The new Common Core State Standards pose many challenges for students with disabilities. One of the biggest shifts is around argumentative writing, which pushes students to present multiple perspectives on a topic, choose a side to support, and find multiple pieces of evidence to support their claims.
This requires students to read, comprehend, and consider challenging complex texts and synthesize their ideas in writing. For students with disabilities, who struggle with all of these skills, argumentative writing can be very frustrating and result in disengagement.
One way I have strived to keep students engaged is through authentic writing assignments. Research has shown this to be effective in keeping students motivated, as they feel the skills will be necessary in the “real world” (for a great overview of authentic assessment see: http://www.eduplace.com/rdg/res/litass/auth.html).
Authentic writing also helps students because it presents a specific audience and a specific purpose for the writing, which can help them organize their ideas and use appropriate language. On a practical level, if we look at education as preparation for post-graduation life, then authentic writing assignments should be the cornerstone of any writing curriculum.
This term, my ICT 11th graders have been working on a very involved research project based around education. Students chose one educational topic (universal Pre-K, Common Core, standardized testing) and had to research the benefits and pitfalls of the policy. They then had to decide on a position on the particular policy. This allowed them to get invested in a topic important to them as well as learn important research and critical thinking skills.
Now comes the hard part: The writing. In order to make the research students are doing valuable and authentic, my co-teacher and I are having the students write letters to the New York City School Chancellor Carmen Farina. We intend to mail the essays to her once of they are completed and approved. As soon as the students became aware that someone else would be reading their papers, they became more invested in the writing which, I believe, will result in higher quality work.
When it comes to students with disabilities, it is so important to give them the opportunity to have their voices heard. Writing needs to be a form of self-expression. It must be purposeful. So often, these students are silent. So, by giving them authentic writing assignments, I not only look at it as a way to get their best work, I think about it as an integral part of their education.
Another way I have made writing authentic and purposeful is through share outs. In previous years, I have taught poetry to an ICT class that culminated in a poetry reading where students read their pieces to an open forum of teachers and students.
I also taught memoirs to a self-contained class that ended with a publishing party where administrators could come in, look at their pieces and ask them questions about themselves and the writing process. These activities made writing come alive. It made writing matter because someone was going to hear them. Someone was going to listen and ask questions.
It’s so important for us as educators to think about ways to empower our students to become advocates for themselves and others. Authentic writing can be a crucial part of teaching students the skills that don’t show up in standardized tests, but prepare them to live fulfilling lives.