Have you ever considered how many aphorisms there are for good writing?
Show, don’t tell.
Write what you know.
To write well, read.
First drafts are crap.
Adverbs are the devil.
And so on.
But there’s one tidy little truth that haunts me over and over and reminds me that my job is not only to teach writing, but to teach thinking. And as you’ve probably heard dozens of times before, “clean writing is clean thinking.”
Or, as I say to my classes: clear writing is clear thinking, interesting writing is interesting thinking, quality writing is quality thinking.
But students struggle to find ideas for their writing. I’m sure you’ve seen the double handed head clutch when it comes time to set pen to paper.
I stress to my students to do their thinking up front. And this is where it comes in handy that I practice writing myself. Whenever I am under a tight deadline, I try to take my own advice. I go wash the dishes or tidy a drawer, I take a walk or make a cup of tea, I prep for dinner or fold a load of laundry. There’s a special writerly magic in freeing your mind enough to happen upon an idea.
When it comes to the students in my class, we talk about our “shower idea” or our “cross-country idea” and how it’s in these moments of tacit boredom and busyness — like food that is both too salty and not salty enough, we find an idea compelling enough to put down on paper. If we’re lucky, we might find an opening line or analogy, or maybe even a vignette we can weave in.
Another, more reliable way into “clear writing is clear thinking” is conversation. Because most students aren’t quite practiced enough in trusting their instincts and sussing out the good ideas from the bad, having conversations with classmates can generate ideas and illuminate or capture that elusive “thing” they’re trying to say.
Below are five strategies for how you might cultivate conversation in your classrooms to help your students do their thinking up front:
There’s a lot of buzz out there about Flipgrid and for good reason. The possibilities of embedding Flipgrid into lessons seem infinite, and although I’m still experimenting, the four or five strategies I have tried — flipping Socratic seminar, reflecting on essential questions, explaining a process, reading a poem or narrative, “free-writing” and riffing on an idea — make this app is worth its weight in gold.
Introduce the writing task and purpose, and have students plan, prepare, and record their response to the prompt. Chances are, they’ll sharpen their ideas as they plan, and when they hear the playback of their response (and others), they’ll begin revising. What I like about Flipgrid (besides everything) is how easy and adaptable it is.
It’s no secret I’m a serious Voxer fan. This new-fangled walkie talkie has made a significant impact on my professional life with a nearly ongoing conversation with my PLN fam. But Voxer isn’t just for teachers (or for sending spouses to the store after work). It’s an app that can leverage student conversation, feedback, and reflection.
Organize students into focus groups (think teacher PLNs except for students), and have them “brainstorm” or “prewrite” via Voxer. What I like about Voxer is that you speak and listen without interruption, which forces you to process and think about your response before you continue or contribute to a conversation.
3. Tea Party
Yes, I mean an actual, literal tea party. Similar to how boredom is useful for generating ideas, tea parties can kick start even the quietest classroom crowd.
Pre-arrange your room. Think pods, large circle, or banquet style tables. Ask your Family and Consumer Science teacher for a hot water urn, grab some tea (and cookies if you’re feeling crazy), and let students relax a bit. It might help to provide conversation starter cards that scaffold to your prompt or task. What I like about actual tea parties is the opportunity to build community and generate conversation in a low stakes enviornment.
4. Speed Dating
Speed dating is a versatile activity that allows students to “date” books, ideas, and topics. Like the name suggests, students spend only 4-5 minutes exchanging ideas with a partner. When the time is up, students move on to the next “date.”
Have students bring notebooks and brainstorming notes to speed dating, and ask students to talk through their ideas to their conversation partners. Students should treat this as an opportunity to take an idea for a test run, or to walk it around and see how far it will go.
You could challenge students to tell stories for narrative, present claims and evidence for argument, or identify strong textual support for analysis. Like Flipgrid, students will notice the strengths and limitations of their ideas through their explanations. What I like about speed dating is its quick pace and flexibility.
This is a personal favorite. First off, Moving to Music is simple, requires almost zero prep, and is perfectly student centered. Like speed dating, students have an opportunity to test run ideas with partners or small groups, but this time they have a bit more say-so in their groupings.
Hit play on your playlist and have students work the room. When the music stops, give them one part of the writing task or prompt to discuss. Repeat until all parts of the task have been covered. After the last round, provide students with the task in its entirety and have them flash draft.
What I like about Moving to Music is that it gets students up and moving and it frees up the teacher to guide and coach individual groups.
How do you cultivate conversation in your classroom? How else can we encourage students to think before they write? I’d love to hear from you!
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