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30 Ideas for Teaching Writing
The National Writing Project's 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing offers successful strategies contributed by experienced writing project teachers. Since NWP does not promote a single approach to teaching writing, readers will benefit from a variety of eclectic, classroom-tested techniques.
1. Use the shared events of students' lives to inspire writing.
Debbie Rotkow, a co-director of the Coastal Georgia Writing Project, makes use of the real-life circumstances of her first grade students to help them compose writing that, in Frank Smith's words, is "natural and purposeful."
When a child comes to school with a fresh haircut or a tattered book bag, these events can inspire a poem. When Michael rode his bike without training wheels for the first time, this occasion provided a worthwhile topic to write about. A new baby in a family, a lost tooth, and the death of one student's father were the playful or serious inspirations for student writing.
Says Rotkow: "Our classroom reverberated with the stories of our lives as we wrote, talked, and reflected about who we were, what we did, what we thought, and how we thought about it. We became a community."
ROTKOW, DEBBIE. 2003. "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure About Helping Students Write the Stories of Their Lives," The Quarterly (25) 4.
2. Establish an email dialogue between students from different schools who are reading the same book.
When high school teacher Karen Murar and college instructor Elaine Ware, teacher-consultants with the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, discovered students were scheduled to read the August Wilson play Fences at the same time, they set up email communication between students to allow some "teacherless talk" about the text.
Rather than typical teacher-led discussion, the project fostered independent conversation between students. Formal classroom discussion of the play did not occur until students had completed all email correspondence. Though teachers were not involved in student online dialogues, the conversations evidenced the same reading strategies promoted in teacher-led discussion, including predication, clarification, interpretation, and others.
MURAR, KAREN, and ELAINE WARE. 1998. "Teacherless Talk: Impressions from Electronic Literacy Conversations." The Quarterly (20) 3.
3. Use writing to improve relations among students.
Diane Waff, co-director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, taught in an urban school where boys outnumbered girls four to one in her classroom. The situation left girls feeling overwhelmed, according to Waff, and their "voices faded into the background, overpowered by more aggressive male voices."
Determined not to ignore this unhealthy situation, Waff urged students to face the problem head-on, asking them to write about gender-based problems in their journals. She then introduced literature that considered relationships between the sexes, focusing on themes of romance, love, and marriage. Students wrote in response to works as diverse as de Maupassant's "The Necklace" and Dean Myers's Motown and DiDi.
In the beginning there was a great dissonance between male and female responses. According to Waff, "Girls focused on feelings; boys focused on sex, money, and the fleeting nature of romantic attachment." But as the students continued to write about and discuss their honest feelings, they began to notice that they had similar ideas on many issues. "By confronting these gender-based problems directly," says Waff, "the effect was to improve the lives of individual students and the social well-being of the wider school community."
WAFF, DIANE. 1995. "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power." The Quarterly (17) 2.
4. Help student writers draw rich chunks of writing from endless sprawl.
Jan Matsuoka, a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project (California), describes a revision conference she held with a third grade English language learner named Sandee, who had written about a recent trip to Los Angeles.
"I told her I wanted her story to have more focus," writes Matsuoka. "I could tell she was confused so I made rough sketches representing the events of her trip. I made a small frame out of a piece of paper and placed it down on one of her drawings-a sketch she had made of a visit with her grandmother."
"Focus, I told her, means writing about the memorable details of the visit with your grandmother, not everything else you did on the trip."
"'Oh, I get it,' Sandee smiled, 'like just one cartoon, not a whole bunch.'"
Sandee's next draft was more deep than broad.
MATSUOKA, JAN. 1998. "Revising Revision: How My Students Transformed Writers' Workshop." The Quarterly (20) 1.
5. Work with words relevant to students' lives to help them build vocabulary.
Eileen Simmons, a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, knows that the more relevant new words are to students' lives, the more likely they are to take hold.
