Elaboration is essential to any piece of writing, whether it is narrative, expository or persuasive. The development of elaboration is what makes writing clearer, stronger and more effective. It is a challenge for writers of all ages and levels from Pulitzer Prize winning authors to elementary-school students. Writing curricula and programs are filled with lessons on elaboration. Teachers line the margins of student work with comments such as "add more details," "much too general," "show, don't tell," "tell more" and "explain better." Research and practical experience reveal that students who have strong visual-verbal connections, who link seeing and writing, will develop better thinking skills, expand their vocabulary, and improve the quality of the elaboration in their writing. This unit will focus on visual journaling, which is unlike typical journaling because it combines images and text and allows students to make those important visual-verbal connections. The use of personal journals in teaching has had powerful and far reaching effects. Journals allow students to express a variety of thoughts in a free, more non-judgmental format. Students are often motivated to write in journals as doing so seems less like a formal written assignment. The introduction of pictures in a journal opens students' minds even more. For many students who have a dread of writing, visual journals can increase the flow of words by providing a way to fill up a blank page easily with the aid of visual images. The visual journal is an on-going creation of observations and reflections designed to draw attention to sensory details in order to build elaboration skills. It addresses the needs of all learners from non-English speakers and students with learning disabilities to high achievers with extensive vocabularies. This unit can be easily adapted for any grade level, and it can be implemented in a variety of ways: as a weekly or monthly supplement to the language arts curriculum or as an autonomous unit.
I am a special education-inclusion teacher for the middle-school component of Edgewood Magnet School. I, therefore, collaborate, consult and co-teach in the regular education classrooms, modifying and differentiating instruction for students with special needs. I work primarily with fifth through eighth graders. Because the majority of my students find writing challenging, I am highly involved in the planning and direction of the writing classes in these grades. Edgewood is primarily a neighborhood magnet school with grades kindergarten through the eighth grade, and it has a diverse population. The students have a wide range of ethnicities, economical strata and varying degrees of academic and emotional strengths and weaknesses. The school has an enrollment of about 450 students with approximately 60% African-American population, 12% Hispanic population and the remaining 29% Caucasian and Asian. About half the school qualifies for free or reduced lunches, and approximately 7% of the population are identified as special education students. Edgewood School records a very high average daily attendance rate of 96%. In addition, it provides an arts-integrated curriculum, an educational approach that supports multiple intelligence theory and uses arts education as a means to assist students to improve their academic performance and enrich their lives. Arts-integration curricula use art forms--music, visual art, theater, and dance to teach other core subjects, including math, reading, and language arts. This unit aligns with the philosophy of the school.
The seventh-grade language arts class prepares students for the Connecticut Mastery Test. In middle school students are required to write an expository or a persuasive essay as the Direct Assessment of Writing component of the state test. Tests and the never-ending collection of student data have driven the writing curriculum since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act and high-stakes testing. Fifty-two percent of the students in Grade 7 at Edgewood School achieved goal on the Connecticut Mastery Test in 2008, and 77% scored at or above Proficiency. In New Haven an average of 29.3% achieved Goal. According to No Child Left Behind, all students must be scoring at Proficient level or above by 2014. Reviewing these statistics, it is obvious that we as teachers have our work cut out for us.
Language arts classes have evolved into lessons that teach to this test and its format. Monthly writing prompts with very strict rubrics and formats have turned many of our students into formula writers. Practicing for writing prompts and assessments have had positive and negative effects on students. Most of them are able to write an organized five-paragraph essay, demonstrating understanding of the basic framework: introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion, each with a topic sentences. However, elaborations of the students' ideas are generally weak, lacking specific details and language. While structure and form are extremely important in teaching students writing skills, I have noticed a lack of spark or interest in their own writing. Students produce the bare minimum for a passing score of 4, which is Goal for the Direct Writing Assessment. Monthly writing prompts provide important data on the student writing, and they allow teachers to specifically pinpoint students' strengths and weaknesses. Student writing portfolios reveal that elaboration is clearly the weak area across the board. Visual journaling will allow students to sharpen their observational skills, which will in turn create more fully elaborated writing.