Writing magnifies critical thinking for biology students

Federal Way Public Schools implements new writing structure called CER, or claim, evidence and reasoning.

Brandon Carlisle’s ninth grade biology classroom at TAF@Saghalie houses tanks filled with plant-life, glass beakers, posters all over the walls, and several lab tables.

Positioned around the lab tables, several groups of students are hunched over laptops and the day’s writing assignment. This kind of writing assignment is probably different from what you remember, though.

According to Kassie Swenson, chief of communication for Federal Way Public Schools, they have implemented a new type of writing structure across the district called CER, or claim, evidence and reasoning.

This type of writing, Swenson said, allows students to have a different structure to consider when writing out their thoughts. This is used throughout the curriculum, not just in writing classes, so as to better prepare all students for collegiate-level writing in areas such as math and science.

The students have also taken a liking to this procedure as well.

Maroly Jamie-Riestra, a ninth-grader at TAF@Sagahlie, said CER writing has given her more tools to be an effective writer in school.

“I feel like using that structure, I can convey more information,” she said. “It’s not just putting out a data table … there’s more explanation.”

Emily Van, another student in Carlisle’s class, thinks CER writing better helps structure how she puts down information and in what order so it makes sense.

“It helps a lot with … making sure you’re on the right line and not just throwing information together,” she said.

Maroly said CER has helped make writing across all subjects easier since they are following the same structure.

Logan Wilhelm, another student, said he thinks CER helps to make everyone’s writing more cohesive and understandable, which he said is particularly helpful for peer reviews.

“Everything is clear and you can read everything in order.” he said. “It’s easier to read.”

Maroly said the writing structure puts less stress on students when it comes to their writing, because it lays out different ways in which they should structure their essays starting with their claim and inputting evidence and reasoning to support it.

The structure also helps students through writers block, and gives them different ways to think about their writing if they get stuck, Maroly said.

“It moves you along instead of being stuck at, ‘I don’t know how to advance this,’” she said.

Logan likes how this structure gives him a different way to go about writing, for both himself and his classmates.

“It’s a different way to do things,” Logan said.

Carlisle said that CER isn’t very different from some of the other structures used, but as Logan said, it’s just a different way to write.

“Simplifying it in that way… communicates to students that they need to have that evidence in order to write a convincing argument,” he said.

He said that getting students used to this structure of using evidence and reasoning to support these claims helps them be better prepared as they advance in their education.

“We look at what do we expect a sixth-grader to be able to do with this structure all the way to what do we expect a senior to be able to do and write on their way out the door,” he said.

He said CER goes beyond writing from argumentation, and the thought processes behind it require students to have a high level of critical thinking.

“Having [students] in the same mindsets … it improves their collaboration because they can communicate in the same language,” he said.

Carlisle said it also helps student practice setting up and supporting their claims.

The traditional way that science and math classes have been set up have led students to believe there isn’t much writing in these subjects. This simply isn’t true, he said.

“Writing is really universal … Writing, critical thinking, and communication skills are probably the top three skills students need to know before leaving, more so than memorizing organelles and understanding the periodic table,” he said.

While Carlisle said that both of these things are very important for students to be able to do as well, he recognizes that writing one of the skills that every student should be able to take with them into their future.

It’s about giving the students another way to learn and understand important topics in areas like science, he said.

He said that when it comes to thinking about how the district can best set up all his students for success after they leave school, writing is one of the most important ways.

Carlisle started his career working in tech at Microsoft, but he has always wanted to teach.

“I have an older sister who I really look up to who’s a teacher, I’ve got an aunt who I really look up to who’s a teacher,” he said.

He wanted a job where he could feel like the work he was doing every day was contributing to a better world. Now as a teacher, he sees the difference he makes each day.

“I put in a similar workload as a teacher and it’s a really demanding job, but ultimately it’s very rewarding,” he said.

Carlisle has also spent time helping to develop new curriculum with the district over the last few years, which is another way he is helping to ensure his students are getting the best education possible.