Before teaching a writing lesson, I introduce myself to students as a writer. I tell students that I like to write. I tell them I write outside of school just because I want to. (Insert audible gasps here).
Since I have a sense of myself as a writer in the “real world” it bothers me that the way we teach writing is often artificial and bares little resemblance to real writing. Here are my problems with writing instruction, spelled out with ten myths. This is a three part series.
Myth #1: Students can write without modeling.
Without showing students how you write, they have no guidance as to how it can be done. In order to do this, teachers must be writers themselves. You don’t have to be Shakespeare but you do have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and actually participate in the writing process in front of or along with your students. If students don’t see you writing, it’s hard to believe that real people write.
Myth #2: Writers write at the same pace.
Instead of everyone revising on the same day, my students and I set deadlines for pieces to be published. Within XX amount of weeks, students may spend multiple days on the same stage of the writing process as long as everyone meets a deadline set by the class. In other words, a student might spend three days on drafting and half a day on revising but not everyone has to be working on the same stage at the same time. As we get closer to the publishing deadline, students need to commit to one of their drafts and publish.
Myth #3: Students can’t come up with their own writing ideas. They need prompts.
I used to be afraid that my students couldn’t come up with their own ideas. They can. And they do. It’s teachers who often can’t come up with their own ideas. If you model how to come up with ideas, students can do the same. A lot of times their ideas are more interesting than what they did last summer. Give them a chance.
A blank page is intimidating. Don’t believe me? Take a piece of paper and write three paragraphs about what you did last weekend. I don’t know about you but I’m lucky if I remember what I ate for breakfast. Yet, we often give students a prompt like this and then bemoan the fact that students don’t descriptive include details or show an interest in revising what they wrote.
Lesson for the Classroom
Pictures unlock details from the brain. You can have students bring in a photograph of something they’re going to write about or you can have students draw detailed and labelled pictures as a way of prewriting. By appealing to students visual intelligence you will unlock all kinds of rich details and increase student engagement in writing. Students with a picture of their dog, will think of all kinds of things to write about Spot that wouldn’t come to mind when staring at a blank page and the walls of the classroom.
Students at all grade levels can draw pictures, like storyboards, as a way of prewriting. As an adult, I use pictures as well as a way of planning out what I’m going to write. Don’t think that it’s a waste of time or not age level appropriate. The time invested pays dividends later in the writing process and students at all grade levels can benefit.
These days anything worth doing is worth doing younger and first graders are sometimes asked to write paragraphs.
Perhaps you have seen the hamburger model of writing (picture on left)? Let me be clear, I love this model and have used it sometimes to assist in revising writing that is entirely unfocused. However, this is no way to start the writing process. It’s a visual for revising, NOT a plan for drafting. If you don’t believe me, try to imagine Dostoyevsky using a hamburger drawing to write Crime and Punishment. Real writers don’t structure their writing this way. Let’s try to teach our students to be real writers and not writers because we said so. I think it makes the difference between raising students who write to communicate versus raising another generation that hates writing.
I’ve seen teachers use this at the start of the writing process and the students did, in fact, have an introduction and conclusion in their writing. And it was the lamest paragraph I ever read. It had no soul.
Lesson for the classroom
Let students write. Let them get their ideas out on paper without worrying about writing conventions and Big Macs. A structure to the writing will emerge and if it doesn’t then when you get to revising you model for students how to separate a jumble of ideas into to separate paragraphs (using the hamburger if you wish). The danger is giving students too much to think about before they even start writing. Also, the hamburger might incorrectly teach students (and misinformed teachers) that the first sentence of every paragraph is the main idea. Reread the first sentence of this paragraph before moving on. Sometimes you bury your main idea a bit to keep things interesting.
How do you teach students to write paragraphs? Do you teach paragraphing?
All elementary school teachers are teachers of writing and yet many of them are not writers themselves. I started my career as a writer and so this week I’ll be posting a few tips on how to teach writing in a way that resembles the real world.
