Creating a Community of Writers in the Classroom
There are so many things I try to instill in my students in the short time I have them, but perhaps none is more important than helping them develop as effective writers. In my 16 years as a high school English/language arts teacher, having taught everything from remedial to Advanced Placement English courses, I’ve learned a few things along the way. When it comes to creating a community of writers, there is no perfect formula. Trial and error, as well as a few specific steps, may help you begin the process in your classroom, no matter what subject matter or age you teach.
When asked if writing is easy, columnist Red Smith said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Though a horrifying image, it is true on many levels. Writing requires work. It requires risk. It requires leaving a bit of yourself on paper (or computer screen). Like every other worthy endeavor, writing requires practice. That’s why from day one, students should see writing as an integral part of your class. You might even consider incorporating writing into your ice-breaker. Have your students mimic a poem, do a random autobiography, or draft scavenger hunt questions.
Let students experience variety and choice. They shouldn’t craft only formal, academic papers in your class. They should see that writing fits a variety of purposes and patterns. Online blogs, creative writing, written instructions, and other forms of written expression should be part of your curriculum.
Mimic the Masters
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a five-paragraph essay in a text, novel, magazine, newspaper, or online-discussion thread. Structure is important, and it is helpful for students to understand some skeletal patterns like the five-paragraph essay, but as soon as possible and as often as possible, teachers should try to break away from this structure because it often gives students' writing a stilted and awkward feel. I propose to my students that the length of all writing for my class should subscribe to “the skirt theory.” It should be long enough to cover but short enough to still be interesting. If that means five paragraphs, fine. But it could also mean four paragraphs or six. I want students to take control of their own writing and make conscious choices about it.
Expose students to a variety of writers. Let them see how others manipulate the language. Good writing has the ability to move readers to emotions and actions like little else. Use this to your advantage.
- Have students keep a writer’s notebook to record ideas, interesting phrases, and responses to the writing of others.
- Find interesting writing to model, and ask students to write something similar. I like Garrett Hongo’s "What For,” the TED Talk “Point B,” and "Raised by Women" by Kelly Norman Ellis. Or have your students parody their favorite song or mimic a letter to the editor.
- Take the first line of a novel, short story, or essay and have students continue the story.
- Steal a character from a story you’ve finished and have them put that character in the setting of another story.
- Take a person from history and have students write a diary from that perspective.
- Have students write a press release for a math technique or results of a scientific experiment.
Join the Fun
I realized a few years ago that I was generally assigning writing rather than teaching it. If I did show students something I had written, it was after it had been refined and polished. I now know this robbed my students of seeing the process, of watching me wrestle with finding the right word, of seeing that sometimes the words flew to the page but other days, it was drudgery. For some students, the idea of instant perfection can be crippling. Students should realize that no one writes like F. Scott Fitzgerald in draft one. By letting go of my own insecurity and honestly sharing my own struggles as a writer, I helped my students grow in their own confidence. By having them help me with my revisions, I empowered them to look critically at their own writing.
Consider rearranging your classroom to avoid the focus being entirely on you. I’ve tried a couple of different configurations (pods of four desks last year, this year the room divided down the middle so students face each other). The point is that students can and should learn from each other.
Put Me in, Coach
You may think you are pushed to the limit already and cannot fathom adding any more grading to your curriculum. But think of yourself as a writing coach. Though your school’s football team practices four days a week during the season, the only score that really matters is at the game on Friday. Though your students will practice writing in some format every day, perhaps you only score some of the writing. After a number of entries in their writers’ notebooks, I have students choose their favorite and polish only that one for a grade. They write much more than I ever grade.
- Grade in chunks. For a formal essay, I will have students draft one body paragraph for me to use as a formative assessment. I can quickly read through full classes of body paragraphs in order to find three examples to use in instruction the next day (an exemplar, one to do a whole-class revision on, one to do group/partner revision on). From this instruction, students can fix their own body paragraphs. Once students master body paragraphs, use the same format with introductions and conclusions. Yes, this takes time, but it creates a much better product.
- Have “Author Corner” days where students bring in their writing to share with a few of their classmates for commentary before it is collected. Writing shouldn’t be a “gotcha”, and this process will help them feel more confident about their writing and look to their peers to help.
- Have older or more accomplished students read and comment on writing.
- Have students reflect on their own writing.
- Create a "Writing Clinic" where students function as “experts” on one aspect of writing and others visit those specialists for specific feedback on their writing. Do this often enough so that all students serve as “experts” and all serve as “patients”.
No Time Like the Present
A quick perusal of comments on many message boards will make it clear that effective writing can be elusive. We owe it to our students to help them develop this essential skill that is imperative in college and integral in almost every career. Who knows? You may wake up your inner Fitzgerald and discover that you enjoy writing too.