Moving Students from Idea to Draft: a Sticky-Note Structure


Structure seems to be something young writers innately sense … or don’t.  Those who don’t tend to have explosive bursts of thought, leaving word shrapnel all over the paper.

To try to combat this, one of my first mini-lessons of the year is on brainstorming — hoping that if students write their ideas down somewhere, there is a better shot of putting them together in a meaningful order. I emphasize that brainstorming — at least in my class — needs to be tangible. It can be listing, jotting, even doodling, but it has to happen on paper.

When I taught the mini-lesson this year, I ended by rattling off a list of potential supplies to help students get going with their tangible brainstorming: “I have blank paper if you need it, markers, colored pencils, highlighters, I even have sticky notes if you think they would help.”

Please note: at this point, I had no plan for those sticky notes. I just threw it out into the void as an option, not knowing what anyone would really do with them.

Students got to work. Cecile , an ELL student, was working on a critical review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (a book that is in high rotation on my bookshelf. If you don’t have it already, get it now!). She started off with pen-on-paper, writing down the ideas that came into her head about plot and important thematic elements. If you look at the picture of her notebook, you can see that she quickly got stuck. She asked me for some sticky notes.

Cecile spent two entire workshop days listing facts and tiny tidbits of ideas on post-its. When I conferenced with her, she would reply that she was brainstorming, “Getting it all down.” So, I let her go.

When she was done brainstorming, she spent another two class periods carefully moving the stickies around — grouping them, rearranging. She would stare at them, peel them and re-stick them somewhere else. Finally, somewhere around day five or six, she wrote. She wrote furiously.

With her structure complete, the writing flowed easily.

At the beginning of our next workshop, I asked if she would share her sticky-note method with her peers. She told them:

  1. Put no more than one sentence on a sticky note

  2. Write down every single thing you can think of

  3. When you’re done writing, you will have a lot of sticky notes. Don’t be afraid.

  4. Look at them for a while, and think about which ideas go together. Put them in an order.

  5. Write.

Sticky notes have since become a hot commodity in my classes. They help so many of my students who have trouble organizing their ideas. Here are some tips and variations for your students:

  • This is a great activity for writing groups or writing partners  — introduce the idea by giving students the ideas from a mentor text and ask them to organize them. Compare to the original mentor text, discuss the differences, and their effect.

  • Writing groups can also use sticky notes to help one another organize during pre-writing.

  • Smaller sticky notes work better than large ones — when they are small, students make their ideas smaller, more isolated, and this helps students see the different nuances of a single idea. (This is particularly helpful for students who want to write in one giant paragraph, claiming their paper only has one idea.)

  • For students ready to take their writing to the next level, I offer a second color of sticky note for them to add transitions between paragraphs as they organize.

  • Some students work better on a large sheet of poster paper rather than smaller notebook pages — they use their phones to take pictures of the different iterations they work out as a record of their thinking. Those pictures then get pasted in their notebooks.

  • For students in a structural danger-zone while drafting, I occasionally encourage them to take their draft and go backwards to sticky notes. Sometimes pulling the ideas apart helps students see a better, more cohesive order to their thoughts.

Do your students use sticky notes to organize their writing? For brainstorming? How do they work in your classroom? Leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.


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