and this process is scaffolded with help screens in a way that the students can choose whether or not to access, so they will become more and more independent as they complete modules.

What advice would you share with fellow ThinkCERCA teachers?

Don't just watch students work. Help them and work with them at every step. Get other teachers or admins to help if possible. The modules give us a great opportunity to give immediate feedback to students about their reading and writing, which is what we are dying to find the time to do. I would also do the modules along with the students. Show them what you do as an exemplar, including the essay at the end. I then publish the essay that I write on our class website, so they can compare their work to mine.

Also, the reading level adjustment will help your outliers, no matter how low or high. Try to group kids together at same levels so they can discuss, but then later at different levels so they can help each other during revision.

What is your favorite ThinkCERCA Writing Lesson to teach?

I like every one that I've seen. I'm impressed with the amount of cross-curricular possibilities, and with the range of social issues available in the units.

Mallory Busch
Mallory Busch

Mallory Busch is ThinkCERCA's Editor of Content Strategy. A graduate of Northwestern University, Mallory came to ThinkCERCA from stops in audience strategy at TIME magazine and news applications development at Chicago Tribune and The Texas Tribune. She holds degrees in Journalism and International Studies, and was a student fellow at Knight Lab in college.