I speak from experience. You might be able to relate.
Traditionally, I would give students a writing assignment. We’d pre-write a day, sometimes two. We’d draft a day, sometimes two. We’d revise (or I’d hope they’d revise) maybe a day–or none at all, depending on the student. We’d publish our work and turn it in for a grade.
Oh, how incredibly dull . . .and ineffective. No wonder so many students hated writing.
This year we do writing differently. We are writing a lot more like real writers.
We start with reading. We read an engaging and complex mentor text. The author becomes our writing coach for as long as we are working on the assignment. The piece my students are writing now is a feature article modeled after the work of John Branch in Snowfall:Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which recently won a Pulitzer Prize. We read the first four pages or so together, stopping to talk about the many devices Branch uses to craft the introduction to this piece. We discussed the rhetorical appeals and how Branch uses them to build credibility and create emotion. Students were mesmerized by the narrative. It’s a lovely day in my teaching life when every sentence in a text has something worthy of taking note–I had to stop myself in Snowfall. Too much talk, and we lose the rhythm of the article.
After we read, my students and I looked at the embedded photos with the captions and watch a couple of the videos. We discussed why the author included these in the piece where and how he did. I then told students that they would be creating their own article, and John Branch just became their writing coach.
Students chose topics after a lot of class discussion and responses to my probing questions in their writing notebooks.
- If you didn’t have to go to school, or work, or any other responsibility, what would you do with your time?
- If you could have dinner with three famous people, past or present, who would you invite to dine?
- If you could travel in time, what era would you want to return to?
- Where to you see yourself in five years?
- What do you want your life to be like in 10 years?
- What is something you have always wondered about?
Students chose some interesting topics: One young woman is writing about building schools in Mexico, another is writing about neurobiology, and another is writing about hiking across Europe. A young man is writing about what life was like during Jesus’ time, another is writing about game design, and another is writing about becoming a pastry chef.
Initially, I had students jot their topics on a sticky note, so I could see if what they had chosen was “doable.” (We all know those students who choose topics that are so broad, and perhaps the students’ skills are so immature, that there is no way they will ever be able to write anything interesting.) I wrote some quick feedback, pretty much either “Run with it,” or “Wait! narrow this down,” and most students were ready to write.
Then I had this idea that I’d been playing with in some consulting I’ve conducted with North Star of TX Writing Project. It’s a working structure to get students thinking. And if I teach it right, students will learn four different modes of writing in one go: definition, narrative, examples, and argument.
I wrote my own working piece, and my students and I read it together. Then I asked them for suggestions on where I could improve and where I could add research. You can see my working document here: Authenticity.
Students then began crafting their own four paragraphs. This ended up being the final summative assessment for fall semester due to the deaths in my family and my many absences. Turned out to be a pretty good resting place.
When we return to class next week, these are our next steps:
First, we will return to Snowfall and read and discuss the piece in more detail. You know, to get us back in the reading and writing groove after our two weeks break.
Then, we will project a few student work samples on the board and talk through them the same way that students did with mine, offering suggestions on improvement and where research may work to advance the meaning. Every student who wants whole class help will have the chance to ask for it. Others might choose to just get help from their small writing groups. Either is fine, as long as all students share their work and get feedback.
Eventually, we will work on revising our structure, moving around paragraphs, and making our writing follow Branch’s award-winning article. Of course, I will pull sentences to study and conduct other mini-lessons all throughout our writing process. And I will confer with students regularly. We will add photos and videos (hopefully originals), and we will polish and polish and polish before we publish.
For the first time ever, I am in no hurry. I will not allow our time to be regulated by grading periods– well, until the very last one at the end of the year.
We will write.
We will revise.
We will confer and share and grow as writers.
And eventually, we will publish.
I’d love to know how or what you have changed as a writing teacher. Please share.