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On teaching writing

We're adding more writing to our curriculum this fall, so I figured it would be a good time for me to review what has worked for me with writing in the past.

Don't let the headline fool you. Even though I'm an author, former journalist, and English teacher, I am constantly learning how to teach writing to my high school students. A good teacher continuously reflects on their craft, works with other teachers, and finds out ways to help their students.

But in my six years of teaching and two years as a paraprofessional before that, I have learned some techniques that have brought out the best in students' writing abilities. The ones that I have found the most success in are listed below.

Give them writing topics that they connect with

I always remember a student I had during student teaching who just could not pay attention and had no confidence in his writing skills. He was failing halfway through the year until I started tutoring him after school to help him with his writing. I knew that he liked Eminem, so one day I told him to write me a poem in the style of Eminem, and words just spilled out from his pen. It was beautiful. I told him that words have power and that writers use every sentence they write for a reason. I had him apply his Eminem free writing to his essay. He was having trouble getting started, but once he had ideas flowing, other ideas started transferring out to his paper. He just needed to relax and write something down. From there, I moved on to his next skills, which was establishing topic sentences and elaborating his thoughts. But once we got to that part, his confidence was already much improved. When I ran into him a few years later, he had asked me if I had a teaching job yet. When I told him no, he said that I should because I really turned him around. He said that he was now getting all A's and B's in school and it was all thanks to me. That really made my day, and it was something that will always stick with me.

Make sure you always make time to set up writing conferences with them

Yes, it may take up one or even two class periods, but it is so worth it. Comments on papers can only go so far. Oftentimes kids will see comments and then their papers will wind up in the trash on their way out to the hallway. That's just the nature of high schoolers. But if you take the time to sit down with them one on one and really explain to them what they did well and what they need to improve on, they will appreciate it more than you know. You really need to focus on both though. Even if they turn in an F paper, you should try to find a sentence that has strong style to show that they have the ability. No one wants to walk away with only negative feedback. No one wants to be seen as a failure. Because even if a student has an F, they aren't a failure. Ever since I've started doing writing conferences a few years ago, my writing scores have greatly improved in all of my classes. I have started doing compare and contrast evaluations too. What this means is that I will show how the kids either grew from their last paper or regressed from their last paper. Most of the time, they grew. But either way, I tell them in the conference why they grew or regressed and what they still need to work on.

Give Rubrics Before the Assignment is Due

I believe most teachers do this, and I admit that I haven't always done this, but students like knowing what they are going to be graded on. The concepts in the rubric should also have been practiced with the students beforehand. If you are grading them for syntax, then you should have practiced syntax with them. It's unfair for athletes to go to a big game without having practiced first.

Praise the students whenever possible

If a student truly does a good job with something, tell them. Maybe your encouragement is all they need to keep writing as a habit in their life. I remember that my elementary school teachers encouraged my writing, and I'll never forget that. My second grade teacher read a short story I wrote aloud to the class, as did my fourth grade teacher, and my fifth grade teacher praised my writing to my parents. As teachers, we may not realize it, but we are making a difference in students' lives. We need to tell them when they are doing a good job. I've had students write to me after high school saying that they are going into the English or journalism field because of my class, I've had students ask me how to get published. I've had students continue to work on their classroom blogs even after they turned in their homework, and I've had students win journalism awards that they never thought they could win if they didn't try. They have the ability, but they just need that push.

Allow students to pick their topics

In journalism, I allow students to pick their ideas, and then I approve them. In the real journalism world, this is how it's done anyway. You come to your editor with a story idea, and then it's either approved or not. Certain stories, such as arguing the cell phone policy or complaining about the school lunches I have nixed over and over again. But a lot of students tackle some deep stories - the University Park water crisis, gang violence, depression, suicide, student stress, etc. I do assign topics too so that we can cover all things Crete-Monee High School as well, but giving the students choice motivates them to really dive deep into these stories and grow in their writing abilities.

Give some timed writing assignments

This is good for a couple of reasons. I oftentimes assign students writing where they have to finish their assignment by the end of a class period. Why do I do this? Well, in journalism, it teaches them to be able to write on a deadline and to really get the feel of what a true journalist goes through. It's a learning curve for them, but by the end of the year, they get much better at churning out copy. It teaches them to be able to be aware of the clock, but also to relax under pressure. In AP Lit, I similarly have them write in-class essays by the end of the period to train them for the essays they will write for the AP exam. In the beginning of the year, I might get a page to a page and a half from them, but by the end of the year, I am getting about double that. Timed writing assignments have their place, and you should definitely not make all assignments timed, but it does teach the students valuable skills to meet deadlines.

And finally, show students examples of different kinds of writing

For whatever kind of writing you want the students to perform, give the students that kind of example. Students should write more than just your standard narrative, expository and argumentative essay. In life, we typically write emails, letters, personal statements, cover letters, speeches, and any jargon you might write for your particular job - sales pitches, medical notes, journalism articles, etc. So why does school continuously teach the same essay format year after year when you probably will not write another essay after college? I'm not saying I'm not for essays. They have their place. They teach you to think critically, elaborate your thoughts, make arguments, organize ideas, and create stories. But when I had to write my first cover letter, I was lost.

Going back to showing examples though. When I teach AP Lit, I show students samples of low, medium and high scores for past AP essays and then tell them to grade them based on the AP rubric. This not only gets them more comfortable with the rubric, but this gets them familiar with what the AP scorers are looking for. It teaches them what strong writing looks like versus poor writing. I typically hand out extra credit or candy for students who score samples correctly, and they usually really get into it.

Oftentimes, I write my own samples. In journalism. I bring past samples that I wrote for newspapers and make comments of what should go where in the article. By writing a piece myself, it makes a connection with them, and it also teaches them what I'm looking for. It's just fun for me to get in on the exercise with them too. I've written narratives, journalism articles, short stories, and poems along with the kids. It's fun and presents teachable moments.

So expose the students to all sorts of strong and poor writing in all kinds of areas. Show them a well-written email next to a poorly written email. Show them a well-constructed personal statement next to a middle of the road one. We want to make them well-rounded writers, and not just ones who are writing to get a grade.

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