Helping Students Think Before They Write

Helping STudents Think Before They Write-2

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:

1. Flipgrid

1511892437446There’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.

Idea:

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.

2. Voxer

It’s no secret I’mVoxer_Logo_Horizontal 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.

Idea:

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.

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Idea:

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.”

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Idea:

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.

5. Moving to Music

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.

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Idea:

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! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!
-Karla

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Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

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Hi Paige (and all our readers!),

I love this question…although that might be because I’ve asked it myself so many times!  I wish that meant that the forthcoming answer was some magic bullet I’ve discovered, but alas, I’m fairly certain that no such bullet exists.  But there are some magic spells (I don’t like bullet metaphors–so violent!) that I’ve found work at least some of the time.

My overarching advice would be to be willing to cast lots of spells with any given piece of writing–one student may respond amazingly to one approach while another proves impervious to the same strategy.  There’s probably a Voldemort in every class too–that one kid who just doesn’t respond very well to ANY of your magic.   Continue reading

4 Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text: Incidental Comics

The school year is winding down—and I find myself thinking more and more of warm poolside days—yet everywhere I turn, rich mentor texts seem to come my way. I’ll find something and think, “Oh, that would have been perfect to use with ____” or “That would have worked great with ____!” Although it may be too late to use these ideas this year, I click my bookmark button and tuck them away for next year.

One mentor text I can’t wait to use is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics. Although I’m usually suspicious of most social media “suggestions,” I have to thank Facebook’s algorithm for introducing me to Snider’s work. I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across Grant Snider’s work before. As someone who loves the way words and pictures can work together, whether it’s through infographics or graphic novels, the moment I started browsing Snider’s work, I fell in love. And once my teacher-brain took over, I couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities for reading and writing for next year. Continue reading

All the Culture Wars We Cannot See

I was browsing my Twitter feed the other day when I stumbled upon one of those little wars that sometimes erupt on social media.  They’re usually small and self-contained, but if you’ve got an hour and a bowl of popcorn they can be terribly fun to watch.  

This one happened to be about a lovely little arthouse theater in Austin that had dared to set up women-only screenings for the upcoming release of Wonder Woman.  I know; how dare they, right?  

Cries of “reverse sexism” were instant, followed immediately by the counter-volleys from enlightened guys and gals making fun of the fragile egos of the men so affronted by a film screening they weren’t invited to.  

Like I said, a lovely sight to behold!  It got me thinking, though, about how rapidly culture conversations shift–and what that means when we try to help our kids consider their context for writing.

And once you get a teacher thinking about a topic, he’s going to want to have students write about it.  And if he’s going to have students write about it, he’ll probably want to make sure they understand it first.  And if he has to figure out how to help them understand it, he’ll probably get hungry for some pancakes.  

Or something like that… Continue reading

Conquering the Blank Page with Note Cards

The Blank Page

One of the largest hurdles for my writers is the fear that accompanies starting an essay. Their fear of the blank page often manifests itself in half-hearted introductions and tentative hooks. Importantly, these students know when their writing is less than what it can be. They aren’t trying to start their essays with weak hooks; they are simply experiencing small moments of hesitancy that is not conducive to their creative process.

Vital to understanding our students’ blank page jitters is the fact that these jitters can be conquered.

Note Cards that Conquer

All that is needed for this exercise are note cards, two sentence starters, and a prompt. With these three components, students are tasked with crafting the idea that will effectively begin their essay.

The Directions

  1. Write your name on the top of your note card.
  2. Answer the following question on your note card:

Do you have something that will interest your reader like a story, statistics, or really interesting facts?

Continue reading

March (Madness) to Determine Significance

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March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard. Continue reading

Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six

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Image via jamestownhistoricalsociety.org

minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

Conferring as Prewriting

I was reminded the other day of the work of Don Murray (who, with Don Graves, I affectionately refer to as “the Dons” in my head). “Prewriting usually takes about 85% of the writer’s time,” Murray wrote in his wonderful essay, “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product.”

As my students begin work on one of their first major essays this year, I keep coming back to Murray’s words. 85% of writing is prewriting. I remind myself of this fact as I panic a little, worried that it’s already October and my students are only just beginning one of their first major essays this year. What have we been doing for the last few weeks? I ask myself. Students need to write, and write a lot, in order to become better writers, so why did it take so long to get to this first essay? It’s already October! I panic a little more. It’s almost November! I start to hyperventilate.

And then I take deep breaths and remember Murray: 85% of writing is prewriting. And then I remember that it’s not as if my students haven’t been writing, writing, writing for the last seven weeks. “Never a day without a line,” another Murray quote, is our class mantra. We’ve been writing every day—filling our writer’s notebooks, creating lists, making observations, drawing heart maps, reflecting on memories, asking questions, lifting lines, recording wonderings, sorting through worries, playing with language, exploring writing territories, and most of all, finding voice. By doing all these things and more, students can begin to unearth those “moments worth writing about” that will carry them through the rest of the year as they become writers.  Continue reading

Moving –like really moving– Writers

When I have a rough day at school for whatever reason–a challenging meeting, a botched lesson, a tricky planning problem–the one thing that helps me think and focus is running. I know lots of people say they only run when chased, so maybe that makes me a weirdo, but running is the one thing that is guaranteed to give me some clarity.

I need to move in order to think.

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my students and their need to move, too. I spent the early years of my  career teaching Spanish, so I know all about the research that movement helps students learn better. We danced the alphabet, acted out the weather, and clapped and shimmied our way through verb conjugations. But somehow, as I moved away from the world of foreign language,  my classes became more and more sedentary. Writing and reading became this calm, seated activity.  There’s certainly a need for that. You can’t exactly think and compose while you’re dancing. Or can you? I think maybe there are places for it.

Continue reading