Using Writing to Teach Self-Advocacy

When do students with special needs who have been supported in all aspects of their educational experiences become active participants, instead of passive bystanders? When do they transition into being self-advocates, instead of being the reason for teacher advocacy?   How does this transition happen, and how can writing help?  These questions were on the forefront of my mind as I launched an investigative journalism unit in our 8th grade writing class while also recalling the mantra of our special education team- “No decision about me without me.”  How do I teach both advocacy and grade level writing standards without forcing a connection or having students merely regurgitate my ideas?

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In an effort to address barriers with engagement for the writing unit, students were encouraged to investigate an issue that mattered to the community but also to them as individuals. Many students chose the Boston Public Schools high school selection process wherein an algorithm determines a child’s future.  Boston Public Schools holds an annual lottery wherein families rank their high school options and a computer generated program determines their high school assignment based on location, ranking, sibling school placement, ESL codes and Special Needs codes.  There are also schools that require an application process and/or an exam score for the opportunity to attend. The high school process in Boston is similar to applying to college in terms of selecting from various options and having different requirements for admission. In the case of students with IEP’s who receive educational support either in an inclusion setting or in a sub-separate classroom (80% of their school day), these students have less school options that go into the algorithm.

At the outset of the unit, I conferenced with students who were struggling to identify a relevant issue, and when meeting with one of my inclusion students, Andy, I mentioned the high school process and asked how he was feeling about it.  I explained that he would get fewer options and asked which options he hoped he had.  At the time, Boston Public Schools was not able to provide the inclusion seat options to students and families so the discussion was based solely on what we hoped we would see on his list of school choices even though non special education students were aware of all of their options.

This fact that he had less options and something different from his peers was life changing for Andy.  As a student with language based learning disabilities who uses English in school and Vietnamese at home to communicate, one could argue he spends a great deal of his day working on using his language skills for self-advocacy, especially since his expressive and receptive language skills are low in both his L1 and L2.  Language does not come easily to him.  He is often quiet and frequently relies on his peers for expressive language  and his teachers for receptive language.

When he learned of the inequity happening to him in regard to high school, he found his voice.  I was nervous to name the issue because I worried about his self-perception and wanted to protect him from the harshness of a system that, for the fourteen years of my teaching career, has continued to disappoint me when it comes to supporting transitions for students from 8th grade to 9th grade.  Was this more about my feelings than Andy’s? I had to name for myself that I was only giving him facts, and it was Andy who generated the real feelings that mattered the most.

Andy's Article

Andy surveyed his classmates to gauge their reactions to learning students with IEPs get a reduced number of high school options.   He interviewed his assistant principal in person and also  interviewed the head of the Boston Public Schools Guidance Department via e-mail.  Andy then participated in high school research—studying websites and visiting schools.  With teacher support, he created a multi-paragraph news article highlighting the inequity that exists within Boston Public Schools for students with specific special needs.  The fact that he produced multiple paragraphs that reflect grade level standards of including claim, evidence, and reasoning in his writing exceeded his IEP goals and highlighted his potential that had previously been unseen.   

However, perhaps the biggest transformation that occurred is that for the first time in Andy’s life, he exercised his power through language and independently completed the application to his most desired high school.  He had to complete a paper application that included family input, to request his transcripts and to generate an essay explaining the characteristics of a good school and a good student as well as detailing why he wanted to attend this specific school.  It was the first time Andy was independent with a task involving multiple steps.  He found his voice, and it was one of power.

I didn’t have to speak for him. He was able to speak for himself. Through discussing, thinking and writing, he was able to exercise his independence for the first time. I realize I don’t need to be advocating for him, I need to be advocating with him.  How do I increase student voice and advocacy from those who need it most?  This is the question I will continue to ask my students so that together we can be agents of change for a transition process in Boston Public Schools that is in desperate need of updates.

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Andy reads his news article draft out loud with pride so he can receive feedback from his grandfather at the GPA Writing Celebration on December 16, 2015. 


Writing Is Thinking Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One serves as a guidebook for sentence writing as well as a model of analytical thinking for sentence reading. Full of appreciation for the English language and the craft of master authors who employ its nuances effectively, this short volume presents examples, analysis, and instruction in sentence writing using mentor sentences collected from English writers in the past half-millennium, including George Eliot, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell.

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Fish begins with the thesis that emerging writers who are learn the craft of sentence creation should begin with syntactic forms without regard to content, similar to the way that beginning pianists practice scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises. For the beginning sentence craftsperson, content can be a distraction; students first need to understand the tools of the trade.

