#252 – Shift Writing Into the Classroom, Part I, with Dr. Katie Novak

Unpacking Education January 10, 2024 47 min

In this episode, Dr. Katie Novak joins us to talk about the new book she has cowritten with Dr. Catlin Tucker, Shift Writing Into the Classroom With UDL and Blended Learning. They believe that we need to rethink how we approach writing in school. Dr. Novak, a former writing teacher herself, explains that while teachers are working harder than ever, what we are currently doing is not working. Fewer than 30% of students are meeting grade-level writing proficiency on standardized assessments, and teachers are burning themselves out by bringing large numbers of papers home to grade. On top of this, generative artificial intelligence (AI) has made cheating easier, threatening to undercut the integrity of student writing. The solution to these challenges, this book argues, is to shift the writing process into the classroom.

Dr. Novak says, “What we really want to argue in this book is that we need to continue to develop students’ literacy skills and that every teacher is a teacher of literacy, in every grade and every content area.” She adds, “We need everyone to shift literacy into the classroom so that students can develop their voices, and once they have that as a foundation, we need to leverage emerging technology to help them to make that more efficient.”

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

. . . teachers must architect learning experiences that position students at the center of learning where they can practice, apply, interact, engage, discuss, and collaborate.

Dr. Katie Novak and Dr. Catlin Tucker, from the introduction to their book, Shift Writing Into the Classroom with UDL and Blended Learning

A Better Approach to Writing

Shift Writing Into the Classroom with UDL and Blended Learning promotes what the authors describe as a new and better approach to writing in schools. By shifting the writing process into the classroom, the experience becomes much more student-centered. This not only helps to alleviate the workload of teachers, but it also encourages students to own their learning. By doing this work in the classroom, students have teachers there to help guide them and redirect them when necessary. Students also have the benefit of their peers, who can collaborate with them and help them through the process.

