When I first started teaching, I ran a “4 x 4 classroom.” My students read four “big” books a year (one per quarter), and they wrote four “big” papers a year (one per quarter). Four big books and four big papers—a 4 x 4 classroom.
At the time this made sense to me. It took a week or two to teach students how to write a specific essay. They took another week or two to move their papers completely through the writing process. Then it took me an additional three weeks to read and comment on 180 papers. (While students were waiting for their papers, I shifted the focus in the classroom to the core work we were reading). By the time I eventually returned the essays, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start thinking about the next big paper.
The same pacing held true when I taught core novels and plays. I took a week to prepare my students for the reading of Book X. We then spent six weeks reading the work, stopping frequently to make sure students were analyzing it to death. Then we spent a couple of weeks revisiting the work via numerous “beyond” activities. By the time students finished these culminating activities, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start reading our next core work
Years later, I have come to understand the severe limitations of the 4 x 4 approach. The central reason why 4 x 4 doesn’t work can be summed up in one word: “volume.” Volume matters a great deal and, simply put, students stuck in 4 x 4 paradigms do not read and write enough over the course of the school year to significantly improve. A 4 x 4 approach ensures adequate progress will not occur.
As I write this post, I am three weeks away from the end of another school year—a year in which I have spent a lot of time and energy breaking free of the 4 x 4 mold. Considering the importance of volume leads me to think about my students’ reading and writing journeys this year. Below is a list of the reading and writing tasks they have completed:
- In-depth study of three core works: All Quiet on the Western Front, Hamlet and 1984
- An in-depth study of The 9/11 Commission Report
- Various other books and articles on 9/11
- Book club books (self-selected from a list)
- Four (or more) self-selected recreational reading books
- An Article of the Week (every week)
- Numerous articles, maps, graphs, charts, infographics, speeches, and political cartoons that were woven throughout the curriculum
- Weekly Article of the Week reflections. Students wrote 30-plus of these, each one page in length.
- Weekly pieces in their Writer’s Notebooks. All of these topics and genres were self-selected by the students and shared in their writing groups each week. (We did this for half a year.)
- An inform/explain essay (students chose the topics)
- Multiple narrative essays (students chose the topics)
- A literary analysis essay on All Quiet on the Western Front (students chose the topics)
- An essay that connected Hamlet to the real world (students chose the topics)
- An argument paper after reading 1984 (student chose the arguments)
- An historical investigation into 9/11. The average paper was 22 pages. The shortest paper was 12 pages; the longest was 48 pages.
- Numerous reflections spun from classroom discussions and from video (YouTube)
- On-demand writings
Am I completely satisfied with this reading and writing output? No. On the reading side, for example, I want my students to have more choice when it comes to book club selections. (This is a budget hurdle; I am working on clearing it.) I am moving toward what I have deemed a 20/80 approach—20% reading of whole-class, core works; 80% reading of extended works, book club selections, and independent reading choices (for more on this, see Chapter 8 of my new book, In the Best Interest of Students). In regards to writing, I also want to build in more choice as well, perhaps moving toward a 20/80 split there as well (20% teacher-generated topics; 80% student-generated topics).
Though I am not completely satisfied with my students’ reading and writing output, I can say without hesitancy that the young men and women about to leave my class have written and have read much more than my former students who were once mired in a 4 x 4 approach. My classes are moving in the right direction. Volume is increasing.
Here are two factors that have helped me to turn up my students’ volume this year:
First, I recognized the importance of choice.
Looking at my students’ reading this year, there where times they had no choice, times where they had limited choice, and there were times they had wide-open choice:
No Choice - The class read three major core works together (see above).
Limited Choice - In the 9/11 unit of study, for example, students were presented with numerous books on the topic and chose the titles they wanted to read. In book club settings, students were given a choice between eight different titles and they selected the book they wanted to read (Instead of picking from a list, I would love to have wide-open choice in book clubs, but budgetary limits and school bureaucracy prohibit this. Again, I am working on this).
Wide-Open Choice - Students independently read a number of self-selected books.
These three types of reading—no choice, limited choice, wide-open choice—were found on the writing side as well:
No Choice - The entire class wrote a 9/11 paper.
Limited Choice - My students have just finished reading 1984, and I asked them “to write an argument under the umbrella of 1984.” Some students wrote arguments within the four corners of the book (e.g. “The central theme of 1984 is…”). Others wrote arguments outside the four corners of the book (e.g. “1984 remains valuable to the modern reader because…”). Whether they remained inside or outside the book, students created and answered their own prompts.
In some papers, I blended the level of choice. For their 9/11 papers, for example, the first half of those essays were dedicated to informing the reader of both the prelude and of the events of the day; in the second half of the paper students generated their own arguments and answered them (e.g. “Has the Patriot Act gone too far?”). I call these “50/50 papers”—half assigned, half choice.
Wide-Open Choice - My students do a lot of writing in their writer’s notebooks, and they generate almost all of this writing (topics and genres).
One thing is certain: when students are given choice—whether limited or wide open—they read and write more.
Second, I recognized that grading everything slows my students’ reading and writing growth.
Recently, Nancie Atwell received the first Global Teaching Prize (and the $1 million award that accompanies it). This award nicely coincided with the release of her third edition of In the Middle, arguably the most influential book ever published regarding the teaching of language arts. It is interesting that in this newest edition Atwell states:
I have never graded individual pieces of writing. Growth in writing is slow. It’s seldom straightforward, and it varies tremendously among young writers. It also happens on a wide array of fronts, as writers learn to generate, experiment, plan, select, question, draft, read themselves, anticipate, organize, craft, assess, review, revise, format, spell, punctuate, edit, and proofread. One piece of writing can never provide an accurate picture of a student’s abilities; rather, it represents a step in a writer’s growth—and not always a step forward, as new techniques, forms, or genres can overload any writer of any age (300).
This bears repeating and should be shouted from the rooftops of every school in the land: The teacher who was recently recognized as the best teacher in the world has not graded an essay in 40 years. Atwell’s students demonstrate remarkable writing growth, but let us not forget that her students’ growth occurred without a single essay being graded. Grading does not turn students into better writers. What makes Atwell’s students better writers? The same things that make our students better writers: Modeling. Conferring. Choice. And lots of writing.
The volume of writing is the key ingredient. If I provide good modeling, but my kids do not write much, they will not grow. If I confer with them, but they do not write much, my students will not grow. If I provide a lot of choice, but they do not write much, my students will not grow. Modeling, conferring, and choice are critical to growth, but if my students are not writing a lot, these factors become irrelevant.
In my school system, I am required to score essays, and I imagine this may true for you as well (Atwell runs her own school and gets to create her own rules). But let’s not lose sight of the lesson Atwell teaches us here: Students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade (I have a goal of at least a 4:1 ratio). When teachers grade everything, the writing pace of the classroom slows down. Volume suffers. It is only when students begin writing (and reading) more than the teacher can grade that they approach the volume necessary to spur significant growth.
Moving Beyond 4 x 4
As this school year winds down, I cannot shake the feeling that despite the progress in my classroom, my students are still not reading and writing enough (especially considering the deficiencies some of them have). My thoughts are already turning to next year’s classes and, as I approach summer, I am already wrestling with some big questions: How can I build more choice into the curriculum? When and where can I provide more modeling? How can I build in more time to confer? What else can I do to increase the volume of my students’ reading and writing? And most importantly, what else can I do to move beyond the 4 x 4 approach?