This past week, my students delved into the writing process in hopes of composing a quality essay about the importance of having a good friend. When I revealed the writing prompt, they immediately started to huff and puff and complain. "Ms. Merrick, why are the prompts always so cheesy? one boy asked. I replied, "Well, it's all about your ability to answer the prompt exceptionally well. It's about delivering original ideas that are well-thought out and deep." Not sure that he understood my response, but it's the best I could do.
Throughout this post, I'll be sharing my way of teaching the writing process. I've not mastered the skill of getting students to value each step, but I'm closer compared to last year and the year before that...and the couple of years before that. I can say that I've learned to love teaching the writing process. It's usually daunting each year when it's time to write, but this year I could not wait.
The difference between teaching the writing process this year and the years before is that I've loosened the reins tremendously! Hopefully, this will eliminate writing that's formulaic. Formulaic writing strips the creativity out of writing. It takes power away from students, and they're left with the burden of trying to satisfy the teacher as opposed to writing a paper that reflects their individual beliefs. I don't want my voice to be heard as I read their essays; I want to hear their voices. I want them to leave traces of their personalities in their writing.
To begin, we started with a whole-group discussion. I posed the question: Why do we write? I allowed students to respond out loud. In each class period, it was determined that the ultimate reason for writing is communication. Next, I used Google Slides to present a lesson on the writing process, and students took notes in their notebooks. The lesson covered the meaning of each step as well as the purpose of each step. In the past, I've always taught the writing process as students wrote, but this year, I did it separately. Writing process first...essay second, not simultaneously.
The following day, we started planning. Students chose a graphic organizer or web and sketched it on their paper. In retrospect, I always controlled their planning. After a while, I discovered that my way just didn't work for every child. Allowing them to choose their own way of planning is one example of me loosening the reins. I'm glad that I did it, too. Next, I instructed them to brainstorm a hook and controlling idea (thesis) for their introduction. This took an entire class period. The next day, they brainstormed ideas for their body paragraphs and wrote the conclusion. I teach my students that the conclusion is very similar to the introduction, but it's a lot stronger. The conclusion seals the deal for the reader. To write their conclusion, I taught them to read their introduction again. Then, restate those same ideas in a way that will move the reader. Some students struggled, so of course I did some modeling!
After planning, students flipped their paper over and started their rough drafts (sloppy copies). This took two class period. I stressed that they refer to their planning sheets to guide them as they write. Strangely, students will plan then completely forget about it. They'll slip their hands up and say, "Ms. Merrick, I don't know what to write about." I'll slowly flip their paper over to their planning and point. "Ohhh!" is the response that usually follows. Drafting days are mostly laid back and quiet (in some classes). For classes that are less docile, it's a good idea to set a timer and display it on the board. It's also a good idea to have students seated in areas where they'll focus better on their writing.
REVISING AND EDITING
Students revised one day and edited the next. We used blue colored pencils to make improvements. Last semester, they learned about ARMS (Add, Remove, Move, and Substitute). This helps in guiding them through the revision process. In addition to ARMS, I provided students with a checklist to help them with their sentence structure. The checklist included a list of the different ways they've learned to write sentences this year. I explained that I wanted to see an assortment of sentences in their essays. The list helped. I required them to identify the sentences and label them. In the end, they could see whether or not they succeeded in varying their sentence structure. This activity was difficult for some students because some of them haven't completely mastered sentences (simple, compound, and complex). Thus, searching for them in their own writing frustrated them because they weren't quite aware of what to look for and what to label. For these students, I simply guided them through the first half of their writing. Then, I assigned them the second half, so they could practice independently.
In one class period, I had enough time for an exit ticket. I wanted them to write about whether or not they varied their sentence structure in their writing. Over half said that they had not while the remaining students wrote that the did include different types of sentences. It was enlightening for both my students and myself.
Editing went well! Students used red colored pencils to get the job done. Not only did they learn about ARMS for revising, but they learned about CUPS (Capitalization, Usage, Punctuation, and Spelling) for editing. For each class, they edited their own essay for 10 minutes. Then, they switched with a partner and edited their essay for 10 minutes. After peer editing, I instructed them to leave feedback (1 like, 1 dislike, and 1 suggestion). After leaving feedback, they conferenced with each other about their essays. It was a wonderful experience watching them; they all did a great job and took it seriously.
We spent a whole class period writing final drafts. The goal was to use teacher and student feedback to revise final drafts. Students were given two sticky notes to leave feedback. I set my timer for 25 minutes so that we could have enough time to accomplish this goal. While they wrote, I stressed that their final drafts should not be identical to their rough drafts. If new ideas came to mind, it was perfectly okay for them to apply these changes if they felt that the ideas would strengthen their paper. When they finished, I instructed them to read over their essay before submitting it. Many times in class, I've asked, "You don't send a text unless you read over it right? You don't post a status on Facebook unless you read over it right? You don't leave the house in the morning unless you check out your hair and outfit in the mirror right?" Those principles apply when writing essays as well. Don't submit it until you look over it first. For the first two questions, I got blank stares. They responded more to the last one because we all know how arrogant middle school kids can be!
When the timer went off, I explained to everyone that they'd be reading 2 other final drafts. After reading each essay, they were required to leave feedback (e.g. "Great essay!" or "Fun and interesting hook!" or "Check spelling in the 2nd paragraph!"). This worked best with my last group of students because I'd worked out all the kinks from the first 3 classes. Initially, I allowed the kids to read 2 essays and leave feedback within a certain amount of time. This didn't work at all. In 6th period, I gave them 10 seconds to find an essay and sit down. Then, I set a timer for 5 minutes for them to read the paper and leave feedback. When time was up, they had 10 seconds to find the second essay and to sit down. I set my timer for 5 minutes to read and leave feedback. Students weren't allowed to read essays in which feedback was left on both sticky notes. They had to find an essay with a blank sticky note. By the time we finished, we had close to 5 minutes left, so students were able to read their feedback quickly and apply last minute changes. This activity was engaging, effective, and fun! Check out the photos below!
All in all, my hope is that my students realize that there's a process to everything including writing. It's not about the end result but the journey. I can't say that each student submitted perfectly written essays, but I can say that a majority handed in papers that they worked hard on. I witnessed it first hand.