Can the Teaching of Writing Be Fun?
The teaching of writing is at the heart and soul of any English language arts classroom. We need to show each student how to weave an organized web that will enable them to catch ideas that provide them with life and sustenance. We want them to think for themselves, think using logic, and use their conscience. We want them to find their voice and find who they are. When we ask them to answer a question, we ask them to solve a problem. After they think, converse, and read, they write.
It’s difficult to balance the overwhelming amount of options English teachers face on a daily basis when it comes to the teaching of writing. No single approach works for every child, so I try different techniques with each writing assignment. Some students prefer to start writing right away and then take a bunch of time to revise, but some students want to plan excessively beforehand and don’t get much out of revision. As the year moves along, I expect students to take less and less time on each of the processes involved in writing. Our objective should be to make writing feel easy, not laborious.
Types of Writing
At the beginning of the year, I ask the question, what is an essay? I try to open up the word as much as I can, to take away any academic connotations. The Common Core labels all writing as analysis, informative/explanatory, or narrative. There are many other ways of labeling or categorizing the different types of writing. These and other labels feel like academic jargon to me, which is why I focus on the question or the prompt. Creating a simple, clear question that allows students the freedom to interpret the text or evidence on their own terms can be a serious challenge, but if you do it well, you can avoid the long, boring descriptions and rubrics that tell students in a hundred ways what you want and don’t want.
You want them to explore the power and possibilities of their topic, not give you back exactly what you think about the topic. I call it recycling what we went over in class. We want them to create new ideas, not recycle existing ones. We also want the question and the thesis to be the start of the essay, not the end. I also try to avoid assigning too much of any one type of writing. Once I feel like they’ve made enough progress with analytical writing, we switch to something else, like creative writing or writing an open-ended blog-style essay. Or I ask them to create a video essay using what they wrote.
I consider anything they do prior to writing prewriting. I collect the classwork or handouts, mostly informal analysis of evidence, on the same day that I assign the essay because the classwork should help them write the essay. The classwork should also focus on a specific, single topic or question that will eventually fit into a larger question or topic. When they see the essay question they need to answer, they should take a look at the notes they took on their handouts and be able to organize those notes into a cohesive outline or graphic organizer before they write. This may take five minutes, or a full day, depending on your students. If we take a full day to prewrite, I can circulate around the room to read their notes and give them feedback (mostly asking questions) before they start to write. I find a blank sheet of paper works better than any graphic I can create to help them organize their thoughts. They can decide if they want mostly text, page numbers, arrows, lines, circles, bullet points, or whatever else they want to use to help them organize their thoughts.
I assign writing about every two weeks, so that students can receive timely feedback on their essays and set simple, short goals for themselves. I hand back an essay with my comments the day before they write their next essay, so they have a clear sense of what they need to do. When I hand back an essay with my comments and checklist, I ask students to revise one part of their essay, like their thesis statement, introduction, conclusion, body paragraph, the interpretation of evidence, or supporting sentences. Every checklist is the same so they can easily keep track of what they need to improve. Not every assignment has a checklist, especially creative assignments.
As they revise, I walk around the room and quickly conference with as many students as I can. We sometimes review a few revisions as a class immediately after they finish. Sometimes I talk about how to prewrite or I have students highlight their most important ideas. If they need to work on the logical development of their ideas, then I might show a model essay and highlight the most important ideas. I typically take a full day to hand back essays and provide verbal feedback, so I don’t feel a ton of pressure to write extensive comments on their essays. I take notes while I read essays, so I can address patterns I noticed.
As the year moves along, I have to remind myself that I eventually want them to gain the ability to revise their own writing. They should rely on our written and verbal feedback less and less as the year goes on.
Students keep all of their work, including handouts, in a folder in the classroom so they can set goals. With a writing folder, they can reflect on their work after each quarter or marking period.
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes how he taught himself to write. He loved reading The Spectator and The Tatler (great essay to teach, by the way – they’re like the Colbert and Stewart of the 1700s), and would try to imitate Steele and Addison’s style. Let’s remember to keep the rigor in the teaching of writing, but also remember that there’s a way to make writing a fun and pleasurable process where students can present their view of the world to us.
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