January 2008 • Volume 39 • Number 3 • Pages 34-39
Bringing Family and Community into the Writing Curriculum
|*This We Believe Characteristics|
*Denotes the corresponding characteristics from NMSA's position paper, This We Believe, for this article.
- Multiple learning and teaching approaches that respond to their diversity
- School-initiated family and community partnerships
- Curriculum that is relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory
Donna E. Werderich
Condensed in a small area of the bakeshop, people are rushing around in every direction trying to get cakes decorated with frosting and candies. It's Mother's Day and everyone seems to want to have a cake made especially for his or her mother. I'm at the Jewel Bakeshop in Algonquin, Illinois, where the smell of fresh bread surrounds you and the employees are working hard to accomplish many different things in a short period of time. The manager, a woman dressed in a white shirt and a black apron, smiles at me. She is busy making a special order cake. "Cakes are the hardest product to make and they sell more around the holidays," she explains. –Profile excerpt written by a middle school student
While middle school educators are faced with No Child Left Behind's demands for improving students' literacy learning, it is also wise to incorporate family and community involvement into the curriculum (Jackson & Davis, 2000; National Middle School Association, 2003; No Child Left Behind, 2002). In designing activities that meet such demands, middle school educators should consider allowing their students to write profiles on family and community members, such as a worker at a local bakery shop, to support students' literacy learning.
Although many middle schools have structured programs to enhance school-family involvement such as school plays, concerts, and sporting events, how often do middle school educators develop instruction in which family and community members become contributors to the learning process? This article examines how writing profiles integrates parental and community involvement into literacy instruction across the curriculum.
Why students should write profiles about community members
Profile writing is based on the premise that if we want students to become good writers, teachers must allow students to select real topics that interest them (Atwell, 1998; Harvey, 1998; Spandel, 2005). When students care about their topics, they invest their energy in writing well. Profile writing provides an opportunity for students to develop their expository writing skills, as they engage in nonfiction inquiry through questioning, researching, interviewing, observing, and notetaking. Profiling family and community members not only develops students' writing skills, "it also provides students opportunity to reflect on their learning about the real world and merge their thinking with the ideas and information they have read and studied" (Harvey, 2002, p. 21). This is a significant reason to teach profile writing at the middle level, since encouraging adolescents to question, explore, and discover their passions is a primary responsibility of the middle level teacher (National Middle School Association, 2003).
In either the inner city, rural farm town, or inner or outer suburbs, family and community members have abundant talent and expertise. Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez's (1992) study of barrio families living in Tucson, Arizona, confirmed that educators should recognize the "funds of knowledge" held by members of their students' families and communities. Indeed, it is the everyday world that middle school students can observe and learn from. Graves (2000) emphasized that educators need to provide students with skills to learn how to understand people, whether they are fictional characters, historical figures, or community members. Educators in middle schools and high schools have relied on traditional texts such as basal readers, novels, trade books, and magazines for teaching content and practicing literacy skills (Alvermann & Moore, 1991). By directing middle school students toward writing profiles on family and community members, teachers are providing their students access to new funds of knowledge and to knowledgeable adults.
Integrating profiles into the curriculum
Profiles can be effectively infused into a middle school curriculum by using a strongly supported integrated approach (Jackson & Davis, 2000; Langer, 2002). Using profiles as a central "theme" can foster connections across disciplines and between school, family, and community. This approach can also ensure that literacy skills are being taught, reinforced, and practiced in multiple situations. When attempting to teach a unit integrated across the curriculum, teachers need time for careful planning to support curriculum standards. Figure 1 provides an example of profiles being integrated into the curriculum through connections to standards. Once the standards have been identified, teachers need access to useful resources to develop and support instruction. The following framework provides resources, strategies, and activities for teaching an integrated unit on profiles.
