As a former reluctant student-writer, my papers were often returned with more red pen than black. Now, as a teacher, I’m especially mindful of students who are hesitant to share their thoughts in writing.
Over the past 32 years as a teacher, I’ve seen many students struggle with putting words on the page—for various reasons. Co-teaching in English/language arts, math, science, and social studies classrooms, I work with students who are considered gifted, who are on the autism spectrum, and who read and write several years below grade level. For some, English isn’t their first language. Some feel vulnerable and worry about being criticized. Some simply don’t know where to begin.
To address these challenges in my classroom, I’ve found that creating structures for regular writing works well. But, above all, journaling is the foundation for all writing in my classroom. Below are some techniques and attitudes that have worked particularly well with my students:
At the beginning of the year, I ask students to purchase a notebook, which then becomes their writing journal. We write in the journals starting on the first day of school, and we date and title each post. Throughout the year students love to look back and reflect on the writers they’re becoming. The journals are a wonderful reference for educators when writing Individualized Education Plan reports for students with special needs, demonstrating effective progress, or showing a parent how far their child has come.
To model the behavior I’m looking for, I write and share along with my students. When I read my work aloud, I will stop and question myself if something doesn’t sound right or make sense. The focus is on the writing process, not grammar and spelling.
A few years ago, I co-taught with a woman who had a large deck chair in her classroom. I loved this idea and bought another one so we could both sit, teach, and discuss—creating a talk-show-like atmosphere. We then purchased a smaller chair, which we positioned between the two larger chairs. Students who were hesitant to read their writing aloud had the option of presenting in a “teacher sandwich” so they knew they weren’t up there alone.
To accommodate English-language learners and students with severe dyslexia or written-output difficulties, I adjust the process a bit. I give them several choices: They can record their thoughts orally so I can transcribe them into their journal, which they can share with the class. They can also work with another student or our paraprofessional, who will write down their ideas. Students in my class are used to helping one another out—so the students who volunteer are usually strong and mature writers. A third strategy I use is to tell students, “I’ll write a sentence, you write a sentence.” Kids often thank me quietly for this. It’s difficult to suffer from writer’s block while observing classmates writing away furiously. Often they just need help getting started, and then they can continue the process independently.
With this structure in place, my next goal is to get the creative juices flowing. Below are some tips to help connect pen to paper.
I often use headlines from popular news stories for prompts. For example, in our city of Medford, Mass.—just north of Boston—after a big snowstorm, people often shovel a parking spot and mark it with a lawn chair, trash barrel, or whatever else they can find. The writing prompt might be, “Is it fair to mark your spot after you’ve shoveled it out?” (The writing prompt would also have accompanying photos from our local paper of folks shoveling out mounds of snow next to an ironing board to mark their hard-earned spot.)
One day, I spontaneously asked my students to choose a topic as a class. The sports-loving class came up with, “Who has it the hardest: the coach of the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, or Patriots?” This then became a mini-lesson on point of view.
Students have also responded well to writing on the questions, “Should cell phones be allowed in classrooms?” and “Should kids be allowed to have their cell phones on all night?” (This was taken from a story in our local paper about kids losing sleep because they were texting late at night with their phones tucked under their pillows.)
Short videos can trigger emotions and then thoughtfulness. Be prepared, though: Kids have lots of opinions on videos, often wanting to spend the entire class period sharing their thoughts. I will, at times, drop my other plans and use this opportunity for kids to write more, and even turn it into a finished opinion piece. Some of my favorite videos:
• Radiohead’s “All I Need,” a split screen of a boy’s day working in a factory making shoes and an American boy’s day. I might use the prompt, “Describe how the video made you feel, and what parts of your life make you feel lucky. What would you like to tell each boy if you met them?”
• Emmanuel Kelly’s audition on The X Factor, a mix of interviews and Kelly singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The video prompts the students to describe whom in their lives they are grateful for.
• Flocabulary Week in Rap, a short video about the week’s current events set to rap music.
Free Writing Activities
Educationworld.com’s Writing Bugs are free, wonderful PDF downloads that can be used as warm-up activities, run off and tucked into your sub folder, or used as prompts for a full, detailed writing assignment. Some of my favorite Writing Bug topics:
• Pick two famous people to have as your parents.
• If you could interview any U.S. president, who would you choose? (I also prompt students to come up with five questions they’d ask them.)
• “If I were principal for the week, I would. …"
• If you were given $50,000 but couldn’t spend it on yourself, how would you use it?
Integrating Class Reading Material
Kids, no matter what age, love to be read to, especially from picture books. On the first day of school, I like to read the book First Day Jitters and then have the kids write about their first day of school. After I read The Teacher From the Black Lagoon, I ask students to write about a favorite teacher. I’ve even had kids turn their reflections into a letter to a teacher who has made a difference in their lives.
And as we read novels in class, we use characters and themes from the books in our writing prompts. I might ask them which character they want to be, or which one they’d want to be friends with.
As the school year goes on, finding ways to motivate students becomes easier as I get to know them and their strengths. I love watching as students who were hesitant to put their thoughts on paper at the beginning of the year become the students who have a lot to say—and aren’t afraid to write it.