Students need time to sift through ideas around a writing assignment before jumping into it right away. Pre-writing doesn't have to be time consuming. For a short writing assignment, it could take five minutes. For a longer assignment, pre-writing may take up to a couple of class periods. Pre-writing can come in many forms. Here is a list of ideas below to get your students pre-writing prior to diving into the actual writing assignment. For the sake of this list, I'm going to gear my examples toward students writing a persuasive essay.
*Have students generate an "I love," "I hate" list to find areas they are passionate about. Once their list is made, students can go back through and highlight topics that would lend themselves to a persuasive essay topic.
*Have students make a list about times they have disagreed with something.
*Have students look through magazines or newspapers and pick 2-3 headlines to write a paragraph about why they agree or disagree with the stance the article is taking on a particular topic.
*Have students read about persuasive topics online, and then ask them to pick one of those persuasive topics they read about and write down everything they know and learned about that topic.
Every time you begin the adventure of teaching a genre of writing to your students, you have in your head what a "model" example of that genre would look like as a student's finished product. Then, we are disappointed when students turn in the final writing piece and it comes up short. Students are not mind readers. If you want students to know what writing in this genre looks like, then show them. The best way to show them is by putting on your writing pants and write the assignment right alongside students as you're teaching minilesson by minilesson. If we, as teachers, are unable or unwilling to complete a writing assignment, why would we expect it to be easy or attainable for our students? So much good can come out of participating in the writing process with your students. You will be able to anticipate challenges, you can teach from the point of view of a writer going through the writing process, you can share authentic struggles you had while writing and tips that helped you along the way.
However, models don't always have to come in the form of teacher writing. Models can be an exemplary piece of student work from a previous semester/school year. A model can also be an excerpt from a published author. Models help students have a place to start from, to be able to visualize what they're working to attain, and give them the confidence to try.
Perhaps the only thing more important than using models is how we set up the teaching experience for students to interact with the models we use. Students should have time to collaboratively discuss what they notice about models with partners, small groups, and the whole class. Some of my favorite prompts to use with students when they're studying mentor texts are:
-What do you notice about this piece?
-What does the author do that works well?
-What would you change about what the author does in this piece?
-Why do you think the author _____________________?
-What would happen if the author did _________________ instead?
-What effect does this piece have on you as a reader?
-What did you learn while studying this piece of writing that you can apply in your own piece of writing?
3. A Series of Minilessons
The responsibility of a teacher is to teach. Teachers must go beyond assigning a writing assignment. They must teach students step-by-step how to go through the writing process until they reach a finished product. Teaching and assigning or two completely different things. Once you decide what writing genre students are going to write, think about the different steps of the writing process (pre-writing, drafting/revising, editing, publishing) to consider what minilessons are essential for each step. Don't feel pressured to cover every single minilesson possible for that genre. I have found my teaching is more impactful when I choose fewer, precise minilessons so I don't kill that genre of writing. I can always spiral back to hit other minilessons when teaching a different genre of writing later on in the year. Even if the genre I am teaching is planed to take five days or five weeks, I still take students through a series of minilessons to explicitly teach the important pieces of how to be a writer in that genre.
4. Scaffolds and Supports
There are students in your classroom that need more support in their writing than other students do. Sometimes even the tiniest bit of support can give a student the confidence boost or the start he/she needed to create a beautiful piece of writing. I've heard people in the past say to me, "Well, isn't it cheating to give students sentence starters?" My response is a simple no. Using writing supports isn't cheating or making writing too easy. It is giving the necessary supports to the right students in order to remove the barriers that prevent the writer inside that student from coming alive.
Some of my favorite writing supports to use are sentence starters and paragraph frames.
5. An Aligned Rubric
A rubric for a piece of writing should be deeply personal. You and your class went on a journey together through a series of step-by-step minilessons together as you adventured through the writing process. It would be a shame if your assessment didn't reflect that journey. When making a rubric for a specific piece of writing, I generally review the minilessons that were covered and use the application of the minilessons to students' writing as assessment criteria on the rubric.
If this post reaches one teacher who recognizes one missing link that they can incorporate into their writing instruction, I would be elated. Writing is a lifelong skill that follows human beings to many careers and life situations. Writers need confidence, they need success, they need to feel what it's like to be a fluent writer. If they have these positive experiences surrounding writing, they'll enter into their writing next time more willing to pick up the pen and get started. As teachers, we hold the key to fanning the flame and lighting the fire that can create lifelong writers.