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Jane Bernauer

© 2002

Action Research:

Teaching Technical Writing in the Family and Consumer Sciences Classroom

As a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher, I teach much more than cooking and sewing. In FACS courses students apply various skills (e.g., decision making, critical thinking, communication) to course content that relates directly to the basic human needs of wellness, shelter, clothing, resource management and human development. My students write throughout these courses, but I have never considered myself a teacher of technical writing.

It’s clear to me, however, that I teach technical reading. There are three main reasons for that focus. First, learning anything in the FACS area involves deciphering an enormous amount of technical information, including textbooks, machine manuals, instruction sheets, labels and charts. Second, our school is under tremendous pressure to improve student scores on the eighth grade Basic Skills Reading Test and FACS is an integral part of that effort. Third, and most important, good technical reading skills are more important than ever in today’s high tech world.

What could have created a shift in my perspective from tech reading to tech writing? Being a part of the Minnesota Writing Project this summer has given me the opportunity to learn great strategies for teaching writing from colleagues at the institute. During each teaching demonstration, I have learned many techniques that can transfer to my FACS classroom. I am excited about the prospect of teaching technical writing and want to learn more about it.

How can I teach technical writing to my students? What skills must I gain in order to give them the skills that they need? What are some of the best practices specific to the area of technical writing? How have they been incorporated into other disciplines? What is already being done in Family and Consumer Sciences classrooms in the area of technical writing? These are the things I want to focus on for the purpose of this research. Eventually, I would like to explore whether or not being a proficient technical writer makes a student a better technical reader.

Primary Sources:
Three colleagues in my district are assisting me as primary sources:

  • Gerry Lidstrom, Language Arts Instructor at Southwest Jr. High and past fellow of the Selective Institute
  • Dr. Linda Madsen, Director of Teaching and Instruction, Forest Lake Area Schools and former FACS teacher
  • Dorothy Sunne, Technical Writing Instructor, Forest Lake Senior High School

Secondary Sources - Print
Canary, Amanda. The Importance of Reading in Family and Consumer Sciences. Ellensburg, WA: Central Washington University, 2001.
Several of the reading strategies in this book (e.g., Story Mapping, Graphic Organizers, SQ3R) could easily be adapted for use in technical writing lessons as methods for analyzing examples of technical writing.

Lummis, Jean. “Teaching Technical Writing.” Science Teacher 68n7 (Oct 2001): 28-31.
Although written for high school chemistry classes, this article describes a three paragraph format for writing lab reports that could be adapted to a foods lab setting.

Mehlich, Sue and Darlene Smith-Worthington. Technical Writing for Success: A School-To-Work Approach. Cinncinnati, Ohio: Southwestern Educational Publishing, 1997.
This text is designed to be used as the basis for a high school level technical writing course. However, sections on audience, document design, visual aids, science lab reports, and problem solving can easily be adapted for FACS purposes.

Portalupi, Joann and Ralph Fletcher. Nonfiction Craft Lessons: Teaching Information Writing K – 8. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2001.
This book is a collection of eighty lessons designed to help students learn how to write fluent nonfiction pieces. While the book is broken down into sections of K-2, 3-4, and 5-8, most lessons could be adapted for the junior high FACS classroom.

Procedural Reading and Writing in the Science Lab: Example Performance Package, MN Profile of Learning. Roseville, Minnesota: Department of Children, Families, and Learning, 1998.
This performance assessment was developed specifically for the “technical procedure” portion of the middle level writing standard. The tasks and checklists could be modified for use in the foods lab.

Sebranek, Patricia, et al. School to Work: A Student Handbook. Wilmington, Massachusetts: Write Source, 1996.
A valuable reference for both teacher and student, this book spells out the technical writing process and gives specific guidelines for writing different types of technical pieces.

Spandel, Vicki. Creating Writers Through the 6-Trait Writing Assessment and Instruction. New York, New York: Addison, Wesley, Longman, 2001.
A key resource for any writing teacher, this book has a tremendous amount of useful information throughout. Sections especially helpful for technical writing are “Troubleshooting,” pp.197-202 and “A Scoring Guide for Informational and Research Based Writing,” pp. 273-292.

Secondary Sources - World Wide Web [link no longer works]
This site at the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning contains sample learning activities and assessment tasks for the Middle Level Writing Standard and High Level Technical Writing Standards. Scoring criteria is also included
This is the home of the TECHWR-L discussion list and website, an online “community of practice” for technical communications.

From the research that I’ve done so far regarding FACS and technical writing, three findings are clear:

  • There is little, if any, work specifically linking FACS and technical writing. Since FACS aligns easily with so many profiles of learning (inquiry, issue analysis, resource management, technical reading) emphasis has been placed in areas other than technical reading.
  • There is resistance to the teaching of technical writing in many fields of study, particularly at the high school level. Through my conversations with teachers from many districts, I’ve learned that technical writing often has to be assigned to a department that is, at best, uninterested in it, or, at worst, unwilling to teach it.
  • Teaching any writing process well takes a huge commitment of time and energy. Whether it’s teaching tech writing to a high school students or creative writing to a third grader, the teaching process is labor and time intense.
    With time and energy constraints in mind, I want to discover ways to embed best practices for teaching technical writing into my current FACS courses. My plan has three steps toward that goal.
  • Create lessons plans that use writing techniques I learned at the summer institute to teach my foods students technical writing. I think Mary Lilly’s “mind mapping” and Mary Catherine’s “exploding a moment” will transfer easily to my FACS classroom, among others.
  • Experiment with the middle level technical reading assessment tasks from the Department of Children, Families and Learning, and adapt them to my content area. Specific activities that seem best suited for adaptation include “The Way I See It,” “Process or Instructions,”and “Manuals for Real People.”
  • Explore the possibility of teaming with Gerry Lidstrom, English teacher and past fellow of the institute, to teach technical writing skills to seventh graders that we share so that students see FACS classroom writing as an extension of the writing they are doing in their seventh grade teams.

Because this is action research, I realize that once I get into the “action” a new and better path may emerge. I look forward to sharing my journey with you in January.

Creative writing:

Three Quilts

Quilt 1
Starter quilt of age worn templates
Paintbox colors in rhyming rows
Honest blocks of ordered stitches
Tranquil landscape simply joined

Quilt 2
in scattered whispers
frayed the stifled silence.
Corners gasped in tortured tightness.
Grieving pieces of less than perfect
raged as arrogant symmetry stared.
Tattered filmy shreds of tired
lay limp on jagged battleground.

Quilt 3
Weedy jungle throbs in vivid batiks
Playful water splashes, laughing
Dirt bike ruts out gritty stitches
It takes guts to drop the feed dogs and trust the random
of soul’s cadence.
To dance with the meandering stitch
that lives wide,
not just long.