Starting Young, Starting Right: Literacy and Writing in Science

One of the greatest delights in my profession is meeting people who are doing tremendous work in the field. Among these are two teachers that I have been following online, Heather Valdespino and Rachel Murillo, as they develop a curriculum called Literacy and Writing in Science, aka LAWS.

The two graciously consented to an interview, and I am delighted to share their innovations with you. We met on March 7, 2015 for a Google Hangout to talk about their work. This post summarizes the highlights of our conversation. You can also download a transcript and learn more.

Heather Valdespinno

Heather Valdespino

Heather Valdespino is a history teacher with a background in anthropology and archeology. Rachel Murillo is a science teacher who fell into the profession and discovered she loved it. The two met while teaching at a writing-focused school where the writing curriculum was heavily dominated by English Language Arts.

Rachel Murillo

Rachel Murillo

Rachel was frustrated because the standard 5-paragraph essay used in the ELA department did not work in the science classroom. And no matter how much the students were taught about plagiarism, they kept showing up to class with pages printed from Wikipedia. But Heather had writing styles in the history classroom that were based on historical documents, showing Rachel that something different could be achieved. So they put their heads together and designed a writing curriculum for science.

“So we tried to … create a perfect science writing curriculum that would not just help students get better, but also teach teachers how to teach writing in science along the way. That was our goal.”

LAWS Transcript

One of the challenges of their work is training instructors how to teach writing. As a trained writing instructor who works in a field other than English, I think it is dangerous either to assume that any teacher can teach writing or to believe that the subject is so specialized that only English teachers can teach it.

“for better or worse, the fact of the matter is that teachers in science got into teaching science because we want to cut up dead things and blow things up. We didn’t get into science to teach writing.”

LAWS Transcript

Instead, I feel that we need to find a happy medium. Writing is a skill. It can be taught, and there are best practices to doing so that most teachers can learn. And that’s what Heather and Rachel have done with LAWS.

Literacy and Writing in ScienceThese two innovators have experienced many poignant moments in developing their curriculum. One of these involved a teacher using the LAWS materials who shared with Rachel and Heather that if he had had a similar education, he probably would have done a lot better in his own science courses.

Instead, when he was in college, he would look at the science journals and try to replicate the style he saw there. But he was never really taught how to write as a scientist. At the same time, he saw other students dropping out of the program. They thought the material was too hard, but it was not the science that was holding them back. It was the writing.

“The earlier we teach it, the easier the transition will be when we get into college, and then when they get into their careers.”

LAWS Transcript

Heather and Rachel believe if we want to push students to take more science and engineering courses, we also have to give them the tools to succeed in those classes. That means we have to teach writing well, and teach it young.

The idea is not new. I regularly ask the writers in my training courses about their writing education. The vast majority of them skip over their college experience as if it were negligible. In college, they were taught how to write for college. Once those four years were over, that training ceased to be relevant, if it ever was.

But many of them hearken back to a middle or high school teacher who drilled the basics of English, much like Rachel:

“the hardest teacher I ever had was my high school English teacher. I had her my sophomore year and my senior year. And I never had, even in college, a class that was as tough as hers.

“She would make us write-write-write. And I always tell my students, I see one of those little composition books with the Spartan guy on the front, and I just want to throw up every time I see it, because we had those in her class. And every day she would make us pull those darn things out and write.”

LAWS Transcript

What Heather and Rachel are learning and teaching is that those advocates and mentors of writing do not necessarily have to be English teachers.

I hope you can see why I admire Rachel and Heather as two shining lights in a system that a lot of us see many reasons to bemoan. So what do they see as the challenges of their profession?

Rachel would like to see greater parent engagement. She believes that when parents are engaged in their children’s education, children’s needs are communicated to administrators and policy makers, and positive changes result. For Heather, it’s about listening to teacher expertise. She sees a lot of professional capital that is not always given the weight that it’s due.

I thought it was remarkably humble of both my interlocutors that they identified innovative teachers as our greatest hope, without once realizing that they themselves are the very brightest examples of innovation. Talking with these teachers was a tremendous pleasure, one that I hope you’ll share by downloading our transcript.

Thanks for reading, everyone. We’d love to hear your comments and feedback. And if you found this interesting, please share it with a colleague!

Literacy and Writing in Science

NOTE: Many school districts are waiting for federal and state laws as well as textbook companies to tell them how to teach science. Meanwhile, teachers who want and even need to use the LAWS curriculum have to pay for it out of pocket. If you would like to help, please visit Heather and Rachel’s website and contact them directly: http://sci-laws.com.

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