The College-Ready Writers Program at the Chippewa River Writing Project

For the 2016-17 school year, teacher consultants from the Chippewa River Writing Project have been involved in the national scale-up of the College-Ready Writers Program. This is the first in a series of posts about our experiences implementing this powerful program.

The Chippewa River Writing Project will host an open institute from June 19-23 for any teachers in grades 6-12 who would like to learn how to implement the College-Ready Writers Program in their classes. The $100 registration fee includes three days with a continental breakfast and boxed lunch, as well as a copy of Joseph Harris’s book, Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. All sessions will be facilitated by K-12 teacher consultants affiliated with the Chippewa River Writing Project.  Learn more here.

The College-Ready Writers Program

In 2012, the National Writing Project was awarded an Investing in Innovation grant to provide professional development to teachers in rural schools in ten states. The PD was designed with an end in mind of improving students’ college- and career-ready writing. The initial launch of the program yielded significant improvements in student writing. In 2015, SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research center, reported that students in the districts where the College-Ready Writers Program had been implemented outperformed students in control districts on four attributes of their writing: content, structure, stance, and conventions. In 2016, then, the National Writing Project decided to scale up the College-Ready Writers Program to 50 new sites for the 2016-17 school year. The Chippewa River Writing Project was selected to be one of those sites.

Components of the College-Ready Writers Program

Routine Argument Writing

The College-Ready Writers Program is built upon some core principles and shifts in thinking about the teaching of argument writing. First, teachers are taught to meet students where they are in implementing routine argument writing activities that help students redefine argument and recognize the ways in which they encounter arguments every day. For example, an early lesson in routine argument writing asks students to record a daily agenda for themselves starting with when they awake and proceeding through all of the activities of their day. Students then look at their daily schedule and ask themselves where in the day they might find something to argue, coding those times with an A. Teachers model the process for students in their own daily schedule. Here is a portion of my daily schedule that I modeled for students on the document camera during this activity. 

An example of a daily schedule modeled for students.

Next, a teacher might ask students to identify three topics in their daily schedule about which they could write an argument and engage them in writing sprints to generate ideas. Routine argument writing helps students to recognize that argument exists in their daily lives, not just in their academics.

Teachers can peruse additional strategies for routine argument writing, such as loop writing, curation, and visual arguments, on the College-Ready Writers Program website or in a table here.

Skills-Based Mini-Units

Skills-Based Mini-Units are a critical component of the College-Ready Writers Program. Students are asked to engage in source-based argument writing with attention to specific skills — or moves — that writers make in crafting arguments. The Program uses the language of Joseph Harris’s Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts to teach students specific and concrete skills they can use in writing arguments, including “forwarding,” “authorizing,” “extending,” and “countering.” In addition, College-Ready Writers Program teachers use the argument moves laid out in They Say, I Say, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, to give students strategies for introducing and discussing texts. Strategies from these texts invite students to enter into the conversation around a given topic and to find their own argument while recognizing opposing viewpoints.

Through the mini-units, students learn such strategies as writing nuanced claims, connecting evidence to claims, ranking evidence for effectiveness, and adjusting for audience. Students begin by choosing a topic, but instead of deciding upon a claim at the start, they are taught to research the conversation surrounding the topic — an important and distinctive feature of the College-Ready Writers Program. After considering the conversation, students then craft their own arguments with specific instruction and focus on a particular set of skills. Since its inception, and even over the course of this school year, the College-Ready Writers Program has expanded the text set collection that accompanies the mini-units. Text sets on topics such as autonomous cars, technology use, fast food, space debris, school lunches, and school start times engage students in argument that stems from authenticity of topic and purpose. Teachers also have guidance in the program to curate their own text sets that integrate into their curriculum.

One lesson that has been powerful for both my 9th and 12th graders this year has been the College-Ready Writers Program lesson on writing claims. You’ll find some of the slides from a lesson built by Jean Wolph from the Louisville Writing Project on what a claim should be embedded below. This is only a portion; for the whole resource, click here. My students have been challenged by the idea that a claim must be compelling, debatable, and defensible, and, to be truly sophisticated, it should be nuanced as well. The language of the College-Ready Writers Program has become the standard in my classes, and my students now have concrete strategies for stating claims in more sophisticated ways.

One foundational feature of the College-Ready Writers Program is the inclusion of formative assessment. The Program includes the Using Sources Tool – a diagnostic tool that helps teachers to assess students’ ability to use the various skills and moves taught in the mini units and then to identify next steps for writers. Used after each cycle of writing, the tool targets the specific skills of the mini-units and helps teachers to demystify the skills that writers utilize.

Click the image to view the entire Using Sources Tool.

Extended Research Argument

According to the website of the College-Ready Writers Program, “The ultimate goal for a student argument writer is a self-driven exploration of an issue that is important to them. This exploration is one where they inquire into a conversation, find their place in it, and contribute their voice.”  Routine argument writing and the skills-based mini-units prepare students to explore a topic in depth and to argue a position thoughtfully. The idea of an extended research paper is not new to most ELA teachers; however, in the College-Ready Writers Program, the focus continues to be on entering the conversation around a topic before establishing a claim.

Casey Olsen of the Montana Writing Project shares the project his students take on toward the end of the year — one which asks students to read and investigate a topic of importance in their own communities. His students examine an issue through reading but also through conducting firsthand interviews and examinations of the problem. Instead of a traditional research paper, students write a paper examining their process as researchers as well as a letter to the editor — an argument on the topic they have researched. Student writers benefit from an authentic audience and an authentic purpose for their research.

In my own classroom, I invite my 9th graders to re-imagine high school in a Design Thinking unit at the end of the term. Our guiding question, “How might we improve upon high school for current and future students?” is one that my 9th graders are passionate about. Students begin this unit by exploring issues at high schools and then identifying a topic that matters to them — usually an issue they see at our school. Then I ask them to research the topic through traditional sources first and write annotated bibliographies explaining the conversation around their topic. Next, they team up to conduct their own research and write about their findings. Finally, I ask my students to design something to address the issue they are exploring and to share their creation with a real audience. My students create poster campaigns, websites, pitches to the principal, letters to the editor, and speeches to their classmates. It’s amazing, at this final unit of the year, to see the students engaged in research that matters to them while putting into practice all they have learned about using sources and reaching various audiences.

What’s even better, though, is seeing my students recognize how they might use their voices as writers to make changes in the real world. Isn’t that what argument should be?


Janet Neyer (@janetneyer) teaches English and psychology at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Michigan, where she is passionate about incorporating authentic reading, writing, and research experiences into all of her classes. She serves as a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project in mid-Michigan, and she is a Google for Education Certified Trainer.  You can find Janet’s Google Apps resources as well as her thoughts about teaching at upnorthlearning.org.

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