Leveraging Literacy and the ALM Model to address Social Emotional Learning Part 3: Writing

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The purpose of writing is what gets at SEL. Having the freedom and space to reflectively write can afford students the opportunity to think about and process how they are feeling, doing and learning. Through the insight gained into the students’ thinking, the teacher can build trust and relationships with students.

Written By Jenni Aberli

On October 26, 2021

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Carefully planned writing opportunities are an excellent approach for meeting students’ educational and social emotional needs. Not only does the practice of frequent writing build students’ writing skills and stamina, but when given the right type of prompt, paired with the right strategy, students can be more reflective and self aware thinkers who feel safe as part of a learning community. Using the Adolescent Literacy Model (ALM) developed by the Collaborative for Teaching and Learning (CTL) is an excellent approach to the blending of teaching for both academics and SEL. 

The ALM provides a comprehensive, cross-disciplinary approach to literacy that focuses on the application of strategies to actively engage learners and deepen their understanding of content.  The model focus on five core subdomains of literacy: 

  • Vocabulary Development
  • Writing to Demonstrate Learning
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Writing to Learn
  • Academic Dialogue

The previous posts in this series on leveraging literacy to address SEL, focused on Academic Dialogue and Reading Comprehension. In this post, we’ll look at building literacy across the content areas by supporting students through writing opportunities that can build self awareness (students explore their feelings), self management (goal setting, reflection), social-awareness (taking others’ perspective), relationship building (collaboration and communicating with others) and responsible decision-making (consideration of consequences of actions and choices).  

Building an Inclusive Classroom through Writing

As a fellow of the Louisville Writing Project, an affiliate of the Kentucky and National Writing Projects, I was taught the power of writing. Writing is not only an important component of academics; we need to be able to communicate to others through our writing,  but it can also be therapeutic and provide us with the space we need to express ourselves and sort through our thoughts and feelings. This latter purpose of writing is what gets at SEL. Having the freedom and space to reflectively write can afford students the opportunity to think about and process how they are feeling, doing and learning. Through the insight gained into the students’ thinking, the teacher can build trust and relationships with students. Things to consider when planning for Writing:

  • When will you invite students to write? Before the lesson to introduce a new topic, activate schema or self-assess prior knowledge? During the lesson, to allow students to share ideas, evidence and ask questions?  After the lesson, to synthesize learning, reflect, and verify understanding?
  • What types of informal writing will students will regularly encounter in your classroom?
  • Do you have a small set of writing strategies you use consistently?  Do students have choice in the strategies they use?
  • How will you allow the content and standards to influence the writing?
  • How will you determine norms and clear expectations for student behavior to engage in safe and inclusive collaborative classroom dialogue around their writing?
  • How will you provide written and oral feedback to students about what they are writing?
  • How can you leverage writing as a formative assessment of student learning and understanding?  
  • How will you use writing in your daily life to reflect or build understanding of your own work and other activities?

Strategies to Consider:  

Success starts with intention, strategy and scaffolding. You should have a clear purpose for using any particular strategy you choose to use. When deciding on strategies, consider questions like: What do you need your students to learn or get out of the activity? Is it to activate prior knowledge or feelings about a topic? Make connections? Set goals? The answer to questions like these will be key to determining the best strategy to meet your objective. Below are three Writing strategies you might want to try paired with the considerations above.

Admit/Exit Slip: This strategy is a writing to learn strategy that serves to bridge students into and out of new learning. It provides a structure and a process for questioning students about critical content and concepts, creates quick opportunities to gather evidence about student knowledge and learning needs, and creates a context for community dialogue focused on important concepts. This strategy can also allow students to reflect on/communicate their feelings, strengths and needs about a topic/content (self awareness). 

Silent Conversation: This strategy is a writing to learn strategy that is intended to help students reflect on and respond to what they have seen, read, or heard. By taking time for individual structured student reflection and through small group debriefing of thinking and process, teachers will support deeper conceptual understanding, academic discourse, and clearer comprehension of content.

See, Think, Wonder (SWT): Using a three-column organizer, students respond in writing about what they see, think about, and wonder when looking at an image, reading from a passage, viewing a video, or watching a presentation.

Note: in addition to Writing, these strategies often integrate reading, as well as speaking and listening subdomains.

What It Looks Like:

The value of Writing in the classroom is amazing. It provides a great space for students to demonstrate what they are learning, pose questions, reflect, process, set goals, communicate with one other,  etc.  As a teacher, I used writing in many ways. Most often, I utilized the Writer’s Notebook,  a writing tool in which SEL was addressed on many levels because of its (the Writer’s Notebook) many purposes. Sometimes it was to practice a skill, sometimes it was to reflect on learning, sometimes it was a space for goal-setting, sometimes it was just a place for students just to write about whatever they wanted. Oftentimes, I engaged in a written dialogue with students through their Writer’s Notebook. This dialogue provided me with much information about what the student was learning, but perhaps, more importantly, provided a safe space in which I could build a trusting relationship with the student.  

The written dialogue I used to engage with students in their Writer’s Notebooks, is much like the Silent Conversation strategy that I used to engage students with one another.  The Silent Conversation writing strategy is great for promoting social awareness and building relationships in your classroom as students communicate and engage with one other.  Whether the Silent Conversation happens on paper or on a digital platform such as Padlet or Jamboard, the importance of this work is that students are reflecting and interacting with one another through writing. Since students are interacting with one other, it’s important to communicate and adhere to predetermined norms and expectations that build a safe, respectful learning environment (see the first blog in this series, Academic Dialogue, for ways do to this).

I also used Admit/Exit Slips regularly with my students. Yes, I would use them as intended to check for student learning or misunderstandings of the content, but I would often pair the learning questions with something that addressed SEL, such as: “How are you feeling today?” “What is one goal you want to set for yourself this week?” “Is there anything that frustrated you about class today?” “Did you meet your goal for this week?”  By doing so, I was able to pair the writing with SEL.

I think it’s important to mention that whether it’s in a Writer’s Notebook, Admit/Exit Slip, or other writing opportunity, when students are given the freedom to write in a safe space, there is always a risk involved in what they might say. So while I always made sure my students knew my classroom was a safe space for writing, for sharing and for learning and that I had total respect for their privacy, I also made sure they understood that if they shared anything that indicated there may be harm done to themselves or someone else, as a teacher, I was obligated to report that. In not doing so, you run the risk of compromising any trust you build with your students.

These writing strategies are excellent for bridging academics to SEL and providing a more balanced approach to literacy. I know you already use writing  in your class and you want students to attend to students’ SEL needs, so why not give these engaging and effective writing strategies a try.  

photo credit:  https://unsplash.com/photos/505eectW54k