by Miguel Kagan

After thirty years of teaching from kindergarten to adults Virginia DeBolt has discovered the ten most important secrets to teaching students how to write. Hold on to your seat, here they are:

  1. Write.
  2. Write.
  3. Write often.
  4. Write about anything.
  5. Write about everything.
  6. Write about what you see
  7. Write about what you learn.
  8. Write about what you think.
  9. Write about what you read.
  10. WRITE!

Yes, it's shocking but true, the best way to become a better writer is to write, write, and write some more!

Actually, that list of ten is Virginia's "10 Rules for Writers," a cute blackline from her brand new series of writing activity books across the curriculum. Virginia DeBolt is the author of the classic, Write! Cooperative Learning and the Writing Process. In her original Write! book, she provides cooperative learning writing activities for many types of writing including: fiction, plays and skits, poetry, personal narratives, learner's journal, letters & envelopes, time order paragraphs, descriptive writing, compare & contrast, instructions & directions, book reports, research reports, newspaper articles, biographies, autobiographies, editorials, speeches, and persuasive paragraphs.

Her three new multiple intelligences and cooperative learning writing activity books are titled: Write! Mathematics, Write! Science, and Write! Social Studies. The focus of these three new books is to move beyond the basic facts of these discipline and to stretch students' thinking and writing skills as they delve into math, science, and social studies.

In her books, Virginia provides a wonderful rationale for integrating writing across the curriculum. Incorporating writing into math, science, and social studies not only strengthens students' writing skills an essential skill that will serve students for life but stretches students' thinking and learning in the content areas. As students brainstorm ideas, discuss the writing topic, grapple with organization, and listen to classmates as they share their writing, they clarify their thinking and obtain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the content.

As Virginia puts it in her book: "To write is to compose. To compose well is to comprehend. Writing is not speaking, where we hope that the, ahh, listeners, like, you know, get it. Writing demands careful word choice, clear thinking, communication. The physical act of writing takes longer than thinking or speaking, and so seems to allow the brain time for the discoveries and connections writers often make while writing."

Each book contains 36 ready-to-do writing activities. The activities each have a teacher page that describes the activity, and a reproducible activity page to photocopy and hand out to students. The teacher page includes a brief synopsis of the activity, describes the steps to do it with your students, and provides an Idea Bank listing additional ideas you may want to try with the activity. The blackline activity pages are attractive pages that help direct students' writing.

The activities in Virginia's three new Write! books put the best educational theory to practice. They are based on three powerful movements in education: cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and higher-level thinking. Let's see why.

Cooperative Learning

The effectiveness of cooperative learning has been extensively researched and the positive outcomes, including achievement gains, have been well documented. Although the positive outcomes of cooperative learning are attractive, what's most compelling for using cooperative learning with writing is the cooperative process. Cooperative learning and the writing process go hand-in-hand. As Virginia notes, "Cooperative learning is a natural partner or writing. Cooperative work provides a place for students to brainstorm ideas, develop language and vocabulary, get constructive feedback, and share final works."

Cooperative student-to-student interaction is used successfully throughout the stages of writing. For prewriting, students brainstorm ideas and discuss the topic to prime the pump for subsequent writing.

For proofreading, editing, and conferring students work with each other to improve their writing assignments and skills. Virginia includes a variety of support materials such as blacklines for Proofreader's Marks, Peer Conference Gambits, and Peer Response forms to facilitate directing student interaction in a positive, constructive context.

For sharing and publishing, there are a variety of cooperative methods including each student sharing what they wrote in turn with teammates, and pair and team presentations.

Students are on their own for the actual act of writing and rewriting, but they are given the support of their peers for generating ideas, proofreading, and providing constructive feedback. Perhaps the most valuable asset of the cooperative nature of the activities is the opportunity for students share and hear the writing of others. Too often, students write, but do not share their writing. There is simply not enough time for every student to share their writing about the topic every day, especially in math, science, and social studies. Students miss out on the wonderful insights and content connections of their classmates. But using a simple cooperative learning strategy, within just a few minutes all students can share their writing with their teammates and can hear multiple perspectives on the same issue or topic. With this type of repetitive input, it is no wonder why students understand and remember so much of what they write and share with each other.

