Daily Writing to Deepen Math Understanding

My ELD level 1 & 2  students took the Achievement Network “Assessment 3”(a benchmark test to collect data on their progress in specific math standards) on March 23. Though each grade level (I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders) showed significant growth from “Assessment 2,” and in many cases outperformed the group of schools to which our school is compared, there was still something nagging at me when I looked at the data. More than half were leaving the constructed response problems blank. ABSOLUTELY BLANK. Even with all of the modeling close reading and teaching how to write sentence starters based on questions, there were so many blanks. Scoring them was incredibly frustrating: 0, 0, 0, 0.  A realization came over me: we just aren’t doing enough writing. Having students write answers in complete sentences with their reasoning just isn’t enough. So, I started implementing daily writing in my classroom on Monday, March 28, 2016.

Day 1: Do Now: Write a letter to your little brother/sister/cousin explaining what mean is. What is it? How do you find it? Draw an example to help further explain your thinking.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Missy, this is too hard!” “Y si yo no tengo hermanito o hermanita o prima?” “Ven aquí, missy, ayudame por favor.” “I don’t get it.” “What is the question?” “How do I answer?”


Day 2: Students are handed back yesterday’s writing with my written feedback. Sentence frames to support students who have trouble starting are written on the board to help support their language development.
Do Now:  When is the mean a precise indicator of a typical value in a data set? Create an example to explain your thinking further.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Que significa indicator?” “I don’t get it!!” “Como empiezo?” “Es que yo no entiendo, missy.” “I don’t want to write, can I just tell you?” Individual conferences occur during the 12 minutes of independent writing time.

Day 4: Write Now: What does it mean when we say a number has a specific deviation from the mean?

5 hand shoot up in the air, and some students just call out (gotta keep working on that), “Close together!!” “Spread out!!!”


Day 7: Task: Write a letter to Mr. Garcia about what we have been learning so far about statistics. Make sure you are using precise language, vocabulary and definitions, and you are telling him the purpose of what we are learning. Consider examples and models to support your explanations. Questions to consider include: Why do we use data? How can we use data to describe tendencies in our world? What is mean? What are the different ways we can find it? How do we describe data distributions? What is Mean Absolute Deviation?



Day 10: Task:
Complex multi-step constructed response ANET task that synthesizes content understanding.

Silence. Writing. Productive Struggle.

Evidence I have collected on the impact of this writing includes: increased vocabulary retention, enhanced student capacity to speak academically, deeper summary  discussions, and it has also given some students who struggle with computation a chance to shine. By day 10, all students were able to access and compete the constructed response task that two weeks ago would have been left blank. Since we began, we have built up our independent writing stamina from 3 minutes before someone interrupts with  either a question or chatting, to more than 15 minutes of engaged math writers.

By reading their writing I am able to tease out the differences between students conceptual, procedural, or application understanding of the standard we are working on. But while my conferencing is more targeted and my feedback is more concrete, there have definitely been days where I have failed at implementation: either I don’t have time to give enough or even any feedback,  or my question isn’t quite as rich as it could be, or I get frustrated with students for talking during writing time and instead of redirecting them in a calm, collected, supporting manner I was just not the best teacher I could have been.

So this is all pretty great! Right? Well, I have a confession: This past week before break I haven’t been implementing the “Write Now” as much because of excuses: artifact deadlines, practice PARCC exams, the week before break. So, I decided to write this blog. To hold myself accountable. To make what I’m doing public. To make sure I keep up with what works even when it’s hard. To ask for help so that I can think of a way to make giving feedback sustainable because when I get home giving feedback to a stack of 47 Write Nows is pretty much the last thing I want to do. The truth is that implementing daily writing has made my students better statisticians, and it has made me a better teacher of statistics. Because I am the first math teacher my students have when they come to their new, scary, foreign home, it is imperative that I not only teach my students grade-level content, but also help mold them as better writers because I truly believe that being a better writer ultimately makes them better readers, speakers, thinkers, doers, and problem solvers.

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston

We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings. 

penpal letters

Post 1: The Preparation

Dear Kat,

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.

The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text  and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.

I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.




Dear Alice,

I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.

I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:

  • Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
  • Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
  • Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!

I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:

  • Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.

Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!




Dear Kat,

That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.



Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 7.09.09 PM
Screenshot of google doc used by teachers to match students based on interests, strengths, and needs.

