3 Strategies for Students Who Say, “I’m Finished” After Writing a Paragraph

 

I grew up in Connecticut, so the old southern phrase “Bless your heart” isn’t a part of my everyday vocabulary. However, I’ve caught myself saying it a few times, in identical situations. Here’s the scenario:

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I’m finished.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts            we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

OR

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I have nothing else to say.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts           we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

My southern friends have taught me that “bless your heart” is the phrase you say when  you’re trying to be nice. But there’s an edge to it. A bit of sarcasm or exasperation or maybe even pity. It’s the phrase that comes to mind when a student thinks she’s done writing, but I know she’s only just begun.

How do we help these writers — the ones who honestly believe they’re done, that they’ve written into all of their ideas, that they can call it a day? How can we literally bless their writing hearts and help them along on their cut-too-short writing journey?

There have been times when I’ve pointed to a sentence or paragraph and said, “You need to add more here” and left it up to the student to figure out what that means. These are not moments I’m proud of. I’d rather look back on the times when I’ve given the student a strategy to try, one they can use not-just-this-time but over and over again, whenever this problem of “I’m finished” presents itself.

Here are a few techniques I’ve shared with students that have helped coax them back to the page to do some more thinking and writing — to help them deepen and extend and thoroughly develop their ideas.

Strategy #1: Explode the Moment

I first learned about this Barry Lane technique at the Writing Project Summer Institute. The idea is simple: take a short phrase, sentence, or paragraph and explode it into more short phrases, sentences or paragraphs.

Here’s an example I wrote together with my students a few years ago. We pulled a sentence from a student’s draft and imagined all of the things happening in and around that particular moment; then we fleshed it out.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.47.10 PMExploding the moment is typically used to help students flesh out a piece of narrative writing, but it can work just as well in informational or analytical writing; a lot of informational and analytical writing depends upon a strong narrative introduction or thread anyway to hold the reader’s interest and add texture to the piece.

Strategy #2: Mirror a Mentor Text

Whenever I can, I use mentor texts to help my students work through writing problems and puzzles. I like to ask the question, “What did the mentor do?” and help my student describe the work of the writer so he can try it in his own piece.

In this technique, you help the student find a mentor text that is like the writing they are doing, and you invite them to see what content the writing has that their piece may lack.

I love the example Rebekah shares in some of our workshops about her student Josef, a 9th grader, who was writing a persuasive piece about “must-see” bands in 2016. His draft looked a little something like this:

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Josef had written 10 nearly identical paragraphs for the different bands he had chosen for this piece. And for Josef, ten paragraphs was a big accomplishment — surely he was done. But they all lacked something major, something that held his writing back from being a substantial piece of analysis. Each paragraph lacked the reasons and evidence needed to support the claim that the band was worth seeing live!

So, Rebekah shared a tiny excerpt from the mentor text 25 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo.

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Then she asked Josef, “What does this mentor include that isn’t yet in your piece?” A light bulb went off. Josef immediately realized that he had failed to talk about the music itself. So he went back to the drawing board and added another paragraph to each section. Here’s the paragraph he added to the bottom of his Catfish and the Bottlemen section:

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With longer mentor texts, it can be helped to have students create a true mirror in their notebooks by cutting the mentor text into chunks — chunks that represent different sections or topics — and pasting them onto the left side of their notebook. Then, on the right side, they can experiment with adding similar sections to their own writing.

Strategy #3: The Braided Paragraph

The Braided Paragraph is a variation of the Braided Essay in which writers weave together different “threads” of a topic, resulting in a beautiful and nuanced mishmash of genres and thinking and moments of revelation. Here are the directions I give my students for trying the braided paragraph:

  • Draw a line down the middle of a fresh sheet of notebook paper. On the left side, copy what you have written, putting one sentence on each line (or skipping lines in between sentences).
  • On the right side, create new but related content by trying one of the following:
    • Write the opposite of the line on the left.
    • Write a related detail, fact, or piece of evidence.
    • Write a surprising line to go with the line on the left.
    • Write the word “but…” and continue the line on the left.
  • After you’ve written a new line for every original line in your piece, braid these two columns of writing together into something bigger, better and more interesting than what you had before.

Sometimes the Braided Paragraph technique produces amazing results. Sometimes, like a good exquisite corpse, it makes for really wacky writing that sometimes inspires something new in the writing and sometimes dies right there on the page. What matters is that you’re inviting students to write in and around their original thinking, to play with it, stretch it, and contort it into new possibilities.

How do you help your writers move past a paragraph into more developed writing? How do you entice the writer who says “I’m finished” back to his notebook? 