Fish goes on to describe the three types of sentences, provide models from regarded writers, and give step by step instructions on how to write them. The two more formal structures are the subordinating sentence, which lends itself to ranking, ordering, and sequencing, and the additive sentence, which gives an impression of flow and flexibility. A third category is the less-formal, satiric sentence, which writers employ as a means of slyly critiquing individuals, groups, and social structures.

I really enjoyed the exercises suggested by Fish, and I found myself in a moment of flow and creative space as I worked within Fish’s expert guidelines to develop my sentence craft. The photo below shows my work with following Fish’s directives based on a model sentence by Ford Madox Ford to craft a non-contextualized sentence in the additive style, which resulted in the following sentence:

The bright dresses, patterned with tropical flowers, flowing and gliding from place to place on the parquet tiles, the conversation from each table vibrant and lithe, the children watching from the courtyard windows angling to hear the voices of their mothers, so ordinating in the daytime, punctuating the night with words, not about their children, but about their other non-mothering lives.

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In later chapters, Fish gives examples and analysis of effective first and last sentences, such as the succinct yet haunting ending of Orwell’s 1984: He loved Big Brother. He concludes by offering a simple equation that argues for the value of crafting sentences as a means to support reading comprehension and a love of language:

sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation

As I worked through this book, with my pen and notebook close at hand, I felt a sense of tremendous exploratory and creative freedom to write with content pushed aside. I felt like a true and authentic writer, allowed to polish my technique and encouraged by a masterful and analytical reader. This book would be a wonderful choice to explore during teacher professional development as it models how teachers, as readers and writers, must be able to talk about language with their students – with careful attention to its craft and structure, with passion and exuberance, with a wide knowledge of writers and writing.

As a middle school writing teacher, I can envision the writing classroom as a type of makerspace for sentence construction. Empowered with the tools of and process for sentence construction, the students become crafters of language. Having experienced deep analysis and discussion of effective sentences, middle schoolers will have the capacity and space to invent their own syntactic constructions.

Sentences are an essential link between vocabulary and discourse in reading and writing, and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One amplifies the importance of understanding sentence craft and structure in order to fully understand the aesthetics and craft of the English language.

Harper Collins Web Sampler: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Building Vocabulary: Using Project-Based Learning to Understand Organelles and Their Functions

Introducing students to the invisible world of microscopic life has always been one of my favorite scientific investigations. Students broaden their understanding of the surrounding world by examining tangible evidence of scientific concepts that cannot be proven with standard empirical observation. For example, students are taught that all plants are made up of multiple cells, but this concept is not made real until they see the layers of green bricks that construct a small portion of a leaf they found outside. The deeper they look, the broader the scope of science becomes, and with that depth comes an array of new terms and concepts that must be acquired. In this investigation, students had to stretch their understanding beyond the magnification of the microscope, and demonstrate knowledge of new invisible structures that made up cells: organelles.

As I began to develop my lesson plans, I found myself staring into the unknown as my curricula no longer served as a map to our final destination. According to the Massachusetts science standards, students must learn to identify the structure and function of organelles in a cell, but the district-provided curricula does not offer a way for students to meet this standard. In order to prepare my lessons, I needed to independently research the content and create instructional materials for this

This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like
This is a sketch I found on the classroom floor while cleaning after school. Polysemous words like “cell” are challenging for many ELLs, and I was proud to see the spontaneous use of creativity and humor to display a complex concept.

portion of the unit. Students not only had to master novel scientific language, but they needed to use this language to describe how organelles interact to create the smallest unit of life. I knew that students needed a creative approach to mastering these novel terms, one that would help them demonstrate their mastery both using oral and written language. After conducting research and consulting colleagues, I decided that the best way to accomplish this task would be to have the students work on a project in which they either would build a cell model or create a poster that demonstrates how organelles are analogous to other systems.

This project-based learning approach proved to be an engaging strategy that allowed students to actively synthesize information, rather than just practice rote memorization of cell parts. At the center of this project was a two-fold writing process. As students constructed their project, I asked them to to write about the function of each organelle in order to learn about the cell. Later, I required that they demonstrate their knowledge by completing a writing assignment that asked high order thinking questions around organelles in plant and animal cells. This powerful process gave me insight into my students’ learning and helped me to better understand the ways in which I can support the English Language Learners and Students with Special Needs in the classroom.

The Project

I was nervous during the onset of this project, as I had never attempted an artistic, open ended assignment like this in my class. My supplies were limited, and it required a great deal of imagination and effort from each student to complete construction of cell model. Students needed to bring in materials from home to complete the task and had to rely on their own understanding of cell structure to complete the project.  I was afraid that, while students were able to construct a model or build a poster, they would get caught up in the creative process and not internalize the names and functions of the cell. These fears subsided soon after the project began.

