First, correct every little mistake in the student’s paper. Then have the student re-copy—by hand—the now “perfect” essay. It’s hard to believe, but this was the way most teachers approached writing instruction when my career began in the early 1970s. I was a reflective teacher who was always thinking about what worked (or didn’t) in my classroom. By the time I had access to professional development on “the writing process” and “workshopping,” I’d already figured out that my students didn’t need to be corrected. Instead, they needed to learn about the many steps involved in developing a great piece of writing.
I eventually became a middle school literacy coach, supporting my colleagues in action research on how to teach students to revise their own writing. It can be hard to overcome old habits—and not teach as we ourselves were taught. I think back to a staff meeting when a former English department chair said, “Guys, I don’t think I know how to teach writing. I think I just assign writing.” (That admission jumpstarted some exciting improvements at our school!)
Eventually, in 2008, I returned to a regular classroom role. I struggled with the specter of the California Standards Test (CST), which measures all writing skills with multiple-choice questions. If your own essays are littered with run-ons, does it matter that you can identify a correct compound sentence? Does the ability to choose the right transition word from a list of four selections mean that you can skillfully use transitions? I knew that my students needed to excel on the CST, but it was more important to me that these skills were embedded in their own writing.
And that’s how the student magazines were born. As I thought about how to help students meet writing goals, I realized that creating magazines on their favorite topics could help them master many of the language arts standards I was responsible for teaching. Students tend to be more engaged when they can make choices about their activities. In addition, a yearlong project with a final product can help students take a real sense of ownership of their work, which amps up their commitment to excellent writing. Finally, these authentic writing samples offer a terrific basis for assessing students’ progress toward the language arts standards throughout the year.
Here are some tips for taking this kind of approach:
• Let students select their own topics—with your approval and that of their parent(s). Choice is a powerful motivator, especially for middle school students. My students’ topics have run the gamut: from endangered species to hip hop dancing to ancient Japanese deities. Occasionally, students get tired of their original topic or get interested in another student’s topic. I allow students to switch gears if they are willing to rework whatever elements have already been graded—but typically, I can convince a student to stick with the original topic.
• Familiarize students with the magazine format. When you introduce the project, guide students in looking at a variety of magazines so that they can better visualize what their own magazines might look like.
• Open the door to collaboration. My students may work alone or with a partner, but each partner needs to create his or her own magazine. By partnering, students are frequently able to discuss and refine their thinking and writing, a strategy that research demonstrates is particularly important for second-language learners.
• Specify the types of pieces that will appear in the magazine, tying them to the standards that students must meet. My students’ magazines must include the following elements: a research report with a works cited page, a short story, a poem, a editorial, a creative advertisement connected to their topic, and a survey. Students are expected to include a cover and table of contents, and they are welcome to add other features, such as a joke or activity page. As we address each element of the magazine, we address skills and concepts connected to language arts standards, such as multi-paragraph essay writing, inclusion of supporting details, revision for organization and specificity, and editing for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
• Structure the magazine as a yearlong project. We work on our magazine elements from time to time over the course of the year, connected to our district’s pacing plan: narrative, expository, response to literature, and persuasion. Students keep their magazine elements in a manila file folder which is easy to organize and quick to hand out when a new lesson is presented. I set a due date for each element in the magazine and give grades or points that accumulate over the course of the year. The yearlong project makes it easy to build in time or modify assignments for slow workers or students with special needs.
• Make it a low-tech project if necessary. I always give students the option of using technology to produce their magazines if they so choose. Unfortunately, my school doesn’t have enough technology available for entire classes of students to have frequent access, but the old-fashioned cut-and-paste method works just fine.
• Take advantage of the time after testing. In our district, 6th graders have a lot of “down time” in May as 7th and 8th graders continue testing. It is a great time to pull the magazine elements together. By June, our magazines are complete.
• Celebrate the results. Students are always excited to see the display of completed magazines and enjoy learning about one another’s interests.
When questioned, most students name the magazine project as their favorite activity of the year. I’m happy because the magazine project meets my goals as a writing teacher—helping students experience the pleasure of writing, gain confidence as writers, improve their writing skills, and understand the connection between the writing questions on the CST and their own writing. I hope I’ve also inspired a passion for writing in many of my students, enriching their lives for years to come. Perhaps one day I’ll even see one of these sparks of interest burst fully into flame when one of my students publishes a “real” magazine article.