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Lynch School of Education

Genre Based Writing with Maria Brisk

Maria Brisk

Lynch School Professor of Teacher Education, Special Education, and Curriculum and Instruction Maria Brisk has been working with schools in the Boston area for more than five years to develop and implement what she calls “genre-based writing;” a curriculum for the teaching of writing that teaches students to explore a subject, develop, and write about the topic using the appropriate writing genre. Genre-based writing trains students to respond well to the writing prompts on the state’s MCAS exams and is particularly helpful in teaching bilingual and multilingual students. Aside from developing this innovative curriculum, Brisk has also been researching the impact of using a genre-based approach on students’ writing. She sat down with us to talk about the approach she is using and how it benefits both students and teachers.

Can you tell me a little bit about the project and your approach?
The approach is to teach writing through specific genres that were developed based on what the English-speaking culture uses in writing across disciplines. So it’s based on the study of how scientists, or mathematicians, or people in literature write. I analyzed the genre demands of MCAS tests for elementary students in reading, writing, history, math, and science and came up with eight different genres.  I have developed units and rubrics for these genres.

The approach is based on systemic functional linguistic theory, and it gives consistency to what the teachers do and what they teach.

Can you tell us a little bit about the program and your approach when you first start out at a school?
So when I go to a school, I meet with the teachers and we decide which genres are going to be taught to which grade level. The writing calendar is really developed in cooperation with teachers in the school. They usually teach about three or four genres a year and we discuss which order they’re going to teach them. We structure it to make sure that in the range of preschool through fifth grade they will cover everything.

After that is decided, I start doing targeted professional development with individual grades for the genres that they’ve decided to teach. And the teachers have a lot of say of how they’re going to do it. It’s really a collaborative effort.

After a while, the teachers have become experts. I’ve built their knowledge, and that’s what the goal was. At the Russell School, where I’ve been working for five years now, the teachers are knowledgeable enough that could probably do this without me there supervising.

So it seems like this approach of training people to be able to provide for themselves, fits really well into the social justice mission.
The notion of social justice is very much the foundation of this. It’s the idea that schools should be teaching students how to write in order to get ahead. Schools tend to emphasize science, math, and reading. But then we test kids through writing, we accept them in jobs for writing, we accept them in college for writing, but nobody teaches them how to write.

I feel very strongly about writing for that same reason. I went through college majoring in English in Argentina. I got here and they demanded all these papers and I thought “nobody taught me how to write.” So I just had to do something about it.

What was your motivation for this project?
This movement and theory came from Australia and it’s based off the same motivation that I have: Children have not been socialized to the academic language. They go to school and they are still never taught to write in the academic discourse.  And so this approach is giving children the knowledge they need so that they can write in that language. Many of these are kids who come from working-class backgrounds and we believe that as long as we teach them, they can do it.

That is the other thing—this theory and approach is very much one in which the teacher apprentices the student in writing. They are never taught exactly what to write, they are taught how to do it and then they go from there. They are given the language and the knowledge resources so that they can do what they are asked to do. It is a very different approach to what is going on in writing now.

Do you have any plans to expand into other schools?
Yeah, I’ve done things like that already. One summer we did a two-day workshop with 150 people, representing 10 schools. Then, one of the first teachers that I worked with, Liz MacDonald has expanded this through her work as a literacy coach for Boston Public Schools so a number of other schools are now doing it. I am also working in St. Rose in Chelsea in grades 1-8.  But right now, even working with two schools is a big deal for me, because it’s a lot of work.

What are your plans for the future? 
I’m currently on sabbatical and I’m writing a book for teachers about writing in elementary schools to use for pre-service and in-service education. It’s a type of handbook, but it will require more thinking, there is a lot of theory involved.