First off, how about a little free writing? Even five minutes of writing whatever comes into your head can improve concentration and focus, create a reflective frame of mind (something all writers need), prepare students to think on a deeper level, and provide additional writing practice. Plus—and this is BIG—it can occur in any class, not just English or language arts. You do NOT need to grade or (heaven forbid) correct what students write during this time. Take it easy. Write with students—and every now and then, share a selected entry aloud. Or, invite students to share their own self-selected entries (on occasion) in small groups or with the class. Journals need to be basically private (to encourage the most honest writing), so sharing should be voluntary, fun, brief, and based on entries students feel comfortable sharing aloud. For more information on what this little five-minute activity can do for your writers, check out the following article, cited in Marshall Memo 546, August 4, 2014:
“The Obvious Benefits of In-Class Writing Assignments” by David Gooblar in The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2014 (Vol. LX, #41, p. A31),
That’s not our only suggestion! Here are 6 more. And by the way, you don’t have to do these things just on Day 1—you can do them any time (and more than once)!
1. Brainstorm Topics. What’s the number one question students ask any visiting writer? You’ve got it: Where do you get your ideas? The truth is (and almost every writer will tell you this), ideas come to you right out of life itself. Every experience or observation has a built-in story or topic to research—or potential argument to be made. And you don’t need to cruise the Mediterranean or complete Mission Impossible to find a writing-worthy topic. Students will see this is so if you model some writing ideas of your own. Make a list and share it with students. Three to five topics are plenty, and keep them modest so students can see how topics arise from everyday life. Here’s my list:
• Best books of the past summer
• The art of xeriscaping (growing plants with minimal water)
• Attracting owls to your yard
• Ups and downs of a low-carb diet
• Why TV is now better than the movies
• Family reunions: a good idea?
• Explosion in the local frog population
• Riding horses on the beach
I can take any one of these topics and craft a story, informational piece (with some research, of course), or argument. And this is a good thing to model, too. Take xeriscaping. Here are three different spins on this one topic:
• Narrative: My experience trying to grow Russian Sage (a plant most people find easy—but I don’t!)
• Informational: How to transform your yard into a xeriscape garden
• Argument: Why xeriscaping is an ecological necessity in a time of depleted water resources
2. Read aloud. This past May, we lost one of Earth’s great souls—Maya Angelou. Her work accompanied me on virtually every workshop I ever did. Her words were inevitably lyrical and strikingly wise (for a collection of her most quotable moments, check out BrainyQuote). Shortly after her death, I saw a brief interview from many years ago, re-run on CBS. She spoke of a visit to a friend’s house when she (Maya) was around seven. The woman’s house was filled with books, and she took one down from the shelf to read aloud to Marguerite (as Maya was then called). It was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. As she remembered this episode during the interview, Maya imitated the dramatic, measured cadence of the woman’s voice: “It was . . . the best of times . . . It was . . . the worst of times . . .” Maya recalled her pronouncing each word with precise articulation and dramatic resonance. Even as a small child, Maya recognized the words (she was an avid reader, familiar with Dickens)—and indeed recognized the book, for she had it in her own home. But she recalled thinking, “I didn’t know it sounded like that.” Oral reading has an impact on listeners of all ages. Pick something you love and plan to share it with your students. And don’t—seriously, don’t—feel compelled to read the whole piece unless it’s short: a picture book, essay, or poem, for instance. Choose a portion you can read in limited time. I say this only because if you bite off too much, you’ll always find a reason you can’t fit oral reading into your schedule. And oh, what your students will miss. This is the best way to teach voice—but in addition, you introduce students to ideas, words, and sentence rhythms they wouldn’t hear otherwise.
My hands-down favorite new book from this past summer was The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi (Princeton University Press, 2014). It’s an informational text, written with the music of fine poetry. And if I were choosing a passage to read aloud, it would be this one, from the Prologue:
It’s dark and cold and very deep. A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) cruises through the ink, descending towards the floor of the world. He’s hunting: powerful muscles and hot blood collaborating to run down rare prey in the cold, oxygen-poor depths. Down and up, dive and ascent, each cycle punctuated with foul-smelling blowhole gasps at the surface. A long life and great bulk lend the bull patience, and he passes by trivial morsels in search of more substantial fare. His broad tail and heavy muscles produce a steady cruising speed. Tiny eyes little bigger than a cow’s peer through deepening blues, oriented to look down and not ahead. In the dark, that patience bears fruit: a mile down, the world’s biggest predator meets its most fearsome prey.
That prey is, of course, the giant squid, up to 55 feet long, equipped with (we soon learn) a sharp beak and claw-like hooks on the ends of its tentacles. It will be a fearsome battle—but I’ll save that passage for next time! These are the questions I would have for students:
• What do you picture as you listen to this passage?
