Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Teaching the Adolescent Writer
Visual Thesaurus subscriber Debbie Shults is a veteran Sarasota, Florida, teacher, literacy coach -- and now blogger -- who we recently interviewed about her work defining a "new literacy" at her middle school. She graciously contributed the following article:
Middle school students have gained a great deal of notoriety for being difficult to teach. And while it is true that middle school is the New York City of the teaching profession, ("If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere."), veteran middle school teachers know that middle school kids are exceptional learners.
Middle school writing teachers need to keep that fact in mind, because teaching this age group to write is a challenge requiring lots of patience and a strong faith in the miraculous ability of adolescent human beings to grow into remarkable young adults. Helping young writers learn to transfer onto paper, with clarity and purpose, the thoughts which inhabit their active minds is one of the most rewarding experiences of any teacher's career. Here are some tips, given in a relatively sequential order, that I hope will guide courageous middle school writing teachers as they plan and implement their strategies for turning their spontaneously rambunctious students into great writers:
- Set a purpose and audience for all writing assignments.
- Teach your students to think.
- Help students learn to organize their thoughts.
- Chunk writing instruction.
- Train students to be peer editors.
- Insist that your students revise their writing.
- Give your students opportunities to have their writing published.
- Model the writing process.
- Continually show off the best student models.
- Help students move their writing skills to ever higher levels.
- Help students develop the background knowledge they need to become great writers.
- Expose students to a variety of genres.
- Never underestimate the power of the adolescent mind.
Middle school students need to know why they are writing and who's going to read their work. In real life, professional writers always have a purpose and they know their audience. Middle school students just want us to keep it real, and honestly, I can't blame them. If you need help finding a purpose and appropriate audience, I recommend checking out the RAFT strategy. RAFT provides a concise way of giving a clear purpose to any type of writing assignment.
OK, I admit that thinking is a natural human behavior. Everyone does it, including teachers and their middle school students. But when one is teaching thirteen year-old boys and girls, some explicit instruction in how to harness their energetic minds is a key element in helping them become effective, creative writers. I like to help my students learn to think by giving them something to think about. When I sense their minds have loaded up on some kind of prior knowledge, I know they are ready to start pouring out ideas. Brainstorming sessions in my classroom must be free of criticism. When we get to the organization phase of writing, there will be plenty of room to delete ideas that don't hold water. My personal favorite brainstorming technique is to just make a list of every idea, fragment of an idea, shadow of a thought I can generate. When I begin teaching brainstorming, I have my students work in groups or with a partner. It's never too soon to learn that working with other human beings makes us all more productive.
Now we can get a little critical. After every good idea they've ever had has been spilled out of their heads and onto a sheet of paper, it's time to sort them into thematic piles. Once the ideas are sorted, the writer can further refine their organizational strategies. There are a variety of organizational patterns from which to choose. I prefer brainstorming a list and then gathering similar ideas into clusters. Because children learn in diverse ways, it's important to teach several organizational patterns. Help your young writers find a pattern which works for them.
A little bit can go a long way. With beginning writers, having to write the entire essay, all at once, and at the beginning of your instruction, may not yield the results you intended. Start with introductions. Then work on developing detailed description. Then help students learn to conclude their writing projects. When all this is completed, it's time to put the whole piece together.
In writing class learning is enjoyable. Students are constantly engaging each other in conversation about writing, giving each other constructive criticism when needed and lathering on the praise when earned. This wonderful classroom scenario only happens when teachers patiently take time to train their students to work productively with their peers. Modeling through direct instruction and taking students through simulated edits are effective practices for training students to become strong editors. Be sure to emphasize that editing is more than looking for punctuation and spelling errors. The most important editing skill for young writers to learn is to identify supporting detail and give advice for strengthening existing detail. An essential benefit of helping your students develop peer editing skills is that it also enhances student understanding of the revision process.
If students are not revising their writing, they are not fully learning the writing process. Professional writers are never really satisfied. They are eternally revising their work. While you are teaching your students to be editors, you are also guiding them towards being more astute consumers of all types of texts.
School journals, local writing publications, class blogs, web sites, and your newspaper's editorial page are some of the venues for student publishing. The power of the authentic audience inspires young writers to continue to improve their writing. One of my favorite web sites for publishing student writing is Writer's Window. Submissions are vetted for quality and content. The entire web site provides helpful resources for young writers.
One of my role models is Sharon Draper. She was teaching high school English when her writing students challenged her by saying, "If you think writing is so easy, why don't you do it?" Ms. Draper's response was to write her first national best seller, Tears Of A Tiger. I am not advocating that writing teachers must all be acclaimed, professional writers, but I do believe when we demonstrate understanding of the complex cognitive process required to become a writer, our students are more willing to work to improve their writing ability. Show them how you struggle to find the perfect word or the clever phrase. Be a role model for the entire process.
Show your students the great work written by their peers. These samples can be work produced by students in other teacher's classes or examples from other schools. Seeing the work of other members of their age group provides inspiration for these budding authors.
As students master each step of the writing process, require your students to add new layers of complexity to their writing; sophisticated transitions, mature word usage, and expanded support.
Public school students come to the classroom with a variety of background experiences. Some have parents who have invested a great deal of time in helping them develop strong cognitive skills. They've traveled widely, read many great books, and can easily draw on previous experiences to inspire their writing. But there are many students who need our help in developing those experiences. Field experiences, required reading of great literature and class discussions on current events are a few ways we can bridge the experience gap and provide students with the background knowledge needed to enhance their writing.
Sadly, we are so obsessed with the type of writing required by our state-wide assessment, we've forgotten to allow students to explore more creative forms of writing. Teachers need not worry they are robbing students of the instructional time needed to learn to write expository or persuasive essays. All writing will support the on-demand writing required by our state assessments.
I can't count the number of times I've been humbled by the simple wisdom of a thirteen year old. I admit these children can be impulsive, immature and just downright silly. But when you raise your expectations and then support their efforts to improve, they will meet and probably even, exceed the goals you've set. Remember, you are teaching on the Broadway of the teaching world. If you've made it there, there's nothing you can't achieve.