Recently, my eleventh grade writers have been drafting their own Opinion-Editorials – a student (and teacher) favorite. Writers are tasked to select a topic of recency for an immediate and practical audience: peers, friends, teachers, parents, and/or the local community.
Students have a lot of fun and put a great deal heart into this piece, and it certainly aligns with my goal of offering authentic and meaningful writing experiences for them.
After the first round of drafts, students practice metacognition, step back, and look at their writing – like the initial glance of the first few brushstrokes on the canvas.
Many share that they are enjoying writing about their opinion on these topics, but when they consider the end goal, some writers have concerns about focus. It is easy to wonder how students could possibly have issues with focus in a piece about a topic they self-selected and care about.
But it makes sense.
Opinion writing feels easy for us because – plainly and simply – our opinion is what we know and love. However, condensing passionate opinions into a poignant, purposeful, and palatable piece is, understandably, challenging.
Some students express that their first draft reads too much like a journal or rant; others vocalize how challenging it can be to work with anecdotal evidence without dipping too much into the narrative style.
When I notice that students are grappling with the focus and style of the Op-Ed, I rely on the simple but essential reminder to ask my writers to refocus by “zooming out” and reconsidering the aims of their writing.
My posts this year have been centered around strategies for meaningful revision. The strategy here? Remind students of why we write.
With students tackling a piece with a lot of heart, I redirect them back to something that I share on day one: the Three C’s of Language.
I always start my course with these two visuals, which illustrate my own philosophy on language. The intent is to invite students to consider the immense potential of our language use.
Early on, I discuss with writers that our language (our understanding of it and our use of it) is tied together by three important components (The Three C’s of Language): compassion, communication, and connection.
This follows the notion that we start with our compassion, and we communicate that compassion in efforts to make a connection with others.
We often discuss writing as a means for change. When we care about people and issues, we exhibit our human propensity for compassion.
However, thoughts remain thoughts until we decide otherwise. I remind students that our thoughts – the evidence of our compassion – have the potential to become words, and then, in turn, lead to action…real change in the community around us, whether that be local, national, or global.
Something I have noticed, semester after semester, is that students have the most success with this piece when they, in a way, forget that it’s an assignment for a class. Their level of investment supersedes the traditional perceptions of a classroom assignment for a grade because they are anchored and focused by one notion: that an authentic use of language can lead to authentic and palpable change.
With the three C’s in mind, to refocus writers, I ask them to carefully reconsider the following:
- What was your exigence?
- Who is your audience?
- What is your purpose?
Elements of exigence, purpose, and audience overlap with compassion, communication, and connection, respectively. Focusing and guiding student writers stems from helping them more carefully understand their specific use of language in this specific occasion.
Exigence as Compassion
It is clear that students care about their topic after looking at their first draft. These drafts are passionate, brimming with words, and, at-times, feel like an outpouring of emotions right onto the page – which is wonderful. But, when conferring with students, if it’s not directly stated or implied in the piece, I’ll ask them a few questions to start:
- What was your exigence for this piece?
- What makes you care so much about this?
- What is your personal stake in this?”
Usually, it’s a relevant current event, a recent personal experience, or merely a chance to turn long-term, bottled-up thoughts into words.
I find that this is a great place to start to understand my students’ compassion, perspective, and the “WHY” of their piece. Anchoring students in these thoughts can lead to natural revision reflexes: details added, details omitted, the lead of the piece capturing their exigence, and more.
Audience and Communication
Recently, I have found students drafting up pages of insightful and mature ideas full of voice but struggling with making it fit the Op-Ed tone or style. Sometimes, I remind students that though their words are passionate, we always need to keep our audience in mind. That is what makes our compassion communicable.
- Who is your audience? Is this truly for your peers? Or parents? Or both? Are there other audiences that you aren’t considering?
- When “PEER NAME” reads this, will she also care? What will go through her mind?
- Is your language going to resonate with “PEER NAME” when they read it?
- In what ways might your language be misconstrued? Misunderstood? Upsetting?
- Does your language actually cater or appeal to these audiences? Why or why not?
Sometimes, these simple but direct questions concerning audience help students remember to think from the perspective of their readers, and I find them quickly reassessing delivery, syntax, word choice – all of the elements that we teach our writers to consider when writing for a specific audience.
Purpose as Connection
I find that some students merely need a reminder of their purpose in their writing. If we remember that our writing is seeking to communicate our compassion to make a connection, what specifically is that connection? How might we describe what the connection is or looks like?
Many students will say that “ [their] purpose is to bring awareness to ____” or “to inform more about ____.” And they’re not wrong. Of course, our writing is meant to stimulate thought and inform. However, I urge students to dig deeper in their considering their purpose.
- Of what exactly will you enlighten your reader? Will it serve as an exigence (or spark) for them the way it did for you?
- Does your piece produce an immediate or long-term action for your reader?
- In what way does your piece promote advocacy or learning?
- How will your reader think or perceive differently following your piece?
- How will you know that your piece fulfilled its purpose?
When students narrow down what the end goal of their writing truly is, the purpose of the piece sharpens, and the components of compassion and communicate realign with connection.
As students stay grounded in their aims, it is wonderful to see them polish their Op-Eds into their final versions – pieces of writing that allow my students to be agents of change.
The Three C’s of Language have been a way to keep my students focused on their writing goals, but they have also kept me focused on my goals as a writing teacher. I am anchored by the tenet that no matter what, our work will always be rooted in compassion, communication, and connection.
How do you refocus or guide your students when it comes to reconsidering and reflecting on the aims of their writing? You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.
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