• What do you feel?
• Is there a word or phrase that sticks in your mind?
• Who’s going to win the battle?
Reading the passage a second time makes questions like these much easier to answer. After your discussion, challenge students to come up with a read-aloud passage of their own (from any source), to share in, say, a week. (And yes, they should come up with questions to ask you and their classmates—that’s part of the fun.)
3. Introduce revision. Revision? Isn’t that kind of . . . well, big? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can be very small and manageable. Your students will gain more from small, focused revision lessons than from starting out re-doing whole essays or narratives. This lesson shouldn’t feel overwhelming. The purpose is to introduce the concept of revision through one conquerable task.
In introducing revision, I like to start with something almost every reader understands intuitively: the lead. Good leads matter. They make us read on—or put the piece down and go on to something else. You can begin this lesson in any number of ways:
• Discuss the concept of revision. What things (besides writing) do we revise? Our hair, clothes, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Remodeling a house is a form of revision. So is restructuring a curriculum. Or modifying a road trip—or re-doing a menu for the family picnic. Examples of real-world revision are endless.
• Talk about what a lead is and does. Why do leads matter? Who can recall a lead that stuck in his or her mind?
• Have students open various books (fiction and nonfiction alike) and read the leads aloud (or read leads from news stories). Comment on which ones work best and why.
• Share some of your own favorite leads. (A few of my own favorites are found in the following books: A Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, In a Sunburned Country, The Catcher in the Rye, Paperboy, Counting by 7s, Matilda, Sing a Song of Tuna Fish, Running for My Life, Seahorses, Seabiscuit, Animal Dialogues, The Tarantula Scientist, Birdology, The Good, Good Pig, The Teacher’s Funeral.) Choose at least five to read aloud and ask students which one is their favorite—and why. This will expand your discussion of what makes a good lead.
Next, give students a lead that needs work. Write this yourself if you don’t have an anonymous example. Think of the leads you’re tired of: the “this paper will be about” or “I will explain” kinds of leads that set up a topic in a mechanical sort of way and strike a death blow to reader curiosity. Let’s say I’m writing a report on New Zealand and I begin this way:
New Zealand is a country in the Pacific Ocean. It lies about 2,000 miles east of Australia. It has over four million residents and most of them live in cities, though some live on farms. It has volcanoes and mountains. It also has many, many sheep.
Are you still awake? You probably cannot imagine a much more tedious lead. But maybe you cannot imagine a better one either unless you know something about New Zealand. This is the important part. Even the most imaginative writers cannot write effectively on topics they know nothing about. So give students some information to work from. Copy a page from an encyclopedia or travel brochure/book so students can do some brief on-the-spot, in-class research. The text should run no more than a half-page to a page long. That’s plenty! Then have students work in pairs (much more fun) to write a lead for a travel book, a lead strong enough to get people to sign up for a tour. The team that gets the most people (class vote) to sign up wins the contest. (Wouldn’t it be GREAT if the prize could be an actual trip to New Zealand?)
After spending just five minutes skimming through The Rough Guide to New Zealand, I revised my lead to read this way:
Imagine a country where sheep outnumber people 40 to one. In New Zealand, an island country two-thirds the size of California, sheep are so plentiful they create their own traffic jams, often stranding motorists on windy back-country roads for hours. Oddly, tourists don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they’re too busy photographing the mountains, fjords, volcanoes, and incredible black or white sand beaches. Since the filming of “Lord of the Rings,” more people are flocking to New Zealand (no pun intended) than ever before in the country’s 800-year history, and this could be the year you’re one of them.
Are you ready to sign up? Ready or not, you likely agree it’s an improvement. The question is, why? Talk with students. Then have them share their own “before and after” examples to discuss.
4. Help students think like writers. What does this mean? Several things. First, writers are readers. There is simply no way to become a writer without reading. Make a list (with students) of the things you have all read in the past month. Don’t leave anything out, however humble. It’s easy to overlook things like post cards, ads, cookbooks, on-line reviews, or signs. Don’t. List them all. Talk about how important it is to read divergently and avidly, all the time. Poetry, drama, informational essays, journalistic stories, advertisements, warnings in medicine bottles—they’re all important, and they all have lessons to teach. Writers record bits and pieces from their reading regularly: favorite words and phrases, favorite sentences, chapter titles, names, anything. Writers are collectors (another reason a journal is vital).
Second, writers are observers. They are curious about everyone, everywhere, and everything. They’re never bored. Boredom isn’t allowed in the world of writing. They take in the tiniest details: the shape of a leaf, the speed with which a caterpillar moves, the colors in a plaid shirt or muddy bog, the feel of a spider crawling up your arm, the sound of a child’s voice or an old phonograph record, the smell of a dog’s breath or newly cut grass. The smaller the detail, the more important it is. Talk about ways to record these details so they’re not lost, so you can go back to the “well” and dip in.
