To pass the time on my flights to and from NECC, I grabbed – and dusted off – a few magazines from my nightstand. The first article to catch my eye was from the April/May 2007 edition of George Luca’s edutopia: Overcoming Underachievement – How a simple writing exercise dismantled negative racial preconceptions. I’ve since reread this short (2 pages) piece several times. The article describes a study run by researchers from Yale, Stanford, and the University of Colorado, with many quotes from lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen. The researchers had a theory that “the disparity in academic performance between white and African American students is partly fueled by a psychological effect called stereotype threat.” To narrow the achievement gap, they proposed using “a simple fifteen-minute writing exercise.”
What really grabbed my attention about the experiment is that the setting could easily have been a middle school from my district: “… a middle school attended by about even numbers of African American and white students, mostly from middle or lower middle class families… this school already had positive forces in play – sufficient resources, devoted staff, academically prepared students…” Nevertheless, an “invisible obstacle” was blocking African American students from “fully exploiting those benefits.”
The 15-minute assignment (randomly assigned with a control group given a different set of choices) was “to choose from a list of attributes the ones they value, such as relationships with friends or being good at art, and write about them.” The researchers believed that allowing students to write about things they cared about would “counter the fear of being stereotyped long enough to boost their grades on the next assignment.” And it did. Grades improved not only on the next assignment, but on their final grades too.
It’s a no-brainer that letting students write on topics that are important to them fosters improved writing. But what jumps out to me is that the significant achievement gains were attributed to a single assignment. Teachers are under tremendous pressure right now “to fit it all in,” but I think they can always squeeze one more thing in if they see the value. I’m going to pass the article on!
Of course, I couldn’t keep from thinking what if… the students were invited to go “live” with their essays in a Web 2.0 environment?!?