 

 

 

 

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3 Techniques for Students Who Know What They Want to Say But Not How to Say it

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Can you picture the student who has just said this in a writing conference? He smoothes the pages of his notebook to reveal countless scribbles and doodles that he has spent the past few days getting down. He has generated multiple ideas for his next writing project. He has done his homework. But he sits here on Flash Drafting day, staring at a blank screen, the cursor mocking him.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

He sighs. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

I sympathize with this student. He’s a perfectionist. He writes one sentence and then the next, slowly building the perfect essay in the same way my son arranges his animals in his crib at night: one after the other, each in its place; snug, tidy, perfect.

So much depends on what I say next. And when I say “so much” I mean: this student’s stamina, his self-confidence, his writing future.

It would be easy to look at his notes and suggest a starting line — to “put words in his mouth.” And while this may help him get started on this particular paper, it’s also where the help ends: here. Next time he can’t figure out “how to say it,” what tools will I have given him? How will he move forward without a teacher whispering in his ear?

Here are three strategies you can share with the student above to help him move past his current state of stuck and any stuckage he may encounter in the future.

Strategy #1: Loop Your Thoughts

Looping is a strategy I discovered in Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers (my favorite book of his!) that helps students in myriad ways: land on a topic, narrow the focus of a piece of writing, or figure out “how to say it.”

The steps:

  1. Write your topic or basic idea at the top of the page.
  2. Then write as fast as you can for 2 to 3 minutes, jotting down whatever comes to mind on this topic. Let your ideas flow onto the page without judgement.
  3. Read over what you wrote, either out loud or in your head.
  4. Choose one thing resonates with you — a word, a phrase, or a line.
  5. Skip a few lines on your paper, and write this new idea on a clean line.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, writing from your new idea each time, until you figure out what you want to say.

Strategy #2: Write In Between The Lines

Often when a student tells me she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it, she has a draft in front of her. She just doesn’t like how it sounds. And while there are times when scraping a draft makes sense, when starting from scratch can provide the clean mental space a student needs to find momentum again, but I usually encourage the student to try writing in between the lines first.

The steps:

  1. Start with a draft, even if it’s yucky, even if you hate it.
  2. If it’s on the computer, double or triple space it.
  3. If it’s in your notebook, type it up and double or triple space it. Print it out.
  4. In a colorful pen, write in between the lines, or in the white spaces, to flesh out and extend, or question and contradict, the existing writing.
  5. Type up everything you’ve just written in the different color.
  6. Read what it says. See if it moves something in you, or if it better expresses what you were trying to say.
  7. Consider blending the first draft with this “in between” draft for the perfect expression of your ideas.

Strategy #3: Start Talking

James Britton must have been thinking of the writers who can’t find the right words when he wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” In the past I rarely made time for writing partners and groups to get together and talk about their ideas: I worried it would fester into chit-chat and what-are-your-weekend-plans chatter all too soon. But the more I realized the power of conversation as a writing tool, the more room I left in our schedule for regular meetings between writers. This talk strategy can be used in writing partnerships, writing groups, or in a writing conference with your student.

Steps:

  1. Grab a buddy.
  2. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to write a scene, close your eyes and tell them what you see. If you’re writing about an opinion you have, tell them your opinion and why you feel that way and why it’s important to talk about. If you’re writing something informational, tell them what you already know and what questions you have and what excites you about the topic. Just talk. For a few minutes.
  3. Buddy: Grab some sticky notes. Write down words, phrases, and lines that resonate with you as the writer speaks. Then tell the story of your sticky notes, and hand them back to the writer.

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    Notes from a writing conference: The students’ handwriting (left) and mine (right)

  4. Writer: Put these sticky notes in your notebook. Ponder them. See what additional thoughts they may yield. Note how powerful it can be to see your words staring back at you.

How to use these strategies with students

Rewind to the moment when my student tells me he doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say, and keep in mind that conferences should be short, instructive, and transferable. In this particular moment, I have three options:

  • If I had taught one or more of these strategies as a minilesson in the past, I could direct the student back to his notes, review the steps with him, and watch him get started.
  • If I had never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit his purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him.
  • If there were other students in the class with whom I had shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these students to share one of the strategies with the writer.

Over time, as you teach minilessons that help students solve writing problems, you might consider helping them create glue-ins or classroom anchor charts that remind them of the different tools at their disposal. Here’s an example of one:

It’s tempting in a conference to help the student “fix” the paper in front of him, but if a larger goal of our teaching is our students’ independence, we have to help him solve his problem now and in the future. In other words, we have to give him a tool — or a few — that he can keep in his back pocket for the next time the same problem presents itself.

What strategies do you share with writers who struggle to find the words to express their ideas? Let’s add to this list of strategies together! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or email me at movingwriters.org.