Early in the lesson planning process, I realized that the key to a successful project would be in providing a clear objective. I developed a rubric that ensured all students were able to write about specific organelles and allowed students to either focus on a model of a cell, or create a poster that served as an analogy of the functions of the organelles. This level of choice provided an opportunity for students to select their own accommodations, and this freedom ultimately resulted in a higher level of engagement. In fact, some students decided to go beyond the assignment and merged the two projects by constructing cell analogies in a model form.

In the end, four types of projects emerged:

The Cell Analogy Model

A small group of students had their heart set on building a model, but wanted to go beyond constructing a replica of a cell. This resulted in these students creating PhotoGrid_1432689212260their own “Hybrid Project” in which they took elements from the Cell Analogy poster, and combined it with the 3-D model aspects of the cell model project. Two groups built a Cell City, where different city structures represent parts of the cell, while another student worked independently to show how a cell is like a family inside their home. In all cases the students that took on this ambitious project were my top performing students, and they had no problem demonstrating they had mastered the material, orally and in written form.

Cell Analogy Poster

Not very many students chose to create a cell poster, but those who did gained and in-depth understanding of the cell functions. Students that had a better understanding of different organelles gravitated to this project, and the results were impressive. Students were able to personalize the project and allowed for a different type of creativity than building a 3D model. In one particular project, a group of English Language Learners was able to match the attributes of their favorite futbol players to organelles in the cell. I knew nothing about these different players, and they took pride in being able to teach me about the player’s strengths and relating all their knowledge back to how organelles function in a cell. My favorite analogy was their comparison of mitochondria to Eden Hazard who serves as the “power house” of the team.PhotoGrid_1432688608468

Poster AD

When asked what they meant by “power house” they said that he gave his teammates energy on the field, just like mitochondria in a cell. Overall these students did an excellent job of orally explaining the cell functions, and the formative written assignments were thorough. The summative assessment showed that 4 out of 5 of the students who completed this project demonstrated knowledge of organelle functions, while all of the students could write about the differences between plant and animal cell organelles.

Cell Model

A vast majority of students decided to build a 3D model of a cell out of household items and recycled trash. Working in pairs forced students to use the technical language as they discussed the materials they would use to build each part. One of the most inspiring moments was listening to a group of intermediate ELL students debate over what should be used to construct a vacuole in their plant cell. They ultimately decided on a water bottle as it was the right size and actually held water as it would in the cell. Overall, students scored very well on the oral assessment PhotoGrid_1432776640536(with the exception of the only homogenous ELL group), as well as the formative written assessment. In the oral assessment, I found that the majority of students were able to correctly identify and pronounce the names of various organelles, and explain their function in the cell. This process was done without the aid of any written content. The homogenous ELL group however, struggled with recalling the names of the different organelles hindering their ability to correctly identify the organelle functions. During the formative writing assignment, every student was able to create an explanation of each organelle function and match that function to the proper organelle.

Pre-made Cell Cut Out

The fourth type of project was one that had all the organelles of a plant cell and an animal cell already prepared with labels and explanations. The students had to cutPhotoGrid_1432776322030 out the organelles, place them in the correct cell, and explain their function to me in the oral assessment. This project was created to help two of my students with more intensive special needs overcome the executive functioning demand that is associated with managing a vast array of materials. This simple accommodation proved to be valuable, and allowed those students to work independently on accomplishing the same objective as the rest of the class.


Planning this assignment was not easy, but after the initial heavy lift, I found it to be worthwhile. The writing component that accompanied the project demonstrated student understanding of each organelle and their function, and the oral component offered deeper insight into aspects of the assignment that challenged students.

One week after the project was complete I gave a written assessment in which the students had to identify the function of different organelles and write about 3 differences between an animal and a plant cell. While grading this test, I immediately identify a crucial mistake in planning the project: I did not provide a pre-test by which I could accurately measure growth.

This is a writing sample from one of my top performing general education students. This student decided to construct a 3-D cell model.
This is a sample from a English Language Learner who is also on an Individual Education Plan. While he did not score high on the oral portion of the exam, he did very well with recalling vocabulary and key differences between plant and animal cells.

While I was pleased with how well the class did overall, I could still see a gap between my ELLs and other students. A pretest however would help put this gap into perspective, as I would be able assess the gains of each individual student after the project was completed. It would be naive of me to believe that one project-based learning assignment would erase the gap, but this experience has shown me the value of project-based learning.

These few days were filled with qualitative and quantitative data that amounted to tangle learning in my classroom. The hours of engagement, the rich level of content-based discussion, and the higher order thinking exhibited during this project serve as strong evidence that combination of writing techniques and project-based assignments will result in measurable learning for all students.

Below you can find the Rubrics used in this Project:

Cell Anology Poster Rubric

Cell Model Rubric