First Year Writing Teacher Support: Your Moves Are Not Their Moves

As writing teachers, we’ve done our fair share of writing ourselves.  We each have our own unique process, a set of strategies we’ve grown comfortable with from practice.  If you’re new to teaching writing, that probably means you did a lot of writing recently in college.  Your process is finely tuned; you’re likely a well-oiled machine.  And in a lot of ways, that can be beneficial in your role as a writing teacher.  Afterall, you remember exactly how it feels to be faced with a challenging writing task.

But being hot-off-the-press can also be an obstacle.  I know it was for me.  I knew the moves that worked for me all too well, and I began to mistake my trusty writing tools as gospel.  I expected all my students to write just like I did and in the same way I did.  And when they didn’t?  Well… I just thought they missed the mark.  But what I really should have been doing all along was showing them multiple ways to get to an end product and allowing them the freedom to choose what worked best for them.

New Teacher Tip #6: Your moves are not their moves.

Let’s look at the planning process for an example.  I’m a semi-traditional outliner.  I say semi-traditional because, while I always use the concept of a written outline, the characteristics of the outline changes based on the writing task.  But you can bet that if I need to write something, there will be some sort of list on my document before my formal writing takes shape.  It’s my trusty go-to and it’s always worked for me.  But that doesn’t mean it works for my students.  Our students learn in so many ways.  And what can help one student prepare to write can hinder another.  

So the other day, when it was time to start planning for an upcoming argumentative writing task, I decided less was more when it came to directions.  I wanted my students to choose a structure and style of planning that made sense to them, and I knew that giving them very specific directions would pigeonhole them into a style that I had determined for them.  Here’s what I did instead:

  1. I snatched a roll of white parchment paper from my school’s media center, rolled it out on my classroom floor, and instructed each student to grab a few markers and cut off a piece.
  2. I asked them to create a visual representation of what they wanted to write.  The visual could take on any form (roadmap, flowchart, web, etc.) as long as it addressed the following:
    1. A description of the writer’s approach to the beginning and end of the essay
    2. A description of the argument and where it will appear in the essay
    3. Explanations of how academic articles will be utilized
    4. Explanations of how the novel they read about their issue will be utilized
    5. Explanations of different sections and paragraphs of the essay
  3. I showed them this example of a roadmap, emphasizing that my way was not the way.  I also gave them some ideas for how to think about different kinds of sections using a resource I had previously pulled from The Story of My Thinking.
  1. I stood back and watched them work, checking in now and then with them as their thinking took shape.

I noticed that many students chose the same roadmap structure as my example.  And that was fine with me!  Afterall, some students struggle with how to get started, and emulating the model is what helps get them off the ground.  That’s what teaching is all about.  It’s also possible that the roadmap format just made sense to those that used it.

Other students decided to take their own route.  Here are some examples:

Macie used the “Another Way” structure from The Story of My Thinking to work through her argument on how teens should be mindful of the effects of peer pressure.  She chose the image of a book as the centerpiece of her visual.

I love how Mackenzie utilized the old-school, elementary “hamburger” visual to plan her writing.  She recognized that her hamburger for this project would be much more complex and thought through what pieces she would need.  She later added more specific source information.

The concept of a flowchart made sense to many of my students, as it allowed them to look at their paper as moving from one section to another.

Once students made their visuals, I pulled each student aside for a personal conference.  I started the conference by simply stating, “Take me through your plan from start to finish.”  As students explained, I sometimes stopped them to make comments (such as “I really love the way you’ve decided to introduce your topic!”) or suggestions (like “As a reader, it would make more sense to me if you changed the order by flipping these two sections around”).  

The most powerful comments, though, were the questions (for example, “What kind of information from outside sources do you have to support this point?”).  This helped students see the weaker areas of their plan, especially with their research.  They were then able to go back and conduct more research before beginning to draft.  This was so incredibly valuable, as I have found students are much more likely to go back to finding information before beginning a writing task rather than while they’re in the trenches.

In the end, I’m really glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone and decided to have my students create a visual plan for the argumentative writing task they are currently tackling.  This allowed some of my more tactile and visual learners to respond to the planning more productively than they would if I had asked them to produce a traditional outline.  And although some of their choices in format may not have made sense in my brain, having them explain it to me allowed me to understand their plan while giving them the freedom to decide how to hash it out.  Next year, I’d like to introduce this, along with other ways of planning, earlier in the year to give my students even more choices throughout the year.  I challenge you to also stretch outside the bounds of what you’ve become accustomed to in your own writing process to provide more opportunities for your students to thrive.

—Paige

What strategies work for your students that may not work for you personally?  Tell me about it on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!

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