Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Knowing Write from Wrong: How I Get My Classes to Write

After "How can you possibly stand being around so many kids all day long?" and "Why do you look so tired all the time?", the question I get asked most often is "How do you get your students to write?"

This is usually asked by a classroom visitor who's struck by the sight of my nearly silent classroom of teenagers, pens and pencils scribbling away on loose-leaf paper. I don't mean to brag — as many of my students and supervisors, past and present, can testify, I do many things poorly as a teacher: I have a tendency to wander away from my lesson plan, I get sleepy as the day goes on, and I am too fond of the quick retort... and that's just the beginning of the list, no kidding. But I'm pretty good at getting my students to write.

What's my secret? Well, I basically set them up the same way I set myself up, creating conditions that make me (and then, them) want to write. After all, almost all of us are more likely to do something we want to do, instead of something we're supposed to do. The trick is getting a group of kids to feel that way. I'm hopeful that this article will give you some pointers for motivating your class — or yourself — to write more and often. Oh, and in honor of this column's topic, I will insist on inserting a pun on the words "write/right" in every section title.

Write Time, Write Place

My students seem constantly surprised that the DOE has not set up all the classrooms in the city with personal temperature controls for each seat. They fuss whether they're too hot, or too cold, or, in one memorable instance, "too moist." Being too hot, too cold or too moist almost inevitably leads to cries that they cannot write in such horrific conditions. Granted, once, at my previous post, the heat went out in February, and it really was about 35 degrees in the classroom. That is actually too cold to write. Otherwise, no dice.

This kind of whining reminds me of writers (a superstitious lot) who insist on certain conditions before they can create great art. Maybe they need to be on an island. Maybe they need to be drunk. Maybe they need the right kind of pen. Whatever it is, they can't write until these very specific conditions are met.

This is all nonsense, whether from my students or from writers. These conditions are crutches, which we use to prop up our vision of ourselves as productive artists who only need the smallest, itsy-bitsiest help. I don't want crutches as a writer, and I don't want my students to have crutches, either. Still, human decency is important. I won't pick out the brown M&M's, but I also won't withhold, say, chairs.

In short, I do my best to provide what I can towards a pleasant writing experience. Pencils, a sharpener and paper are all available in my classroom. Although I like to be slightly cold, I will keep the classroom temperature at a more group-pleasing warmth if I have control over it, and the lights are on only if we need them (to avoid that heinous fluorescent glare). Beverages, kept in closed containers, are fine. Once in a while, I'll bring in a snack for the kids to enjoy while writing, and I'm amiable towards playing music in some cases, as well. After all, writing is hard enough... why make it harder by denying oneself (or one's students) small comforts? And why make it harder by demanding unneeded accoutrements?

Also, I try to think carefully about when I ask the kids to write. First thing in the morning usually works pretty well, although I do have to watch for sleepy heads dipping down onto desks. Directly after lunch? Not so great. I also try to keep aware of what they're doing in other classes, so that they don't write all period in Science, then History and then get hit up by me for yet another essay in ELA.

Too accommodating? I don't think so, because I try to keep in mind that my ultimate goal is to help them write as well as they can and improve from there, not to simply get another collection of dull essays that can become a grade.  It's easy for teachers to get locked into a way of thinking in which it's believed unreasonable for kids to have peak and down times. But, just as we generally don't want to be given a big assignment at 5 pm, nor do we leave our most difficult task for Saturday afternoon, kids deserve acknowledgment that they cannot write at full throttle all the time, all the livelong day. They also deserve the basic little things in life that we would like to have (e.g., food, water, a comfortable temperature, a sharpened pencil). With these things in hand, and knowing that I don't buy excuses such as "I can't write because my head is too full of numbers right now," my students are generally willing to give it a go.

Why Write Now?

It's good to know why you're writing. Anais Nin said that she wrote "to taste life twice" and E. B. White said that "Writing is an itching that one must scratch." I keep both of these quotes jotted down on note cards near my computer and I find them motivating. But then again, I'm 1) a writer who 2) gets lots of a positive feedback on my writing [Thanks!] and who 3) likes to write. So my ego does just fine, and I don't usually have trouble wanting to write. None of these may be true for your students (or even for you). So. How to motivate writing?

