Traits Rock in the Content Areas

I just spent two days working with very knowledgeable and delightful middle school social studies teachers.  They were remarkable and helped me rediscover the reason I love this work so much.  Over the years I have considered writing a traits book for content teachers, but you know what I learned?  We don’t need one.

The exact same principles that apply to traits in the English/language arts class work with writing in any content area.  We looked at student papers written for different purposes and topics that come from the coursework in social studies, and I was delighted to watch teachers take the traits scoring guide and use it expertly within a minute of receiving it.

Without any help from me, they read a piece and then began to parse out which issues in the paper were working well and which were not.  They matched them up to the trait and called out the specific language at the level of their assessment.  Then the social studies teachers began discussing how to help students overcome difficulties in specific areas — repetitive sentence structure, lack of a cohesive theme, organizational missteps — and so on.

It was a staff development dream.  My main job was to get out of the way.  After they read and assessed several papers, I called them back together and we talked.  The conversation was rich and genuine, covering common student writing problems and concerns about motivating and engaging students in writing.

At the end of the day, I realized, once again, that the power of the traits is in giving all of us — no matter what subject or age we might teach — a language to sort out the fascinating process of creating strong pieces of writing and developing skilled, capable writers.  The books, the lessons, and all the rest of it are wonderful resources.  But, if you want students to become better writers, read their papers, apply the scoring guide, talk about your discoveries with other teachers–no matter what their content area of expertise might be.  That is where the power of the traits has always been, and always will be.

About Ruth Culham

RUTH CULHAM has written more than 40 books and best-selling resources illuminating both writing and the reading-writing connection for countless educators around the globe. Her groundbreaking work with the writing traits and writing from reading is the culmination of 40 years of research, practice, and passion. Ruth’s most recent books, The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing and Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture, are available from Stenhouse Publishers. She also conducts professional development for schools and districts and writes a regular column for The Reading Teacher.
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