As teachers of writing, it can be tempting to jump straight into a big, meaty composition or class discussion to get a feel for where our students’ skill levels are at the beginning of the year. High expectations, planned scaffolds, but somewhere it takes a left turn in a very different direction because the students do not feel confident enough to fully participate.
When I was a brand new baby teacher, I had no idea there was another way to gauge my students’ skills. So we jumped in the deep end, feet-first, and had a collective sink or swim moment. They sank. I sank. Life preservers all around.
In a previous post, I wrote about ways to address perfectionism in student writing. We write daily in my classroom because quantity leads to quality. Sometimes the prompts are in response to quotes. Other times, I have my students respond to something completely bonkers. Oftentimes, these prompts are used to prime a lesson that builds the skills they need for something bigger.
One of the best ways to build skills and confidence in the classroom is to embrace silliness. Here are some tips and perks.
1. Plan Backward
This isn’t new and I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point, but the reminder doesn’t hurt. Work backward from your end goal as you plan.
My seniors have been working on social commentary and I knew that I wanted them to craft an original piece of social commentary in addition to being able to engage in academic discussions about their topics.
By the end of their time with me, they will have one of my catch-phrases permanently embedded in their brains- if you can talk about it, you can write about it. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready to talk about such intense and heavy topics in a way that was constructive.
2. Back to Basics
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good, well-crafted student composition. But I like to walk it back and work on the skills needed to complete that task so students have the confidence to actually begin. By “walk it back”, I mean waaaaay back. Sometimes, taking baby steps early in the year means major leaps and bounds later.
This is where you ditch the worksheets and other skills practice that robs the joy from your practice. Gamify it. Be ridiculous. Have no fear.
For my purposes, a silly writing prompt.
Students came in at the beginning of the unit to the following prompt: Is a hotdog a sandwich? Craft an argument to convince someone else.
They gave me All. The. Side-Eye. They wrote. They giggled. But they wrote.
It took me a little while to come around to the understanding that extremely low-stakes practice is often the best way to reinforce old skills and to introduce new skills. If we make it fun and create a positive association, that skill is going to stick.
3. Chunk It
When fully embracing silliness in skills practice, be prepared for a slow release. The goal is for content mastery, not speed. You can adjust your pacing to your students’ needs.
My aim is to find that balance between skill-building in a low-stakes environment and making it a positive experience. Laughter is a bonus.
The path from silly writing prompt to final class discussions and original social commentary took several class periods, but oh my stars was it worth every additional, hysterical second.
4. Facilitates Easy Modeling
If the practice is goofy but engaging, it gives you the opportunity to model the skills or behaviors you are attempting to have students master. In my case, it was academic discussion and reinforcing the use of evidence to support a viewpoint.
I gave my students a set of sentence stems to help foster civil discourse in an academic discussion. So far, so good. Then, I paired them up and tasked them with using the stems to discuss their responses. Easy peasy. I simply had to float around the room while these awesome humans carried out their discussions.
When I tell you that I did not expect the levels of investment from students over a discussion about hotdogs, I am not kidding. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture has an official definition of a sandwich? I didn’t either, but I do now.
5. Tie It All Together
As with any new skill, we want our kiddos to own it and use it well. This is the moment we’ve been coaching them for. This is where you shift from low-stakes practice to linking the skills back to your end goal.
My kids researched and wrote and crafted some fabulous original pieces of social commentary. Then, they engaged in discussions in groups of 8 to 10 students. I was absolutely blown away with how well, even the most timid, students were able to share their thoughts about some pretty heavy topics.
These kids were able to disagree, ask clarifying questions, and offer different opinions better than many adults I’ve seen. No raised voices. No tears. No ad hominem fallacies.
In the spirit of adding a little laughter and some extra eye-rolling to break up the seriousness that is a group of high school students in English class, consider a silly song for a transition or brain break. A personal favorite is “It’s Raining Tacos” by Parry Gripp.
Dance parties are highly encouraged.
How can you bring some silliness into your skills practice?
Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Instagram and Twitter @SimplySivils or on her terribly neglected blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.