Finally, writers write. Every day, if possible. They don’t necessarily write pages and pages, like Freddie Einsford Hill from My Fair Lady. But they do write—an email, a post card, a note to self, a journal entry, a short description of something seen or experienced, a brief review of a book or film, a recipe to share, a single line of dialogue for a novel-of-the-future. Horace said it best in 65 B.C.: “Never a day without a line.”
5. Assess a piece of writing. Almost nothing you can do as a writing teacher will prompt better discussions or deeper understanding of writing than this simple activity. Choose a piece of writing (I usually use a student paper, but you can use anything in print) to assess as a class. If your students know the six traits, you can have them use a student friendly rubric (5-point or 6-point). Check the book Creating Writers (6th edition) or one of our Write Traits Classroom Kits (2nd edition) for copies. Both resources also contain many student papers at all grade levels that you can assess and discuss with your students. Following is a legendary paper I’ve used in countless workshops and in many classrooms as well. It invites wide ranging comments on what constitutes good writing—and what this particular piece needs to make it stronger:
Last year, we went on a vacation and we had a wonderful time. The weather was sunny and warm and there was lots to do, so we were never bored.
My parents visited friends and took pictures for their friends back home. My brother and I swam and also hiked in the woods. When we got tired of that, we just ate and had a wonderful time.
It was exciting and fun to be together as a family and to do things together. I love my family, and this is a time that I will remember for a long time. I hope we will go back again next year for more fun and an even better time than we had this year.
If your students know the six traits, have them score the paper on one or more traits. I think the three most important to discuss in connection with “The Redwoods” are ideas, voice, and conventions. Most students (like teachers, for that matter) see big problems with ideas (no details!) and voice (this writer is pretty disengaged)—but agree that the conventions, while not very sophisticated, are fairly strong (at least there aren’t mistakes).
Here’s a quick way to “score” this or any paper without getting too hung up on numbers. Read the paper aloud. Then go through the traits and ask whether readers see/hear more strengths or problems in each trait. With “The Redwoods,” readers typically find conventions and organization to be the strongest traits, ideas and voice the weakest. The sentences are also sound, if not musical. Word choice is clear and functional, though not particularly original or striking.
I also like to ask students if they think the writer is male or female. Most say male—but that’s wrong. I ask the grade level of the writer, and almost no one gets this right. What do you think? The most common answer by far is grade 3, though guesses range from grade 1 through grade 8. On a rare occasion, someone guesses this is an adult—and ironically, that’s pretty close! In fact, it’s actually an eleventh grade girl. She was a student in my writing class at a community college some years ago. And by the way, she was a fine writer—as later pieces showed. I also always ask students to guess what they think the assignment was. What comes to your mind? You may be thinking this was the cliché “What did you do on your summer vacation?” assignment. But, no. Even back in the day, I like to think I was more imaginative than that. I had asked students to write about an experience in which the five senses played an important part. If you’ve ever visited the Redwoods, then you know that this student chose an outstanding topic. She just didn’t take time to develop it.
When you score a paper with students, keep in mind that the purpose is not to come up with the “right” score. There is no such thing. There are only human responses to writing. Even Shakespeare speaks more to some people than to others. The purpose is to generate discussion that deepens everyone’s understanding of what makes writing work. Those lessons translate into stronger performance as students try new approaches in their own work.
6. Follow up on summer writing! Did you think we forgot? We didn’t! Just before the summer break, we posted a number of suggestions for keeping writing skills strong throughout the summer (see our “Thinking Like a Writer” post, published 5/28/14). They included such things as—
• Nominating favorite books, authors, passages, etc.
• Keeping a journal
• Conducting an interview
• Building your own quiz
• Trying something new in the world of writing
• Writing to an author
• Writing a letter to anyone
• Searching out 10 (or more) conventional errors
• Creating “found” poetry
• Trying photo journalism
• Writing post cards
If you or your students tried any of these things (or something you came up with), you’ll want to follow up with discussions, oral readings, bulletin board displays, podcasts, or anything invention dictates.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
A colleague wrote a letter recently in which he said, “I spent a whole weekend correcting students’ work, and you know what they did? They threw the papers in the trash. This is getting discouraging!” No kidding. And he’s not the only one getting discouraged. We’ve tackled this issue before—teaching conventions without wearing out the red pen. We think it’s worth revisiting as Common Core testing becomes more prevalent and the emphasis on strong editing skills compels some teachers to seek out shortcuts. Don’t panic! Instead, drop by next time and we’ll share some ideas for actually teaching conventions, not just correcting them.
Meantime, we hope you enjoyed a good summer. Thanks for coming back! Come often—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops on teaching writing for the 21st Century, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.