Tip #1 Not everything that you start writing turns out to be good.
The summer in between graduating college and life starting I spent some time writing movies. I wrote the story of my freshman year five times before I was able to figure out the first scene of the movie. I spent months writing what I called a modern day western before a friend told me that the movie had already been written. Then I wrote “Earwax” a story of unrequited love in the workplace and “Earwax” just flowed out of me (no pun intended). I had been thinking about the topic of the movie for months and the day I started writing it, like a baby, it was ready to be birthed.
Lesson for the classroom:
I think it’s great that teaching the writing process allows students a chance to revise and make their writing better. However, most teachers never allow students to change what they’re writing about once they get to the drafting stage of the writing process. Whatever students start writing about, they’re basically stuck with it for the week or the month or however long the writing process takes. Whether they want to or not, they’re taking their piece all the way through to publishing even though real writers don’t publish everything.
Many teachers complain that their students won’t revise when they ask them to. Revising does have to be explicitly modeled and taught but, part of the problem is that students may be revising a piece of writing that they have either a) lost interest in b) don’t know much about c) decided is awful and don’t want to continue writing or d) would rather be writing something else.
Writers in the real world can change their minds. Can our students?
I allow for experimentation by having a week of prewriting before we even get to drafting. During the five prewriting days I model coming up with an idea and drawing pictures to get down sensory details. Students each day get to either continue what they were prewriting the day before or start a new idea. Some students write about the same thing every day and they end up with five days of material on Friday. Other students have five different ideas by Friday. On Friday students decide on their best idea and that’s the one they continue taking through the rest of the writing process.
This extended prewriting time allows students time to safely experiment with different genres and different stories that they might not feel comfortable writing if they knew they’d be stuck with it for the next two weeks. The most striking example I can think of is a student who got up the nerve towards the end of the school year to write about witnessing the murder of her parents in Mexico the year before she entered kindergarten. After drafting she decided that it was too painful to keep writing but we were both glad she had tried. The student would never have gotten to that point had we stuck with writing about “what you did last summer.”
How do you handle a student who wants to change what they’re going to write about?
I was sitting in a grade level meeting recently and realized that I was surrounded by other former filmmakers and actors. (This might sound unusual but remember I teach in Los Angeles).
Our goal was getting students to include sensory details in their writing and here are several ideas that might help you.
1. Have students act out an experience before writing about it. Staring at a blank page is hard by having that kinesthetic experience of having acted out a story will help you to write about it.
2. Visualization (also known as Method Acting)…you have to lead students through this. You don’t just say imagine you were there. You ask students to close their eyes and take them back through the whole experience. Imagine you’re in the location where you experienced kindness who’s there with you? What are they wearing? How do you feel when you see them? Take a moment and notice what’s around you. What do you hear? See? Is there are a particular smell to this location? It’s kind of like a mini-mediatation. It definitely helps.
3. Have students draw a picture and label it. Graphic organizers are en vogue for good reason. However, I think they’re of greatest value in helping students to revise their writing once they’ve gotten something down.
I’m working with first and second graders who can hardly read so staring at a bunch of words on a chart doesn’t really help jog their memories. I don’t think graphic organizers help too much with non-readers and English Language Learners in the prewriting phase of the writing process…with one exception. I am big fan of the ELD practicums rolled out in LAUSD that use color coded Thinking Maps to get English Language Learners to write sentences. This highly structured and scaffolded method allows even the lowest levels of English Language Learners to write sentences. However, the goal here is sentence formation and vocabulary, it’s not necessarily about authentic communication. Students are writing a sentence about steamboats, for example, to practice writing a sentence correctly, not because they want to write about steamboats. This practice is also important, don’t get me wrong, but many times we only “practice” and then throw out the idea of writing as communication and that’s what I don’t want you to do.
4. Talk about it. Also helpful and quick is to just have students talk about what they’re going to write before they write it. If they can speak it, they can write it even if the spelling isn’t right.