Talking to Teachers: Writing in a Social Studies Classroom (Vulnerability, Revision, and the Slowing Down)

This is a follow-up conversation with Jordan Moog, the AP US History & Grade 9 Global Studies teacher from the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. In a previous conversation with Jordan, we focused on the following topics: (1) writing beside her students, (2) time for revision, and (3) how hybrid learning has affected her teaching (of writing).

Jordan connects back to all of the above topics, but she also discusses how she has shifted her teaching of writing within her history/social studies curriculum. Listening to Jordan’s renewed perspective on the role and value of writing in her classroom is so inspiring—her passion, excitement, and vulnerability is palpable.

Let’s get to it…

Q: Are you still finding time to ‘write beside’ your students?

My question: Since we last spoke, did you find more time to write beside your students?

Jordan’s answer: A resounding “YES! For sure!”

Jordan has done more writing with her students this year than ever before (amazing what a little Penny Kittle plug way back in September can do!). She attributes this partly to the remote/hybrid learning context, and partly to the way the students have responded. And I believe it is the later that propels her to do more of it.

Disclaimer: I think I refer to writing beside students in almost every post I write. But for good reason. BECAUSE IT WORKS! Writing beside students offers so many access points to learning, and Jordan is definitely seeing it as a new superpower!

Since we spoke in September, Jordan has challenged herself to participate in more of writing activities, especially in her AP US History classes (about 2-3 times a month).

But it isn’t the writing itself where the power lies, it is what she does after. In offering a look into her ‘first draft’, Jordan is inviting her students to give feedback on her areas of strength and improvement. And in turn, she open’s up space for students to be more confident and skilled at both self and peer assessment.

Writing alongside her students is new to Jordan and she feels the vulnerability in it. However, she also sees the benefit of being vulnerable. I remember feeling this way, too. It was the reaction of my students that kept me at it—that kept me showing them the messiness of my writing and my process. They saw my mistakes and my realizations, my confusion and my revisions. They saw an example of the learning in process, not an example of something that is polished and complete.

And this makes all the difference. When students see that getting from point A (a blank slate) to point B (a completed response) is messy, it gives them permission to be messy, too—to explore and to try and to make mistakes and to put in the work.

So what?

Jordan discussed how as teachers we too often “ask [students] to do something without doing it ourselves.” In doing the work we get a better gauge of the pressures, the time constraints, and the process of the overall task. And this whole process understanding allows us to help students navigate the writing task from a more informed and empathetic perspective.

Q: Are you finding time and space for students to revise their writing?

Jordan was lucky to have had a social studies teacher who saw writing skills as important—so this mindset isn’t new to her. What is new, though, is giving intentional time for students to REVISE their writing.

In her grade 9 Global Studies class, Jordan (and her teaching partner) have been giving time and space for students to revise their work based on teacher and/or peer feedback. Jordan also ensures that students see the comparison of their grade before and after revising—and this little shift has had big results. When students see the difference in their grade when they revise, they are more likely to buy into what is being sold. This transparency is critical.

Yes, Jordan now sees revision as a key factor in helping students be more successful in her class. But more so, she sees it as an opportunity to inspire:

It is so important that we teach writing in a social studies classroom, and that we inspire students to love writing through a different lens…of economics, of history, of geography.


Q: How has hybrid learning continued to shift your teaching this year?

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Jordan’s same response (or close variation) to the question of how teaching/learning has shifted in this new online/hybrid context:

“The more we slow down, the more powerful the learning is.” — Jordan Moog

Patrick Buggy from Mindful Ambition wrote a fantastic piece titled “The Paradox of Slowing Down to Go Farther”. This is a great read for humanity in general, but could be especially useful to talk about with students, too. He explains that “when you do something more slowly, you’re more intentional, and can make it smooth. Smooth means high-quality. And high-quality is effective, which means you make better progress in the long-run.”

And the curriculum demands of many courses lean toward a quantity over quality approach. But in this moment of a global pandemic with schools in a state of disruption, we can take advantage and slow right down. Jordan is finding so many positive disruptions in this strange, chaotic school year. And in slowing down she has been able to:

  • Differentiate more often.
  • Be more intentional in what standards to teach and what standards not to teach.
  • Ensure that learning is solidified by giving more revision and reflection time.
  • Have more fun with writing in different genres in her Global Studies class—policy recommendations, letters, script writing…

Jordan is the first to admit that this year has been extremely difficult, but she is also an eternal optimist. So despite there being times when she has probably wanted to huck her computer against a wall or maybe even just cry (surely those two responses are not just me), she has also felt empowered to use this weird time and space to make meaningful changes in her practice. And her students are reaping the benefits.

Q: What is the role of the writing process in a social studies classroom?

“Content can trump the skills of writing and that shouldn’t be the case.” — Jordan Moog

I truly believe that placing writing at the centre of instruction allows for access into all other skill sets. And Jordan is recognizing this beautiful seed of truth, too.

My question: When you think about the work students generally turn in…is it typically a first draft?

Her answer: “Yes.”

Of course first drafts are an important part in the writing process…but they should not be what a student hands in as their final draft (unless required for a timed write). In an English class, helping students to move through the process of writing is a given. In other disciplines (like social studies for instance), this is not typically the case…even when there are writing standards to be assessed. And although we would love for students to transfer the skills they learn in English into other classes, this is also not typical.

In a perfect world (or at least my perfect world), all teachers would be teachers of writing. Not to the same extent as in an English classroom, but skills can (and should) be reinforced in other disciplines. I love what Jordan had to say about the writing process in her classes: “I don’t want the rubric with their grade on it to be what they use for revision.” And rightly so.

Once a student gets their grade, the chances of them continuing to do the work drop significantly. By not rushing through the writing and giving opportunities for feedback, students are less likely to procrastinate and more likely to turn in something beyond a first draft. I consider that a win every time.

I also appreciate how Jordan allows for moments of what she calls “Grace”. When something doesn’t go well or doesn’t feel right, she slows right down and she says something along the lines of: “That wasn’t our best work. So we are going to pause and revise to make it better.”

Of course you can’t pull the “Grace card” after every assessment, there ain’t time for that. But when we do it is with purpose and it lets students know that sometimes we don’t get it right, so we try again. Resilience training 101.

It is in the pauses that Jordan has found her superpower, her intentionality, her Grace. A reminder for us all for when we are feeling overwhelmed and turned upside down. We just need to pause. And then find the opportunity in the chaos.

When do you find yourself making intentional pauses? How have you slowed down this year? How has online/hybrid learning shifted your practice? You can connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore and my website

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