Although elementary teachers will probably want to take advantage of the opportunity to integrate writing with the other disciplines to teach both writing skills and the other subjects in a meaningful, functional context, the activities can also be done as quick and easy just write activities. Middle and high school math, science, and social studies teachers may not be interested in proceeding through the various steps of the writing process, but can definitely use writing (and these activities) as another window onto the curriculum.

For those of you who are not familiar with cooperative learning or the Kagan cooperative strategies, don't despair. Virginia provides an easy-to-understand synopsis of the cooperative learning strategies in the back of the book as a quick reference for novices and experts alike. If you don't use cooperative learning in your class, you may use the activities as independent writing assignments (plus there are lots of great journal writing ideas scattered throughout the books).

Multiple Intelligences

The activities are also based on multiple intelligences (MI), another educational innovation that is having a dramatic impact on classroom learning. At root, MI states that we are each smart in different ways. Integrating writing into the curriculum allows students to translate the content into a linguistic format. Students who are not particularly adept with numbers, dates, or scientific issues, may find the content more intriguing and comprehensible if they are given the opportunity to write about the content. For students who are linguistically skilled, writing is a great way to engage and develop their math, science and social studies smarts. We can stretch students other intelligences by teaching through their strengths.

With the writing, reading, and discussing, the activities obviously strongly engage the verbal/linguistic intelligence. To Virginia's credit, she has included a wide range of activities that integrate many of the other intelligences. In the activities, students make personal connections to the content (intrapersonal), interact cooperatively (interpersonal), write and sing songs about the curriculum (musical/rhythmic), engage various facets of their thinking skills (logical/mathematical), use graphic organizers, make mobiles, and draw illustrations (visual/spatial), and write and perform skits (bodily/kinesthetic).

Indeed, the verbal/linguistic intelligence is the focus of writing, but Virginia does a wonderful job of integrating students' many other intelligences throughout the process of the activities. The diverse set of activities in book provide a rich array of MI learning experiences across the curriculum.

Higher-Level Thinking

Much emphasis is being placed on incorporating higher-level thinking into the curriculum. But the question often comes up: "How do I infuse higher-level thinking skills into my curriculum?" Virginia offers one answer: Through writing!

Writing is one of the best tools teachers have to engage students' higher-order thinking skills. As students discuss, write, and share their ideas about the content, they move beyond basic knowledge and comprehension. They begin to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate ideas. Virginia varies the types of thinking skills involved in each activity. Some activities focus on applying what students learned, some focus on evaluating ideas, some look at advantages and disadvantages, some compare and contrast, and some involve synthesizing ideas to coming up with new ideas and inventions.

What Grades & What Content?

You may be thinking, "These new writing activity books sound great, but will they work for my grade and my curriculum?" The books are designed for grades 4-9. This may seem like a broad grade span, but the most useful characteristic of the activities is that they are content-free. The activities are writing frames for you to plug in your own content.

For example, for one of the social studies activities, Historical Correspondence, students write the correspondence of two characters. This one activity can be used with whatever content you are studying, and can be repeated meaningfully various times, each time with new content. Students can write the correspondence between Lincoln and Sojourner Truth as they study slavery; students can write the correspondence between Geronimo and Cleveland as they study Native Americans; students can write the correspondence between Kennedy and Castro as they study the Cuban Missile Crisis; between Dwight Eisenhower and Anne Frank as they study the holocaust; or between O.J. Simpson and Marcia Clark as they study a current event.

Surely the curriculum for a fourth grader and a ninth grader are very different (as is their completed writing), but the procedures and writing ideas work equally well for both grade levels. The same is true for math and science; the activities are flexible writing frames that you can use with your own content. In fact, many activities can be adapted for third graders as well as for upper high school students.

In sum, Virginia's new Write! books skillfully weave together solid educational theory, including cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and higher-level thinking, into a series of fun and easy-to-do writing activities. If you want to put the best of educational theory to work for you in your class, these are great resources! With these activities, you will promote positive interaction over the curriculum, stretch students' thinking, writing, and other ways of being smart, and explore your content in greater depth than ever before. Virginia has taken the time and energy to plan and prepare so many exciting activities and ideas that you won't have to!

To check out the new Write! books and download sample activites, visit the Kagan Cooperative Learning web site.