In the age of AI, shifting writing into the classroom also alleviates the concerns about academic integrity and writing. In this model, teachers work with students throughout the writing process, allowing them to see the work develop and offering the opportunity to talk through the process with each student. Teachers become familiar with each student’s writing style as well as their strengths and areas where they need to grow. Once students have formed their first draft under the helpful eyes of their teacher, they can then leverage the efficiencies of technology in a way that doesn’t compromise their writing development. Tune in to this episode to learn more about this transformational book and how you can shift writing into the classroom. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Dr. Katie Novak is a former English teacher, an internationally renowned education consultant, author, a graduate instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former assistant superintendent of schools in Massachusetts. She has 20 years of experience in teaching and administration, a doctorate in curriculum and teaching, and 12 published books.
  • Purpose of the Book: Dr. Novak states that “writing is considered to be the most neglected skill.” At the same time, it’s a critical one. This book proposes an efficient model that teachers can simultaneously use to improve writing, reduce teacher workload, and mitigate concerns about cheating with generative AI chatbots.
  • Critical Thinking: As teachers struggle to balance new technology with core skill building, Dr. Novak emphasizes, “We do not want kids to lose their ability to think critically and allow robots to express what they’re thinking, and so I think that we have this moral imperative to help students develop their voice—to express themselves—through speaking and through writing, all while helping them recognize that these tools are a reality that will help them do this more efficiently. But it’s not instead of critical thinking and really sharing your voice, it’s ‘how can you be more efficient about that’?” She summarizes, “We need everyone to shift literacy into the classroom, so that students can develop their voices, and once they have that as a foundation, we need to leverage emerging technology to help them to make that more efficient.”
  • Writing in Every Classroom: “We talk about in one of the chapters really understanding the difference between learning how to write and then writing to learn, and it’s a balance of that,” says Dr. Novak. “And certainly, every single subject-area teacher should really think about what it means to write in that subject area.”
  • Not Enough Time: “People say we don’t have time for that [in-class writing],” Dr. Novak acknowledges. However, she points out, ”A CEO of Jaguar once said that if you think that good design is expensive, look at the cost of bad design.” She explains, “If we don’t slow down, we’re gonna continue to have 70% of kids in this country who are not able to express themselves in writing.” If for only that reason, we need to make time for writing.
  • A Process, Not an Event: Writing is a process, not a one-time event. When we send writing home with students, it feels more like an event. That’s less effective and lends itself  to cheating. Dr. Novak says, “There is no way to prevent students from using these tools [generative AI] if they’re doing all of this work independently. But if you’re in [the] classroom, and you’re concept mapping, and you’re sitting and you’re having conversations, I wouldn’t even be scared of students using those tools at home when the time comes because I would be able to say, ‘This is not that student’s writing voice. This is not what that student wanted to say.’”
  • A Need to Shift: Dr. Novak shares, “If what we were doing was working . . . then we wouldn’t have to deconstruct what we’re currently doing, but the reality is that kids deserve better, and teachers are working too hard to not have kids doing better. So we have to completely change the way that we are designing and delivering instruction—the way we’re assessing students—because they can use these tools for the rest of their life.”
  • Structuring an In-Class Workflow: Once teachers have a firm understanding of the writing process, they can leverage Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and blended learning approaches to make in-class writing a reality. Stations and playlists can be used to allow students to more independently work through the learning process, freeing up teachers to conference with students and provide valuable real-time feedback throughout the writing process.
  • Tech Has a Place: Dr. Novak explains, “If the teacher is involved in all of this, I know what they [students] were thinking. I was a part of the conversation. I saw the outline. I’ve looked at the really, really rough draft. At that point, like go ahead and use your tools as you start talking about revising and copyediting . . . because the meat—the thought process—like that’s the human element that cannot be replicated.”
  • Assessment Process: Teachers who spend their weekends and evenings correcting papers only to have students discard the returned copy without reading any of the comments will understand this remark from Dr. Novak: “Our weekend goes to die in the recycling bin.” Instead of this frustrating experience, teachers should consider in-class grading and assessment. By conducting short writing conferences, students get feedback in real time while teachers can simultaneously assess student work. Students receive feedback verbally and through dialogue, so the degree of processing and retention is much greater than from only written comments in the margins.
  • Managing In-Class Conferences: The use of playlists and station-rotation formats can give teachers the time to meet with students in class. In these models, students mostly work independently through the learning activities while the teacher pulls individuals or small groups of students to a teacher center for a conference. Dr. Novak explains, “Because the pace of watching the video, exploring the resources, [or] going through the brainstorm is different, you’ll have a trickle of kids that come up and show you what they’re working on.” This makes conducting conferences manageable.
  • Informal Conferences: Student check-ins can also be conducted as the teacher walks around the classroom. Dr. Novak says, “When we think about instruction as ‘one size fits all’ . . . it feels really difficult to figure out how to have time with kids. When we shift to something that is more blended and more universally designed, I am not up in front of the classroom anymore. And so, I have the whole period, minus the welcoming activity and an exit ticket, to walk around, and check in, and give feedback to kids.”
  • Artificial Intelligence: “We can’t ignore the efficiency,” states Dr. Novak. Students will have tools like artificial intelligence available to them their whole lives. They will be able to use these tools to assist them in the writing process, especially during the editing and revision phases. When this happens in class, there are checks for academic honesty along the way. Teachers can also benefit from AI by leaning on it to save time with creating rubrics and exemplars.
  • 3–2–1: Dr. Novak describes the 3–2–1 strategy that can help students prepare for a conference with the teacher. Each student generates a list of three things they did well, two things they want to revise, and one thing they need help with. This 3–2–1 can be the foundation of the conference conversation.
  • Emptying Plates: Most initiatives are additive, giving teachers one more thing to do. Shifting writing into the classroom is different. Dr. Novak explains, “Teachers are working too hard, and we’re not asking teachers to add to their plates. We’re asking them to clear their plates and hit the buffet anew.” She adds, “We can increase student outcomes by actually taking less of a role in this work because students need to experience learning for themselves in order to achieve at higher levels. So think about this as not more but just actually shifting some of the work that you used to do to students for them to do it themselves.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How do you describe the writing process?
  • How do you use writing in your classroom?
  • Do you have your students learn to write or write to learn?
  • What steps can you take to shift writing into your classroom?
  • What role can UDL and blended learning play in facilitating an in-class writing model?
  • What are the benefits of shifting writing into the classroom?
  • What role should AI and other technology play in the writing process?

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