by Jennifer Fletcher

Welcome to the ERWC blog! We envision this blog as a way for ERWC teachers to dig into the nuts and bolts of the curriculum: to share teaching tips and success stories, explore problems of practice together, and ground ourselves in the key principles and frameworks that make the curriculum work for all students.

Here you’ll find advice from colleagues on teaching signature ERWC activities, such as descriptive outlining and rhetorical analysis. You’ll also find strategies for designing a year-long course, teaching a particular module, or using the ERWC Assignment Template to create your own units. And we’ll share “think pieces” on some of the larger issues that impact our work as educators, including the importance of culturally sustaining pedagogies.

We hope these bite-sized bits of professional learning sustain your connection to the ERWC community (now over 15,000 educators strong!) and support your essential work in the classroom. We’d love to hear from you, too, about how you make ERWC work—and how you make it better.

ERWC has always been about more than the modules. Teacher collaboration and expertise are the magic ingredients that make the curriculum effective. We’re delighted to invite you to join us in spreading more of that magic around!

To subscribe to the ERWC blog, please click on the button that says, “Follow.” Submissions for blog posts may be sent to Jennifer Fletcher at jfletcher@csumb.edu. Please see the publication criteria on the “Writing for the ERWC Blog” page. For more information on the California State University’s Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC), including how to register for an ERWC workshop, please visit the following websites:

ERWC Online Community:
CSU Center for the Advancement of Reading and Writing: https://www2.calstate.edu/CAR/Pages/erwc.aspx
ERWC Workshop Registration:

Jennifer Fletcher is a Professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and the Chair of the ERWC Steering Committee. You can follow her on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Scaffolding Student Writing Using Mentor Texts

By Robby Ching

We all need scaffolds when we face an unfamiliar writing task. As a brand new ESL coordinator, I was asked by my boss to write a memo to a university administrator. I’d been a graduate student working in dusty library stacks and a college ESL teacher. I’d never seen a memo, let alone written one. So I wrote what I thought was a memo but failed to copy him on it. When he asked to see what I’d written, he yelled at me so fiercely for not copying him that I left his office shaking. What I now know I needed was a mentor text–a model of what a memo is and what it looks like. Then I would have seen the cc: line–problem solved.

A perennial question for teachers working with students who are developing academic literacy is how to provide scaffolding for academic writing while preparing them to become independent writers by the time they leave our classes. How much is too much? And how can I teach my students to find their own scaffolds? Mentor texts are an inquiry-based way to help students learn how to create their own scaffolds. 

When students analyze a professional text or a well-written student text, you can guide them as they discover what makes that text successful. For example, in the Juvenile Justice 12th grade module, which I wrote, students write an open letter about juvenile sentencing as their culminating writing task. I received feedback from teachers who piloted the module that students were unsure how to write their own open letters, so I built in an activity that engages them in looking at an open letter of the teacher’s choosing As an example,I suggested one about Colin Kaepenick’s decision to take the knee before a game but proposed that they find one with currency when they teach the module). Students work in a group to analyze the key rhetorical features of the letter (Who is it written to? Where was it published? What caused the writer write it? How is it structured? What rhetorical appeals does it make to its readers?).

Students identify success criteria for an open letter–several characteristics that they think all effective open letters should have. The teacher then guides the whole class in compiling a set of criteria that can guide their writing. This last step gives her a chance to shape the criteria that she will use to grade their work while ensuring that students have ownership of what those criteria are.

While it’s tempting to tell students directly what form their letter should take and what each part of their letter should do, and how it should do it, students can end up like me–utterly perplexed when confronted with a new genre and what the expectations are for it. If somebody had taught me how to figure out for myself the answers to those questions, I could have avoided a painful experience. And now when mentor texts for every conceivable genre are only a few key strokes away, how empowering it is to teach our students how to make use of them instead of relying on us.   

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.

Getting Ahead of Falling Behind

By Carol Jago

Carol Jago

In a recent poll by Common Sense Media, 59% of teenagers said that online learning is “worse” than in-school learning. Although it is always difficult to know what students mean by “worse” and “much worse,” it seems they prefer learning in-person to learning on a screen. Along with missing the social aspects of school, 61% of respondents report that they are worried about falling behind academically.

I wondered how these students calculated what it meant to “fall behind” and how many of them were doing anything on their own to prevent academic stagnation.

I don’t want to pretend that many students possess the creative genius of Pratchett or Westover’s tenacity, but I do believe students’ capacity for independent learning can be and needs to be nurtured.  Too many teenagers equate learning with seat time, believing that as long as they take the quizzes, turn in the papers, and earn credit for a course, they are acquiring an education. Unfortunately, we teachers are substantially responsible for this false assumption. When all we demand is compliance, students fail to develop the intellectual muscles they need to learn on their own.

An autodidact is a person who is largely self-taught. Such individuals typically possess an enormous thirst for learning and often find school tedious, confident as they are in their ability to learn on their own. Terry Pratchett, whose fantasy novels have sold over eighty-five million copies never attended university and said he felt sorry for anyone who had. Ray Bradbury insisted that his education took place in the library reading, reading, reading. The late great playwright August Wilson dropped out of school in ninth grade but continued to learn by spending long hours reading in the Pittsburgh public library. And then there is Tara Westover’s story from Educated.

What if the educational chaos of the current school year could be turned to education’s long-term advantage? What if we embraced the goal of building students’ independent learning muscles? What if students began to realize that they actually enjoyed reading about what interested them? What if they felt the desire to write about what they were reading? You probably think I am in cloud cuckoo-land, but we find ourselves in circumstances ideally suited to independent study.

I have always found that when students want or need to know something their inner autodidact springs to life. Consider the technological skills today’s teenagers possess, the complicated video games they play, the song lyrics they know by heart, none of which they learned in class. Students are able. They are just not practiced at initiating the process of learning when it comes to schoolwork. Let’s turn the tables on young people worried about falling behind by challenging them to accept responsibility for their own education.

Resources for organizing an inquiry-based classroom abound, but maybe the simplest and best approach is to ask:

  • What do you want to learn?
  • How can I help?

At a time when traditional classroom protocols seem to be in constant flux, let’s work toward nurturing the autodidact within ourselves and in our students. Learning shouldn’t stop when the bell rings or the Zoom meeting ends.

Carol Jago is a long-time high school English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is the author of The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis. You can contact her at cjago@caroljago.com.