Discourse: Math, Literacy, and the Need for More Blank Paper

Discourse: Math, Literacy, and the Need for More Blank Paper

by Shawna Coppola (@shawnacoppola)

Lately, when my mind is not being consumed by thoughts about what I’m going to make for dinner, where I have to drive the kids to and from after school, and how many episodes of Judge Judy I have left on my DVR, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways math and literacy are related, how they can be more effectively integrated, and all that jazz.

Often, when I’m in my math/literacy mode, I find myself re-reading and thinking about this fantastic blog post by author-educator Tracy Zager called “A Brief Ode to Blank Paper” and how what she says about math learning can also apply to literacy learning–specifically, to how we teach kids about composing. Of the math curriculum used in her daughter’s school, she writes:

[One of my] problems with this curriculum is: they never use blank paper. They never write 209 + 376 at the top of a big piece of paper and let kids have at it. The kids never get a chance to wrestle with keeping track of their thinking or figure out organizational strategies. All math problems are either on worksheets or educational technology. The kids just don’t write enough.

“The kids just don’t write enough.” Sound familiar? Donald Graves, a mere seven lines into the preface to the 20th anniversary edition of his 1983 book Writing: Teachers & Children at Work writes that “time [for students to write] is in short supply.” A recent online chat with Kelly Gallagher led to this tweet:

And Penny Kittle, in her March 2014 piece in the Adolescent Literacy in Perspective journal (“What We Learn When We Free Writers”), writes that “students need time to think about what to write and time to follow ideas and images in free writing, building the independence and confidence that we want them to have as writers.”

Not only do our students need time to write; they need freedom to write. When her students begin kindergarten at the start of each September, my colleague Becky Wright gives them both. From Day 1, students compose books of their own choosing.  What does Becky give them for materials? Blank paper and a cup full of crayons. Almost without exception, the students dive into the joy and the hard work of making books. Few of them–one, maybe two students each year– question why or how they are going to make a book. They just do it. They compose books that are interesting and meaningful to them: books about their family, about their pet cat, about Darth Vader.

They compose like this all year, studying mentors, talking about what they notice these mentors do, trying them out in their own work, and sharing their challenges and successes. When they need lines on their paper to help them write the words they want to write, they draw them. When they need help understanding how to write a book about how to play soccer, they read piles and piles of informational books and talk about what they notice. These children are as young as five and six years old, and yet they are trusted with blank paper and extended pockets of time in which to compose. They are trusted with freedom.

What happens the older these students get? Are they trusted as much? Are they given as much freedom to write and illustrate as they please–enough “blank paper,” so to speak?

While there are exceptions (and thank you, teachers, for developing classroom communities where this is the exception), the general answer is no. Ironically, the older students get, the less freedom they usually have in the classroom–particularly with regard to their writing. As a new teacher, I contributed to this problem. (I have binders full of evidence to prove this.) I “helpfully” created a variety of organizers for my students and compiled lists upon lists of writing prompts that I thought would effectively teach them to write essays, to develop stories, to create compelling and powerful speeches. But for most students, I failed miserably in this regard. I taught them to write the essays that I wanted them to write, to compose stories that were organized by a plot trajectory that I had demanded…if my students were able to transfer the knowledge I had taught them to their next piece of writing, they did so in spite of, not because of, me.

Pencil and PaperLike a good number of my own former students, most students beyond the primary grades–and even within them–are not given enough “blank paper” with which to compose. I mean this, of course, both literally and figuratively. Not only is most of the paper that students use to compose–writers’ notebooks included–already lined, leaving no room for innovation (or even the occasional doodle), but most writers’ workshops are painfully structured in ways that leave students dependent on us to compose just about anything. This is doubly true when it comes to teaching students about grammar and mechanics, if Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers are any indication.

Part of the reason for this, perhaps, may be due to the fact that this is how many of us were taught to write. We were given an assignment, we were taught how to organize it, we were given a rubric to tell us exactly how it should be, and we wrote it. Or, perhaps, our writing teachers gave us too much freedom as students, and we recognize how unhelpful that was, too. Equally likely is the fact that most teachers of writing do not write for themselves as a regular practice and therefore have lost sight of both the joys and the challenges that writing without too many restrictions can bring.

Whatever the reason, I would invite us to consider modeling our writing workshop on the “blank paper” concept that Tracy suggested for teachers of mathematics. This doesn’t mean taking away all instruction or guidance; rather, it means structuring our teaching so that students spend more time writing connected text than they do filling in graphic organizers. It means directing students’ attention to all of the possibilities there are when it comes to composing–and how our choices among those possibilities can affect topic, audience, and engagement– rather than, say, assigning them to compose “narrative essays” in September and “persuasive speeches” in May. It means using mentors to hone our writing and illustrating craft as well as to explore the ways in which we use punctuation (and the ways in which we don’t). It means helping students find authentic purposes to write for authentic audiences so that they have the opportunity to “wrestle with” and “figure out”  how to effectively communicate the stories that they’ve decided need telling.

It means giving them more blank paper.

TheEdCollab and NBC partnership text-01

Would you like to write for the Community Blog?  We’d love to have you!

Visit Write for Us to learn how!