Here's my secret — it's OK to write for other reasons besides the pure expression of the innermost soul. It's OK to write because you're angry, or bored, or want a good grade, or are trying to figure out if you liked the book, or need to explain a scientific theory, or just want the paycheck. I'm not saying your writing will be great writing — I doubt that Chekhov's ghost will cower in the corner when confronted with your précis on evaporation — but it's not less valid. Lowered stakes and a simple goal make an assignment much more approachable.

And motivation matters. I try to help my students know what they will get from writing. Sometimes this is personal ("I will read this essay with interest, because I would like to know about you," or "I think you'll feel better after you write about this") and sometimes it's academic ("I will read this essay with interest, because I need to make sure you understand evaporation") and sometimes it's social ("We will share these monologues at the end of the period because it's interesting to hear how everyone approaches this differently"). But do not expect someone who doesn't luuuuv writing to write something without a decent motivation that goes beyond, "If you want a grade, you'll do this." And, by the way, never, never, never share someone's work without either telling them it will be shared or asking them if it's OK.

The Right Tools for the Write Job

It so often happens that students want to write, but they don't know how. Very few kids who are actually in school on a daily basis don't want to receive good grades (yes, there are a few who don't, but the good news is that they are all in my class, so you don't need to worry). But they may not write because they don't know what to do first.

It's only now, 10 years into my teaching career, that I understand that some, nay, most students need stepping stones to get across the river that is their assignment. My general method, especially when introducing a type of writing for the first time, is to explain the steps that we'll take, help them collect the needed information (e.g., reading what the essay will be about, if necessary), walking through the steps together (actually writing the assignment as a group) and then assigning a very similar piece immediately afterward. Writing something together allows for questions and builds confidence.

I also have become a fan of the visual organizer. There are dozens available on the web. Find the one that's right for your class and help them to use it to plan their essay. This seems to be so much more accessible to today's kids than the old "draft it out" style favored when I was in school.

By the way, I also do this for my own writing work, because, yes, I get overwhelmed. For example, before writing these columns, I discuss a topic with my editor and then draft out the sections with place-holding subtitles. Then my mind thinks I'm just filling in blanks, not making stuff up as I go along. In planning my first book, I have a system of post-its and notecards and outlines that some have found alarming, but makes sense out of the enormity of the project to me. Just as we shouldn't expect greatness at all times, we also shouldn't expect good writing to just appear. Writing can, of course, be over-massaged into something horrible, generally involving metaphors about flight. But it can also be nourished by a system that, by giving the writer a path, sets him or her free to wander it.

Write Reading

Another small point about writing: all writers want readers. Of course, all writers really want lavish praise from those readers, preferably astute, intellectual readers who say exactly the right thing and look like Ryan Reynolds. But if we can't have that, we at least want the feeling that someone has carefully and thoughtfully read what we have labored on for so long.

It's so easy and understandable that in the crunch of the school year, essays may not get read with care. After all, most teachers have become very quick readers, and we know generally know what we are looking for (e.g., how evaporation works). For that matter, we often have already some of the child's writing, so we have a general (if perhaps subconscious) idea of how well they'll complete this assignment. It's hard to avoid that length-of-paper syndrome, too. We all know that a five-paragraph essay that takes up less than a page is probably not going to kick it as well as one that goes on for two.

But slow down, Mr. "Excellent Work!"er. Your kids are going to appreciate to a much more thoughtful response from you. After all, why would they take their time on something they know you won't even carefully read? It takes longer, I know, and that's annoying. But I find my students are willing to wait longer if I explain that it's going to take me a while to read all of their essays, but I'm going to give some very specific comments including positives and negatives. All is quiet when I do give back those essays, and I forget how I spent Sunday afternoon glumly reading and reading and reading ("Evaporation: A Love Story"). I just see a room of people treated in a way that shows that what they wrote matters. And given that, they don't care what color ink I wrote in.

Write Now?

