One advantage to having fewer students than I used to is that I can spend more time helping each one with writing (this is not a veiled pitch for independent schools—it’s an argument for small classes regardless of the type of school). I’ve tried to teach writing a lot of different ways, and it always comes down to the fact that the more high quality attention one can give a writing student at key moments, the more likely they are to write something that won’t be painful to read.
One place in particular I’ve started to put more energy is at the start: helping kids find a topic that works well for a given assignment. One of my mantras has always been, Don’t read thirty of anything (or a hundred, or whatever). By that I mean, never give a topic where they all are writing an analysis of the character of Hamlet. The more individualized the topic, the better. Actually, strike that. Never give a topic. Real writers grow their own. But as a teacher you do have to set some parameters.
To whit, a current assignment with my eighth graders is to write an essay for the Rotary Club essay contest. Our school has a close connection with this community-based service club, so we participate actively in their annual challenge to write about the Rotary “Four Way Test.” Of the things we say, think or do, the Rotarians ask (caps theirs): Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Granted, this is not the most natural prompt in the world. In fact, it’s a little awkward. But a little moral reasoning never hurt middle school students, and the challenge of how to reach a real live audience (offering cash prizes to boot) is an authentic one for student writers which allows me to assume the role of coach instead of the more common judge-executioner relationship that occurs when we the teachers both assign and grade.
Given such a task, how do I help kids find a worthy topic and set off writing in the right direction? Because let’s face it, nothing is more dispiriting to a well-intentioned novice writer (or to a chagrined instructor) than when a draft goes through the gauntlet of revision only to discover after it’s plopped on the teachers’ desk that, Umm, Johnny didn’t get it. He has carefully crafted a paper that doesn’t “meet the assignment.” Far better to front load the conferencing or other forms of teacher interaction to make sure that the high stakes effort is fruitful rather than in need of a do-over.
How to achieve high-touch feedback in the early stages? I used a combination of good old-fashioned email and veto power. Students had to submit topic proposals to me for approval before walking in the door with four double-spaced copies of their draft on workshop day.
Let me be clear. I didn’t expect perfect proposals to emerge fully formed from their skulls. We prewrote our way into topics very intentionally. The starting point, in this case, was a cross disciplinary lesson conducted a week earlier with the health and PE teacher.
“Respecto” is a bingo-like game the two of us designed because the eighth graders were being mean. In a small school, we can closely monitor social dynamics as well as learning in the classroom. There were a few incidents of concern amongst our students: a stolen love poem, books disappearing from lockers, rough play in PE. In sum, enough to make us pay attention and try to devise a lesson or two that would bring the affective curriculum to the fore in a meaningful way. Hence the health teacher asking kids to talk about: a time you gossiped or heard gossip; a time when you were kind; a time you cried, and so on.
After they “played” it in PE, we wrote in English. Their homework was to do three fifteen minute freewrites about topics from Respecto. I asked them to pick a positive (a time when you helped a friend), a negative (a time when you wish you had said or done something different) and a neutral (a time you experienced conflict). Freewrites in hand, we took a class period to talk.
First we considered task and audience, approaching the writing in a new way for these kids. Not: first make a topic sentence, then add three supports. Instead: who’s going to read this? What do you think they want to see? What is the Rotary club, anyway? We arrived at the understanding that people in the Rotary Club are community members in business and other professional fields who are dedicated to service and who want to see and help grow good character in young people. Hence the contest.
With that understanding of audience in mind, and a few prewrites in the comp books, students were ready to talk it out. To give the form flesh, I told students to find a real time in their own life where they had to make a hard choice. Their “formula” for the essay would be to bring this moment alive with a snapshot using sensory imagery and dialogue, and then go into some reflective analysis during which they put the example “to the test.”
The emailed proposals came thick and fast for the next couple days. Some kids were farther along the topic selection trail than others. Here’s the thread with a slow but steady student who displays the endearing habit of revising his subject line as he gropes towards a usable topic (subject line shown in bold, and instead of email format I’ve put the comments in chronological order and captioned them for easy reading).
Re: essay contest
Student: What can we write about?
Teacher: You need to write about an event in your own life where there was a moral or ethical choice. Create a snapshot of this event, and then analyze it. I talked with your mom today at the conference so she might be able to help you. Look at “Respecto” for the sorts of moments that might be good to write about.
Student: Is it ok if I could use “A time you experienced conflict” as a topic for the rotary essay?
Teacher: Maybe. What time are you talking about? Not enough info given here.
Change in topic
Student: Is it ok if I could do " A time when you managed stress in a positive way” as my topic?
Teacher: Same as last time—what time are you talking about? Detail of a specific example required before approval.
Srry! I change the Topic One Last time
Student: May I write about how school life was like when I first came to school and how I overcome the hardships?
Teacher: More detail. What was a choice you made?
Student: My choice was either quit the school or endure the hardships and continue this school. I chose to stay in the school because I want to learn from good teachers and because my parents paid a good deal of money for me to be in a great school. If I quit now, it would be losing a great opportunity of learning and it would be wasting the money.
Not all topic submission proposals took this much back and forth. Here’s an exchange with a more confident writer. I pushed back just a little to make sure she had thought through her topic carefully.
Student: The topic I have chosen is a time that I was rejected: This took place in fourth grade when one of my friends was especially mean to me. I at first did not deal with it the way I should, and did not tell any one about it, but one day I stood up for myself, and she physically (as in put her hands on my back and pushed) pushed me down. I learned from this expiriance and now I handle things much differently. I hope this will be a good enough topic for the Rotary Essay!
Teacher: Promising. Clarify: what was the choice you made? Was there a moral or ethical dilemma?
Student: Yes. I could have stood up to her, or I could have not. After I finally stood up to her, I found that people respected me, and later learned that many went over and stood up for me. I created confidence in other people, that they could stand up to this mean girl.
Teacher: Standing up to the bully—that could be the moment or snapshot. My only concern is, 4th grade is a long time ago. Anything more current? Not ruling it out, but consider options from within the past year or so.
Student: It was getting late, so I decided on the softball one [this refers to an earlier idea from class]. I realized that it has more meaning to me then I thought it did. However, I am okay with redoing my essay if it is not satisfactory.
As I type, the workshopped drafts are being revised and will soon hit my desk for a round of feedback. At that point, thanks to the high contact run up to writing, I’m pretty sure there will be an interesting variety of moral dilemmas and not a single “Doh” on either side of the desk.
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