In December, the Washington Post published an article describing the new literacy program in Prince George’s County Public Schools that requires teachers of all subjects to teach literacy skills in the classroom. One middle school math teacher has shared with us her experience with the new program. She has asked to remain anonymous.
Last fall, I learned that my students would be required to complete a literacy assignment as part of the new county-wide literacy initiative. Previously, our focus had been on the Formative Assessment for Maryland Educators (FAME) tasks. These tasks combine math and literacy skills by having students solve real-life problems and explain their thinking. With the new program, in addition to completing the FAME tasks, students would write five-paragraph essays.
During a subsequent school-wide professional development meeting, I learned that each department across our school would be completing the same writing task, which mirrors the SAT essay. Social studies would complete the assignment in October, science in November, math in December, creative arts, health, and physical education in January, and language arts and world languages in March. The goal is for each department to conduct the same activity with the students to see if there is marked improvement in student reading and writing across content areas.
Every prompt is nearly identical. The basic task takes the form, “Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his audience that [insert author’s claim here].”
Here is the one used for my class:
With each prompt is an essay for students to read and analyze. For math students across the county in December, Grade 6 and 7 students read an excerpt from Math Doesn’t Suck, a book written by Danica McKellar and Grade 8 students read the article “Teaching Kids Why Math Matters” by Cindy Donaldson in order to complete the analysis of an argument writing prompts.
We are told to have the students complete this assignment in ten steps.
- Read the prompt carefully.
- Circle the key verbs and underline important ideas.
- Explain what the prompt is asking you to do in your own words.
- Restate the prompt expectations as a thesis statement, leaving blanks for your analysis.
- Read the passage closely and take notes that respond to the prompts expectations.
- Complete your thesis statement with how you will answer the prompt expectations.
- Brainstorm and map-out your answer to the prompt. Use your notes and the graphic organizer to help map out your reasoning. Reread as needed in doing this step.
- Write your response carefully using your map/graphic organizer as a guide.
- Strategically repeat key words from the thesis in the body paragraphs of your response and as part of your conclusion.
- Reread and edit your response.
While I strongly support literacy across all subject areas, I do not feel that this particular writing task embodies the particular skill set students need to be highly literate in mathematics. How could it when it is from the SAT essay model?
Moreover, my students were outraged. When I explained that we would write a five paragraph essay answering this prompt, they became angry and obstinate. I was surprised because writing already has a prominent place in our classroom. My students write short responses as part of a daily warm-up and longer responses at least once a week, either explaining their own thinking or critiquing others’ work. But to them, this essay format simply did not belong in math class.
Regardless of their opinions, we spent three days following the ten steps provided by the county. The PGCPS math department provided us with a script to follow, as many math teachers were uncomfortable with teaching this type of task. In our school, we have spent and continue to spend hours in various trainings (e.g. entire school, department, grade-level) in order to help us become more prepared to teach this particular task.
I graded my students’ essays over winter break. A majority of my students earned 1s and 2s (on a four-point scale) in both the content and form categories, indicating failure to meet expectations for the task. This worries me, but I am also worried about having lost three days of math instruction. I am now trying to make up this lost time.
Other teachers have expressed additional concerns. The physical education and music teachers are wondering how to have their students write essays when they do not even have desks in their rooms. Teachers of quarter or semester courses are worried as they are losing multiple days of instruction. For example, each health class meets for 22 to 23 days; if three days are spent on this task, that is 13 to 14% of their instructional time. As I talk to teachers throughout my school, many seem discouraged and defeated as they simply do not feel students are ready and able to complete the task. This is especially true when one is working with students functioning below grade level, students with special needs, or students for whom English is a second language. Many teachers agree that most of the students understand what the prompt is asking them to do, but they lack the skills to write an adequate response for this particular model. Furthermore, many teachers do not feel that they can adequately teach students to respond to their particular prompt.
I have found that every teacher agrees that literacy is vital in every content area, but most felt that this approach to teaching writing across the curriculum seemed disjointed and did not take into account the unique set of skills needed for each content area. Literacy skills are more effectively taught when they are interwoven with the curriculum and tailored to the subject matter at hand.