Profile writing as an integrated unit
|Subject Area Standards||Connections to Profile Writing|
|Language Arts/ Reading|
Standards for the English Language Arts:
(National Council for Teachers of English and International Reading Association, 1996).
- Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes
- Students use a variety of information sources to gather and synthesize information and to communicate knowledge
|Mini-lessons during writing and reading workshops to facilitate students' written profiles of family and community members|
Examine multiple texts to develop a deeper understanding of how profiles are written and to gain knowledge of members' careers
National Mathematics Learning Standards:
(National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Standards, 2000).
- Connections: Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics
- Formulate questions, design studies, and collect data about a characteristic shared by two populations or different characteristics within one population
|Interviewing family and community members who apply mathematical understandings in their careers (i.e., business, carpentry, engineering, finance)|
Compare the life experiences of community members from different cultures
National Science Education Standards
(National Research Council, 1996).
- Unifying Concepts and Processes
- Science as Inquiry
- Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
|Interviewing family and community members who work in science-related fields (i.e., agriculture, health/medical, technology)|
Using aspects of scientific inquiry including asking questions, planning and conducting investigations of different careers or different populations
National Social Studies Learning Standards:
(National Council for the Social Studies, 1994).
- Culture and Cultural Diversity
- Time Continuity and Change
|Oral history interviews of older family members about their early life experiences or community members from different cultures|
To develop students' understanding of the literacy skills involved in writing a profile, teachers need to provide students opportunities to analyze multiple texts, which can capture students' interest and promote active learning necessary for teaching adolescents (Worthy, Moorman, & Turner, 1999). Beginning the lesson by showing the word "profile" to the students, ask them to think about the characteristics and qualities of the profile genre as they explore examples from a variety of resources (see Figure 2). You might design lessons by bringing in clips from popular television programs such as 60 Minutes, The Today Show and biography programs on cable. For example, students can watch someone of interest on Biography for Kids, a weekly program on the Arts and Entertainment (A & E) channel. As another option, record several interviews from such shows as All Things Considered, Day to Day, Fresh Air, or Talk of the Nation broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR). After examining multiple texts, have groups of students describe the characteristics of a profile (e.g., format, purpose, audience, author's use of language and writing or speaking style). Have students share their responses and create a class list of their observations.
Multiple texts for profiles
|Books on Biographies and Profiles:|
Abbey, C., & Hillstrom, K. (Eds.). (2004). Biography today: Profiles of people of interest to young readers: 2004 annual cumulation. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics.
Adler, D. (1997). Lou Gehrig: The luckiest man. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
Bryant, J. (2002). Amazing women athletes. Toronto, ON Canada: Second Story Press.
Kramer, S. A. (1995). Baseball's greatest hitters. New York: Viking.
Sebranek, P., Kemper, D., & Meyer, V. (1999). Write source 2000: A guide to writing, thinking and learning. Wilmington, MA: Great Source Education Group.
Magazines with Pop Culture Profiles:
- Esquire Parade
- Rolling Stone
- The New Yorker
- Vanity Fair
- The Chicago Tribune Magazine
- The New York Times Magazine
- 60 Minutes
- Oprah Winfrey Show
- The Today Show
- Biography for Kids
- National Public Radio
- All Things Considered
- Talk of the Nation
- Morning Edition
- Fresh Air
- Science Friday
Who can students write about? To begin any writing project, students need time to brainstorm, as this is the first stage in the writing process (Atwell, 1998; Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983; Murray, 1980). Because brainstorming is challenging for writers, a variety of resources can be used to help students select a family or community member for writing their profile. Distributing a graphic organizer (see Figure 3) can help students brainstorm an interesting subject to profile. Ask students to brainstorm names of family members who have an expertise or a personal story that matters to them. On the left side of the graphic organizer, students can write down their family members' names, followed by their career title or life experience, such as a Grandpa being a WWII veteran. Students should also be encouraged to seek out community members they might like to observe and interview. Students might identify accountants, librarians, auto mechanics, physicians, veterinarians, or lawyers on the right side of the graphic organizer. Ultimately, teachers should help students find the best family or community member—people who are passionate about their craft and want to share it.
