Writing Across the Curriculum

by Kim Kautzer

“Writing across the curriculum” is a phrase homeschoolers hear more and more. With many students struggling under the weight of their various courses and moms juggling lesson plans and schoolwork for their large families, your response may well be, “That’s nice. But can it simplify my life?”

Not familiar with the expression “writing across the curriculum”? Marshall University’s website says: “Created to reinforce writing skills in classes outside of English composition, this academic movement engages students directly in the subject matter of the course through a variety of activities that focus on writing as a means of learning.” Simply put, students use their writing assignments to explore other areas of study. Not only does this kind of writing boost a student’s writing ability, it helps him better understand the content and specialized vocabulary of a particular subject.

For the most part, WriteShop lessons help kids focus on the world around them. First they observe and describe. Then they write some short reports. Eventually, they relate stories about their own or others’ personal experiences. Parents who use WriteShop lessons “as is” teach writing as a separate subject, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re teaching many children or you want to streamline your schedule, then writing across the curriculum may be ideal for you. Writing across the curriculum simply creates a shortcut: instead of approaching writing as a separate discipline, students apply each WriteShop lesson to subjects like history, art, literature, or science. Furthermore, they use the Student Writing Skills Checklist to apply WriteShop rules (like using certain sentence variations) to that particular lesson.

Beginning with “Describing an Object” (Lesson 1), you can immediately put writing across the curriculum into practice. Instead of describing a teacup, baseball, or Matchbox® car, students can observe and write about an oriole’s nest for science, a carved African mask for geography, a coonskin cap for literature, or a Peruvian flute for music. If you don’t have the object on hand, a vivid photograph can often serve as an acceptable substitute. Usborne, Eyewitness, and DK books make excellent choices because of their clear, intricate photos. Are you studying ancient Egypt or China? Find a detailed picture of a simple item from that culture. And whether you’re writing across the curriculum or not, use the Lesson 1 guidelines to choose an appropriate object that’s neither too elaborate nor too large.

Informative writing is also well suited to writing across the curriculum. Consider Lesson 11’s news article. Rather than make up a “newsworthy” story, students use the five Ws to explore a real incident they’ve been studying in another subject. What a great opportunity to learn more about an historical event, an archaeological find, or a scientific discovery and then write an article about it!

Narratives offer even more opportunity! When it’s time to write a personal narrative about an emotional event (Lesson 12), your student might choose to become Joan of Arc (history), Albert Einstein (science), the Apostle Paul (Bible), or George Frideric Handel (music). After reading about an especially exciting event in her subject’s life, the student must then synthesize and personalize the information in order to write a first-person narrative as if she herself were that individual. Writing from a different point of view challenges critical thinking skills!

In WriteShop II, Lessons 27 and 28 lend themselves to contrasting opposing world views, the paintings of Mondrian and Picasso, or protagonists from two Dickens novels. Student essays not only reflect the topics of study, they allow for expression of personal opinions as well.

Can you see the advantages of this kind of writing? First, writing across the curriculum increases students’ knowledge of their subject matter while helping them develop critical thinking skills. To prepare for the assignment, they must do a bit of reading or research. So as they take in the information, brainstorm, and write, they gain a greater understanding of the topic. Second, it makes everyone’s life simpler. Instead of a WriteShop assignment over here and a history or literature composition over there, the two can be easily combined. The result? Less writing for the kids and less grading and lesson planning for Mom.

The best part is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel! Coming up with across-the-curriculum ideas for each lesson is as simple as going to Appendix p. B-4 in your Teacher’s Manual! The 4th edition contains several pages of lesson-by-lesson ideas for writing across the curriculum. Is your TM an earlier edition? Not a problem! Simply click here to view the content.

Finally, writing across the curriculum does not need to limit the student to paragraphs alone. Appendix B also contains “Creative Extensions,” ideas for projects and activities that involve writing but do not necessarily result in formal compositions. Here’s one idea: ditch the traditional book report (“This book is about…Z-zzz-zz-zzzzzzzzzz…”) and ask the kids to make a mobile by cutting shapes from sturdy paper. On the front, they color pictures of significant characters or scenes from the book, and on the back, write a brief character analysis or a colorful description. When finished, they string each shape with yarn and dangle their papers from a wire hanger.

Your student’s talents and interests can play a part in creating out-of-the-ordinary projects. For example, Lesson 8, Explaining a Process, asks students to design an instruction manual. Instead of writing on lined paper and slapping together a folded cardstock cover, one 10th-grade student created a most unusual instruction manual based upon her readings from Lord of the Rings: She explained how to make an Elven sword! Not only did she cut her own branch and fashion it into a sword, she copied her composition onto parchment paper whose edges she had carefully burned. Writing runic characters with a calligraphy pen, she embellished each page to create a beautiful project worth keeping and treasuring.

Some of you will use each and every WriteShop assignment for the purpose of writing across the curriculum. Others will only apply a couple of lessons in this manner. We know of one mom who, after teaching the Five-Sentence Biography (Lesson 10), required thereafter a weekly biography from her son in the same style. She did not grade it as strictly as a WriteShop assignment because he still had the remaining lessons to work on. But his ability to summarize each individual’s highlights and achievements improved weekly. And at the end of the year he had a wonderful collection of biographies---15 men and women whose lives he now knew better.

If “writing across the curriculum” has thus far been a mystery to you---one of those terms that everyone tosses around about but never actually defines---hopefully you now feel equipped to give it a try with one or more of your student’s WriteShop lessons. And once you’ve tried it, we hope you’ll post your experience on WriteShopTalk to motivate and encourage others.

Kim Kautzer

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