Using Songwriting in the Classroom

It’s eight in the morning, and every student is singing.

Across the classroom and in the hallways, groups of students are dancing, arguing, laughing. Over the last twenty-four hours, they have practiced at school, at each other’s houses, even over video chat. Soon, they will perform original songs for the class.

What topic inspired such fervor? An unlikely suspect: the Ganges River.

I often bring music into my fifth and sixth grade social studies classes, and I’ve even written a few songs for students. But I rarely asked students to write songs themselves. It’s too unpredictable, I’d thought. Too unstructured and challenging for most kids.  But here we were on a Friday morning, just a few hours away from the students’ performances about a river in India.

How did it go? You can see for yourself:

Something about writing songs resonated with the students in a way that essays and study guides can’t match. For this reason, I believe songwriting in the classroom is worth exploring, particularly for honoring the strengths and needs of English language learners and students with disabilities.

Writing SAM Songs

The method I have developed and used for teaching songwriting is called “SAM Songs.” The graphic organizer for students is below:

SAM Songs Student Organizer

The project will take at least three class periods: two for writing and one for performances.

Class One:

  1. To introduce the project, ask your students to share their favorite songs. After hearing from your students, tell them, believe it or not, they have the chance to sing these songs in class. Explain that you are trying something new: students will be writing songs to learn, and they will perform these songs for one another. Help students envision the project with an example. For instance, you might show students the “No Taxation Without Representation” clip from the above video (3:44 to 6:03) or “Dump It Off” below:
  1. Introduce the guiding question for the project. This is what students will answer with their songs. The question, like an essay prompt, should require research and critical thinking. For example:
  • What were the causes and effects of the Boston Tea Party?
  • When should a person use estimation?
  • What are the major sources of renewable energy, and how do they work?
  • How does daily exercise affect the body?
  • In what ways can an author establish mood in a text?
  1. Tell your students to include relevant vocabulary (“Say”), take perspectives (“Act”), and use motions to reinforce vocabulary (“Move”) in their songs. If you plan to grade the songs, introduce the rubric.
  2. Allow students to form groups of three to four and begin researching. From my experience, letting students choose their groups keeps students invested in the project and happy with their teammates.

During the songwriting process, students will be loud. They will move around. Some groups will follow the process faithfully, while others will excitedly start picking a song to parody. My advice: embrace the energy, and have faith in your students. The creative process will look different for everyone, and I’m always impressed by what my students accomplish. Students will sometimes ask for help when they are searching for just the right words or trying to explain a concept clearly. With some exceptions, I tell them, “That sounds challenging. I know you can figure it out.” Sure enough, most students do.

Class Two:

Students create motions to reinforce the meanings of words.
Students create motions to reinforce the meanings of words.

Students continue writing and rehearsing. During this time, look over students’ lyrics, ask students to show you motions for particular words, and challenge students to incorporate relevant vocabulary into their songs. If students finish, they can practice and give other groups feedback. Before class ends, encourage groups to make plans for practicing outside of school.

Class Three – The Performances:

While students rehearse for five minutes, make a stage area and prepare any music tracks on your computer or phone. Assign one student to start music tracks and another to film performances.  After each performance, take a few audience shout-outs before moving on to the next performance. Later, you can show videos of the performances. Students love watching these, and it’s a great way to wrap up the project.

Benefits for ELLs and SWDs

From my experience, songwriting has three clear benefits for English language learners and students with disabilities:

Combines speaking, listening, reading, writing, and moving

When songwriting, students speak, listen, read, write and move, and in a way that comes naturally to the activity. If I’m writing a song about the Himalayas, I’m writing the word Himalayas, saying it, reading it, hearing students around me say it, and doing a motion that relates to the word.  I also repeat the word many times because I am practicing for my performance. For an ELL or SWD, what could be more immersive than this?

Makes misconceptions visible

When students use motions in their songs, you can see students’ understanding, or lack thereof. For instance, for the Ganges River project, one group was singing about Indians praying in the river. As they sang, the students made a cross with their fingers, despite having learned that most Indians are Hindu, not Christian. It signaled to me that something was misunderstood: Hinduism, praying, or the meaning of the cross symbol. This misconception was unlikely to appear in ordinary writing.