|Family Member/ Career or Life Experience||Community Member |
A second classroom resource useful for brainstorming community members is the telephone book. Students can let their fingers do the walking through the yellow pages or business sections of a phone book. Another valuable resource used for brainstorming is the local chamber of commerce. Your local chamber of commerce can provide you with brochures, pamphlets, and maps, which can provide a graphic location of businesses for students to consider visiting. By logging on to www.chamberofcommerce.com and typing in a name of a city, students can link directly to their city's chamber of commerce Web site. Many chamber of commerce Web sites allow you to navigate to a specific category such as "health care and medical." Within the categories are listings of businesses, including names, addresses, telephone numbers, and Web site links.
Conducting successful interviews
"Learning how to acquire information from others brings more than life to the curriculum: It is an essential life skill" (Graves, 2000, p. 21). Teachers need to teach students how to conduct effective interviews. A collection of interviews from the resources suggested in Figure 2 provides models of interviewing techniques. View, listen to, or read these with students and discuss different strategies used during the interview process. Guidelines for conducting an interview might include:
- Avoid yes/no questions. These questions often begin with "Do," "Have," or "Is."
- Try beginning questions with "What" and "How" to encourage explanation.
- Ask meaningful, relevant questions. "What do you like about your work?" not "What is your favorite color?"
- Ask questions you really care about.
- Organize your questions in chronological order, with the last few questions creating your conclusion.
- Keep in mind, more questions may develop during the actual interview.
- Listen carefully and write down important notes.
Writing interview questions
Harvey (1998) recommended providing students with a few "safety net" questions, in case they encounter a challenging subject. These are universal and can be adapted.
- How did you develop your interest or expertise in this field?
- Who helped teach you what you know?
- What knowledge do you have about this field from personal experience?
- Whom do you admire in your field? (pp. 108–109).
Specific, teacher-created interview questions are not recommended. Rather, students are encouraged to ask questions that they want answered. Figure 4 provides excerpts from students' profile writing, illustrating some of the answers they wrote about from the questions they cared about.
Profile excerpts written by students
Q: How would you describe a typical village hall meeting?
"The meetings. You want to know about what goes on at those village hall meetings, right? They talk about everything and anything. One of the topics was the final approval of the second fire station. Meetings take place every Thursday night at seven o'clock, and can last anywhere from forty-five minutes to four hours." But Mrs. Smith doesn't care. She says they've got everything. Excitement, tension, and more.
Q: What do you dislike most about being a veterinarian?
Julie explains that it is hard to put a pet down after you have known it for a long time. "Sometimes it feels like putting down your own pet." Julie would know with her two dogs and one cat exactly how much you can love an animal.
Q: How would you like your employees to think of you?
Maria is a well-righted person who likes to have a strictly open relationship with her employees. "I would like them to see me as a trusted friend instead of the BOSS." A good relationship with your employees is one thing, but showing them appreciation for a good job performance is another. "My appreciation is showing them how they are doing a good job," she says. When the company has just finished a big shipment, she might take them out to lunch, or might give them extended vacation time. "Most of all is a thank you at the end of every day." But business is business, and she can only continue to offer her clients a promise to provide the best service they can and most importantly gain companies' complete trust.
After drafting and finalizing their interview questions, students should conduct mock interviews. This activity prepares students for the interviews they will conduct later with real profile subjects.
Conducting interviews provides students opportunities to practice their speaking skills. Likewise, interviewing can help students develop their listening skills, which are often the most neglected area of language arts (Opitz & Zbaracki, 2004). Several researchers have concluded that students who are better listeners are also better learners (Elley, 1989; Lundsteen, 1979; Pinnell & Jaggar, 2003; Strother, 1987; ).
