Keys to Teaching Communication Across the Curriculum

Last night's #caedchat was about writing across the curriculum. As an English teacher, I'm supposed to be passionate about these things. However, I ended up having way more passionate responses than I ever expected. I work hard in my classroom every day to help my students become exceptional communicators. As a middle school teacher, I over-prepare my students for high school writing. They're capable. Why would I not push them towards it? However, I often realize that these same communication standards aren't carried with them to other classes. And that fault is partly mine to bear. 

First, a word about why I call it communication across the curriculum instead of writing across the curriculum. Frankly, our world doesn't value the written word as it used to. Bookstores and newspapers are closing shop, students are addicted to YouTube, and I'm perfectly happy to read Twitter because it is 140 characters or less. However, we still value communication. We live in an era of connectivity. We Tweet, Facebook, Google, Pin, YouTube, text, email, share, and post, all within the context of some social community. We want to hear and to be heard. We rely on these things for communication. When was the last time you went a whole day without using them? Students don't just need to be prepared to write analytical essays and newspaper articles anymore. They need to know how to make movies, tweets, podcasts, and more. I'm thankful teachers within my school and in my PLN understand this as well. Further, I look forward to seeing how the education system as a whole embraces this with the adaption to the Common Core State Standards. 

That being said, here are four keys to teaching communication across the curriculum: 

1. Share your expectations and expertise.

I have very high expectations for my students. Sentences need to be detailed and varied in structure. Paragraphs must have depth of insight. Verbs must have action instead of a state of being. I constantly communicate high expectations that we work together to meet. I sometimes get frustrated when students don't hold themselves to these standards in other classes, but I rarely share with my colleagues the expectations I have for student writing. A common language in teaching writing on our K-8 campus has enhanced student writing and relieved teacher frustration. As students grow up and move to a new teacher, they still know what to expect. However, this common language does not always transfer to other subjects because I am not actively sharing them with others. This needs to change.

2. Share ideas.

I think most people don't teach communication skills across the curriculum because it's not natural to them. I don't expect science teachers to love writing like I love writing. Math teachers don't need to adore stories like I do. However, all teachers need to teach students to discover, create, and communicate their ideas. Non-humanities teachers may more naturally teach students to discover and create. I hope they'll teach me more about those things. Humanities teachers often focus on the communication piece, and it's our job to help brainstorm ways to teach communication in every curriculum area.

  • Science
    • Create a brochure explaining why I shouldn't throw my styrofoam in the fire.
    • Script and film a PSA on why observing Spare the Air days is actually important.
    • End lab reports by explaining ideas for further studies and your hypotheses for them.
  • Math
    • Create a storyboard and then create a video tutorial, teaching your classmates how to solve a particular kind of problem.
    • Write your own word problems. 
  • History
    • Write someone's biography.
    • Write an analysis of how a battle would have changed if it had had a different general.
  • Art
    • Pair each piece with an artist's synopsis, explaining the choices he/she made. 
    • Prepare a speech to present his or her work.
  • Music
    • Intro each piece at a concert with the composer and a snapshot of his or her life. (My coworker does this, and they're always so beautifully written. They add even more of a story to the concert.)
    • Compose your own music and align words with the melody. 
  • Physical Education
    • Create and record a sportscaster's analysis of a close play.
    • Storyboard and create video tutorials of different skills.

3. Don't be lazy... be realistic.

Class sizes increase every day. It's hard to comprehend grading all of this writing from forty students in all of your six classes. There just aren't enough hours. However, that's also not an excuse of us to be lazy and only create assignments and tests that we can grade quickly. I love that you can create multiple choice tests in Google Forms that can grade themselves with a script. But I worry this breeds lazy teachers who don't make students apply knowledge. I've recently vowed to not test my students on things they can easily Google, because the reality is, Google lives in our pockets now. Instead, I want my students to apply their knowledge to their lives. However, these kind of responses take much more time to assess. But I think it's worth it.

A few tips for finding this balance:

  • Don't grade everything or every draft. Recycle some things. Stow away some things for later. Give a deep level of feedback on others. 
  • Use student graders. The comments feature in Google Docs has revolutionized the depth of my classroom's peer editing. Let them give each other the feedback they need. 
  • Go for quality, not quantity. Instead of writing one long essay, write a series of shorter paragraphs. It makes the grading process seem much more manageable.

4. Empower students.


Give them real audiences, even if it's "just" their classmates. Real audiences give students more purpose and ownership in their writing. A student told me today that posting in our online forum made him think more deeply about his word choice and content because he wanted to find something worth saying. 

Give them opportunities to write about what they care about. Ask a middle school boy to write an essay on why we should play Minecraft in school; it will blow your mind. Ask a middle school boy to write an essay on a love poem, and you might want to blow your brains. When you find opportunities for students to choose their topics, you empower them by communicating that their thoughts are important.

Give them positive feedback. Tell students when you laugh out loud or they make you think about something in a new way. Complement their word choice. Praise their insight. Help them see that they have things worth sharing with the world. 

What expectations and expertise do you need to share?

What great ideas do you have for implementing communication across the curriculum?

How can you realistically do this?

How can you empower your students?