Supports engagement

Perhaps the most important benefit of songwriting for ELLs and SWDs is how engaging it can be for these students.  Students who have trouble sitting still are out of their seats, singing and dancing. English language learners are explaining ideas and using vocabulary without fixating on grammar and syntax. And songwriting is challenging for all students. When ELLs and SWDs see that they aren’t alone in the struggle, they feel up to the challenge.

I was at the copy machine one afternoon, the day before students performed their songs. One of my students, a former ELL, ran up to me in the hallway.

“Yes?” I asked, surprised.

The student, out of breath, replied, “What’s the place where Hindus pray?”

Earlier that afternoon, I asked my students how songwriting made them feel. One student who has a  disability gave this answer:

“Like I woke up. Like I’m covered with lava!”

(I checked with the student later, who assured me that this is a good thing.)

These are the kinds of moments we all hope for as teachers. Through songwriting, we have the potential to engage all of our students – ELLs, SWDs, and their general education peers. Imagine what is possible when all our students “wake up.”

Ben Leddy teaches fifth and sixth grade Social Studies in Boston. Ben presented at 2015 Boston EdTalks, where he introduced the SAM songwriting method for using songs in the classroom. For more information or inquiries, visit www.benleddy.com, or email Ben at benjamin.leddy@gmail.com.

Creative Commons License
“Using Songwriting In the Classroom” by Ben Leddy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Writing in Science: Persistence Makes Perfect

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.  That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”  –Octavia E. Butler

Writing is an integral aspect of Science. It is embedded within the Scientific Method and the Engineering Process. Like experimentation, writing requires precision, organization, and perseverance. Whether crafting research papers, observations, or lab reports, scientific writing

This is a look at the Scientific Method through a  writing lens.
This is a look at the Scientific Method through a writing lens.

requires students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of many complex procedures and phenomena that people often take for granted. Examining an idea as simple as breathing can lead to an exploration on the human respiratory system, the molecular composition of gas particles, or the interaction between humans and the environment. This curiosity and exploration is a  key element of learning in the Science classroom, as it is imagination that drives Science beyond it’s limits.

Students are naturally curious, and a in my classroom I find that the more knowledge they acquire, the more questions they have. My role as a Science teacher is to bring context and structure to questions students have about the world around them.  The payoff is found in the “Eureka!” moments that students experience during a carefully planned experiment. However, once these students experience these moments, they must be able to go beyond experimentation and explain what it is they learned. This is where the scientific writer is born.

Scientific writing requires students to ask questions and use experimentation, prior experiences, and content knowledge to develop claims that answer the questions. This is a messy process that requires in-depth research, proper tools, and willingness to engage in trial and error to get the desired results. But while students are eager to “get their hands dirty” with Science experiments, they are paralyzed with anxiety when asked to write about them. As many middle school teachers can attest to, this anxiety comes in form of perceived apathy and work avoidance.

Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.
Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.

My philosophy on writing in my classroom is as follows: Question everything, persevere until you find an answer, and record every step of the journey. At the heart of all we do, I want to them to embrace the curiosity of the world around them and articulate the discoveries that they work so hard to reach through experimentation. This is difficult, however,  as the Boston Public Schools’ middle school science curriculum does not have many lessons on explicitly teaching writing.  There is a discrete set of science content standards that I must teach in my subject area, and I struggle with balancing reading, writing, and content specific concepts. Add in the fact that when implementing any new protocols, I also need to differentiate for English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and, as a second year teacher, I feel the same paralyzing anxiety around writing as my students. This has required me to look outside of my curriculum, and seek the guidance of colleagues.

In the upcoming weeks I will be working closely with a team of teachers to document my experiences with teaching writing across the curriculum. I will be guided by the principle theories presented in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model in which classroom writing tasks can be presented through two lenses: writing-to-learn and writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge. When writing-to-learn, students will focus on key concepts ideas as opposed to grammar, spelling or style elements of writing. In Science, this form of writing can be used during quick-writes in a lab notebook, observations during an experiment, or sorter vocabulary-driven writing assignments. Other times, students will be asked to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of concepts covered over the span of several weeks. When preparing these formal writing assignments such as research papers, lab reports and informational papers, students will be employing strategies focused on writing-to-demonstrate knowledge.

Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.
Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.

It is my hope that utilizing these targeted strategies will help to lessen the anxiety many students feel around writing, resulting an ability to persevere when tackling  complex subject matter. I want my students to see that writing is nothing more than thought manifested into a physical form.  If they can think it up, then they can write it down.