To conduct mock interviews in a classroom, set the stage with pairs of students' desks facing each other around the classroom. The interviewer must be prepared with his or her list of questions, paper to write on, and something to write with. The partner then plays the role of the interviewee. The interviewee has a difficult job because answers to questions will be in an impromptu fashion. The overall goal of this activity is for students to have the experience of being the interviewer who uses speaking, listening, and writing skills. After practice, students will be busy conducting authentic interviews, sharing their experiences with others, and writing drafts of their profile.
Multiple outlets for student publishing
The opportunity to publish one's written work is an integral part of the writing process (Atwell, 1998; Calkins, 1986; Graves, 1983; Murray, 1980). Equally important is making published work error free. Routman (2005) underscored that it is essential for teachers to raise their writing expectations to emulate the way publishing works in the real world. Raising expectations regarding students' writing means teachers must insist on correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. When expectations are high and teachers provide sufficient support and instruction, the students can take pride in publishing excellent work. To make publication matter, students need multiple outlets to publish their work, other than just writing for their teachers. What follows are suggested publishing opportunities for both inside and outside the classroom.
Graves and Hansen (1983) described a method of student publication called "author's chair." The celebrating of a completed piece of writing occurs during a sharing session in the classroom, during which the writer sits in the author's chair to read aloud his or her writing to other students. While this sharing session is typical in primary and intermediate grades classrooms, adolescents welcome a slightly different version of author's chair. Consider creating periodic "author houses" during the school year. For example, at the end of the fall semester, dedicate a class period for a "Cider House." Arrange small-group gatherings instead of a whole-class sharing session. Provide apple cider for students to enjoy while listening to the readings of other group members' profile writing. For future author houses, you may offer hot chocolate, punch, or lemonade.
Classroom, school, and local newspapers
Many teachers and schools send home weekly or monthly newspapers informing parents of learning activities as well as social and athletic events. Such communication strengthens the relationship between home and school (McCann, 1992). With the use of a computer, students can design newspapers to resemble the publication of authentic newspapers such as The Chicago Tribune or The New York Times. Furthermore, many local newspapers welcome the reporting of school and classroom events. Students could submit their profiles to a local newspaper after obtaining written consent from the subject.
Linking technology and publication
One way to link technology and publication is a student-designed classroom Web site. Teachers can learn how to create Web pages with their students at Educational Web Design (www.oswego.org/staff/cchamber/webdesign/edwebdesign.htm).
This Web site provides links to sites for teachers to obtain free graphics, sound files, and animated gifs. Another site, www.publishingstudents.com, offers additional advice in publishing student writing. This Web site includes a page for teachers to exchange ideas and a list of award programs and writing competitions for students. Many other publishing opportunities exist on the Internet: www.kidpub.com provides a forum for classrooms around the world to display their literary writing, while www.kidnews.com publishes feature articles and other genre pieces written for kids and by kids of all ages. Yet another site, www.kidsonthenet.com, publishes tens of thousands of young writers from all over the world. Whatever the chosen method, publication matters if students are to improve their literacy skills and experience authentic authorship.
Students need to tap into a valuable primary resource—family and community members. Recognizing these people can expose middle school students to a variety of role models to help them develop their own identity (Jackson & Davis, 2000). After interviewing the CEO of a large marketing company, Emmanuel concluded,
I think Maria is a people person who can get along with her employees and can have a good relationship with them. I think she is a person who likes to get the work done and wants it to be great every time.
Would it not be nice if adolescents, the adults of our future, emulated the strong qualities that Maria revealed to Emmanuel?
Providing opportunities for students to explore the lives of different people through profiles also allows students to connect literacy skills to the real world. By integrating family and community into the curriculum with profiles, educators can show students that literacy is not a skill just practiced with classroom texts; rather, it is an important ability exercised in daily life.
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Donna E. Werderich is an assistant professor of language arts in the department of literacy education at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 by National Middle School Association