In her high school classroom, she uses a form of the children's ABC book as a community-building project. For each letter of the alphabet, the students find an appropriately descriptive word for themselves. Students elaborate on the word by writing sentences and creating an illustration. In the process, they make extensive use of the dictionary and thesaurus.
One student describes her personality as sometimes 'caustic,' illustrating the word with a photograph of a burning car in a war zone. Her caption explains that she understands the hurt her 'burning' sarcastic remarks can generate.
SIMMONS, EILEEN. 2002. "Visualizing Vocabulary." The Quarterly (24) 3.
6. Help students analyze text by asking them to imagine dialogue between authors.
John Levine, a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project (California), helps his college freshmen integrate the ideas of several writers into a single analytical essay by asking them to create a dialogue among those writers.
He tells his students, for instance, "imagine you are the moderator of a panel discussion on the topic these writers are discussing. Consider the three writers and construct a dialogue among the four 'voices' (the three essayists plus you)."
Levine tells students to format the dialogue as though it were a script. The essay follows from this preparation.
LEVINE, JOHN. 2002. "Talking Texts: Writing Dialogue in the College Composition Classroom." The Quarterly (24) 2.
7. Spotlight language and use group brainstorming to help students create poetry.
The following is a group poem created by second grade students of Michelle Fleer, a teacher-consultant with the Dakota Writing Project (South Dakota).
Crabs crawl patiently along the ocean floor
searching for prey.
Fish soundlessly weave their way through
Whales whisper to others as they slide
through the salty water.
And silent waves wash into a dark cave
where an octopus is sleeping.
Fleer helped her students get started by finding a familiar topic. (In this case her students had been studying sea life.) She asked them to brainstorm language related to the sea, allowing them time to list appropriate nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The students then used these words to create phrases and used the phrases to produce the poem itself.
As a group, students put together words in ways Fleer didn't believe many of them could have done if they were working on their own, and after creating several group poems, some students felt confident enough to work alone.
FLEER, MICHELLE. 2002. "Beyond 'Pink is a Rose.'" The Quarterly (24) 4.
8. Ask students to reflect on and write about their writing.
Douglas James Joyce, a teacher-consultant with the Denver Writing Project, makes use of what he calls "metawriting" in his college writing classes. He sees metawriting (writing about writing) as a way to help students reduce errors in their academic prose.
Joyce explains one metawriting strategy: After reading each essay, he selects one error that occurs frequently in a student's work and points out each instance in which the error is made. He instructs the student to write a one page essay, comparing and contrasting three sources that provide guidance on the established use of that particular convention, making sure a variety of sources are available.
"I want the student to dig into the topic as deeply as necessary, to come away with a thorough understanding of the how and why of the usage, and to understand any debate that may surround the particular usage."
JOYCE, DOUGLAS JAMES. 2002. "On the Use of Metawriting to Learn Grammar and Mechanics." The Quarterly (24) 4.
9. Ease into writing workshops by presenting yourself as a model.
Glorianne Bradshaw, a teacher-consultant with the Red River Valley Writing Project (North Dakota), decided to make use of experiences from her own life when teaching her first-graders how to write.
For example, on an overhead transparency she shows a sketch of herself stirring cookie batter while on vacation. She writes the phrase 'made cookies' under the sketch. Then she asks students to help her write a sentence about this. She writes the words who, where, and when. Using these words as prompts, she and the students construct the sentence, "I made cookies in the kitchen in the morning."
Next, each student returns to the sketch he or she has made of a summer vacation activity and, with her help, answers the same questions answered for Bradshaw's drawing. Then she asks them, "Tell me more. Do the cookies have chocolate chips? Does the pizza have pepperoni?" These facts lead to other sentences.
Rather than taking away creativity, Bradshaw believes this kind of structure gives students a helpful format for creativity.
BRADSHAW, GLORIANNE. 2001. "Back to Square One: What to do When Writing Workshop Just Doesn't Work." The Quarterly (23) 1.