lifetime? Would you estimate the time you have spent inside houses to be considerable? If you close your
eyes, can you vividly see the details of your dream home? Can’t you almost feel
the front door handle in the palm of your hand? Yet, if you were tasked today with building a house, what do you imagine
the end product would look like? I’m fairly certain my own efforts would result
in a sad, leaning shack, lacking the integrity to withstand even a stiff breeze!
spent looking at and being inside houses qualifies you to build anything of
substance or quality, yet that is often what we do when we give students
writing assignments: “You’ve read a lot of stories, books, and articles. Go ahead and write one now.”
tools with mystified, overwhelmed horror, so might some students view the blank
page and pencil!
assign writing. Just as in math, we
should break down writing to digestible base skills/components, and then apply these skills. So much goes into making a great piece of writing; it isn’t wise to teach too many skills at once, nor is it a wise approach to demand students apply all skills expertly on every final draft. When we focus in on building up a few skills at
a time rather than expecting the sun, moon and stars on each essay, writing becomes demystified and manageable for even the most reluctant writers. Of course, the end-state goal is to create expert writing incorporating myriad skills; I’m suggesting that the best route there is covered in smaller steps students can understand and easily see their progress.
the standards I want to address as well as my students’ current needs. For
example, if I am teaching middle school students who are presumed by
grade-level standards to already possess the skills of basic structure and
organization, but the reality in my classroom shows that they do not, I focus
first on those core skills. I’d rather have students leave my classroom with
the ability to construct writing with four walls, a floor, and a roof, so to
speak, rather than the occasional beautiful sentence with figurative language buried in
a disorganized mess of an essay.
levels, so I never ignore my grade-level standards or students who work above
them. Just as my students are a mixed bag, the focus skills for an assignment
are too. My advice is to prioritize by asking yourself the following: What will make the biggest impact in improving students’ writing? What gives us the biggest bang for the buck? What will
be engaging/stretching for the students to learn & apply? I might choose to focus mini-lessons and assessment on organization and varying sentence structure, for example. (More on this to come in part 4.)Typically, I find the root problem for most students is organization. Because of this, I believe it’s necessary to start at the beginning of the writing process – no matter the grade – and build up from there. If I can beat the house analogy into the ground just a
little further, let’s think of how one might go about building a house compared to building an essay:
Build a House
Build an Essay
Make a blueprint
Make it a home. Add windows, moulding, maybe some paint, furniture, etc.
Make it enjoyable to read! Consider modifying sentence
structure/flow, addressing the audience, opening paragraphs, closing
paragraphs, transitions, descriptions/word choice (action verbs, strong
adjectives, figurative language, etc.), voice, mood, and tone, etc.)
grades 2 – 7 showed me that absolutely every grade level required instruction,
modeling, and lots of practice – both isolated and applied – for every step of the writing process and skills within each process! Making assumptions of student background knowledge is done at your own peril!
Step 1: Brainstorm
Teaching brainstorming and categorizing of ideas is critical! Frankly, I believe you can’t get or give enough practice with this; students who can formulate and organize ideas quickly are at a huge advantage when responding to writing prompts and to life in general!To teach brainstorming, start by modeling with whole-class participation. Once a juicy list is created, ask students to help you pull out categories. If they have difficulty, pull out a group of ideas and ask for what they have in common. For modes of transportation, you might say, “I’d put helicopter, airplane, and hot-air balloon into a group. What should we call that group?” (travel by air)
Once groups have generated lots of ideas, they should categorize. This becomes the basis of body paragraph outline options. When they get to outlining, they’ll
find some ideas don’t make the cut. Conversely, they may find they had an
interesting/unique idea they’d like to use, but no other ideas to accompany
it in a category. Because of this, it’s important students do not throw out their brainstorm or categorization. They might need to go back to it later! (More on outlining to come in part 2 of this series.)
Encourage students to continue adding ideas as they categorize, if they desire. These processes are fluid.
In fact, I teach it both ways: sometimes we brainstorm, then put ideas in categories,
and other times we generate categories first and brainstorm examples
underneath. Just as there are multiple ways to solve a word problem in math,
there are many accepted approaches to writing. Be sure not to be too rigid!
Once students have had many opportunities to practice whole
class and in groups/partners, individual brainstorming and
categorizing on a given topic or prompt becomes a great 5-minute bell
work or exit ticket activity! Taking the time for focused and frequent practice of brainstorming and
categorizing pays off in a major way when your students are never again intimidated to get started on writing prompts! Think of how nice it will be to not hear, “I don’t know what to write…” That’s definitely worth your time!
6 Ways to Survive Teaching Writing
Teaching Persuasive Writing…Painlessly
PRODUCTS TO HELP YOU HELP YOUR STUDENTS BUILD SOLID WRITING, FROM TINY HOMES TO MANSIONS:
|Expository Writing Unit
|Persuasive Writing Unit