What shall we write, then? It can't all be essays. So, to spur your imagination (or boost your lesson plan, here's a short list of some successful writing assignments I've given in the last few years):

  • Write a monologue in the voice of a character from The Crucible. Have your character blame someone else in the play for what happened in Salem.
  • Tell me about what you'd give the city for the holidays, if money was no object.
  • Who do you most admire? (Note: This person cannot be related to you. And you cannot write about Ms. Reed.)
  • If you could spend a day in another country, where would you go and what would you do?
  • What's the best compliment you've ever been given? Tell me about it.
  • Do you feel you receive enough pressure from home, not enough or too much? Explain.
  • What's your favorite song? Why? What lyrics from it mean the most to you?
  • (After playing a piece of music) What did you think of that? Would you want to hear it again? Why or why not?
  • What did you learn yesterday?
  • What would you do if they stopped making your favorite candy?
  • What would you do if you found out you were allergic to your favorite food?
  • Do you follow the news? How? What stories particularly interest you lately?
  • How do you feel about how this year is going for you? Are you pleased with yourself? Do you need to work on something? If so, what?
  • Tell me a story.
  • What's your favorite poem and why?
  • Is the Hokey Pokey what it's all about? Explain.
  • Free write.

That's it, my friends. Value your students writing, give them room to do it, help them to understand what to do, and treat it respectfully when it's in your hands. And let them see you write sometimes, too. I've found that my students write at length in their journals when when they see me writing too.

So. What are you going to write today? Make it count! It's the write thing to do.

See you next month!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 11th 2010, 8:03 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
Wow!! Terrific article by a clearly terrific teacher. This is one article to save and reread. You are positive, upbeat about your students, and you don't whine about how hard it is to teach. You have good ideas that are written in an engaging and friendly manner. Brava!!
Monday January 11th 2010, 2:54 PM
Comment by: vicki Y. (New York, NY)
you refer to "visual organizes". what type do you think would be most useful for newspaper reporting?
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:47 AM
Comment by: JOHN E. (BEDFORD, NH)
Two queries to your general readership (since you're a self-avowed English and Theatre teacher) pertaining to encourage writing by math/science/engineering-oriented students:

1. When Write became Right. As a techie in school, I never enjoyed writing, nor did I like to read very much. I had great English, Latin, and French teachers; but it was math and science that excited me. Yet now I read extensively, both fiction and non-fiction, and I make a living writing technical pieces and proposals, as well as inventing things. I have no idea how this transition occurred, i.e., when Write became Right! Any ideas?

2. To encourage techie/geek/math students, how about a writing assignment asking a tech-student to not only explain to, but CONVINCE another non-tech-student WHY a particular scientific fact, technology, or math concept is cool from its intrinsic worth to potential practical uses? Thoughts?
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 5:34 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
John: I love your second idea! At my present post, we have been working on literacy across the curriculum. We've developed a very basic general literacy skills rubric (everyone on my grade team participated in its development, although I began the process), and each teacher has assigned an essay or similar writing task. It's been a wonderful thing. In Science, the kids have had to write explanations of how to perform some kind of data collecting. In Math, they had to consider what life would be like without Math. Your idea would certainly fit into the curriculum. One of the nicest benefits for ELA teachers like me is that when they are writing essays in other classes, I can free up my schedule for a little more creative writing. I also feel supported in knowing that my kids can't turn in subpar essays in other classes. And, as you point out, I'm sure that the kids who don't enjoy ELA quite as much but are Math or Science fiends are delighted to write in a realm they enjoy so much more. Of course, the final note is that I work at a Theatre Arts School. While we do have some math/science-friendly kids, we do tend heavily to the ELA-lovin' side.

As for the first question, it occurred at the age of 24. That is when you became a writer. :) No, in all seriousness, I did not enjoy writing as writing for a very long time either, although I certainly enjoyed all the attention I got for writing well. I found the actual process of writing grueling (between playing the cello 2+ hours a day and writing frequently, I developed carpal-tunnel syndrome at the age of 18!). I also really hated the visual unpleasantness of drafting. I mean, I didn't like to LOOK at crossed out words. The widespread availability of computers as I entered early adulthood allowed me to get rid of both of these issues. This is not to say that your experience was the same as mine, but simply to say that a small change in behavior, abilities, thinking or motivation can make all the difference. I wonder what it was for you?
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 5:36 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I neglected the previous commenter -- so sorry. I would search "Visual Organizer" or "Graphic Organizer" and "newstory" and see what you come up with. I know that seems like a weak suggestion, but it's honestly what I do. Or, if I can't find something I like in a relatively short period of time, I search "Make your own graphic organizer" and go to one of a handful of sites that let me put together my own. In many ways, that's the best solution, since you can personalize it to what your goals for your unit are.
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 8:34 PM
Comment by: vicki Y. (New York, NY)
Re: visual organizers. Thanks, Shannon

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