Managing a writing classroom can be like trying to make the perfect pot of chili for a table of 20. You know going into it that no single recipe will align with the taste preferences of every diner. However, through experience and experimentation, you discover certain essential ingredients will create a savory base, which your diners can supplement with a choice of accompaniments that suit their tastes—a dash of hot sauce here, a glob of sour cream there.
Similarly, certain essential ingredients go into creating a successful writing classroom. When mixed, the ingredients that follow provide an effective starting point for developing students’ skills and identities as writers. Know that these ingredients are just a start to a successful writing class; they produce the best results when you make adjustments to meet the changing needs of your students.
Renowned educator Frank Smith says that for any learning to occur, the task and activity must relate to “knowledge, intentions, and expectations we already have in our head.” So a great writing classroom begins with respect for and use of your students' background knowledge, interests, and experiences. When students feel that their knowledge and experiences are respected, they’ll be more apt to want to write about them. When students write about topics of personal significance, they’ll be more invested in their writing. Of course, just like the diverse tastes of diners at the imaginary chili dinner, your students will bring a wide variety of knowledge and literacy experiences to your classroom table.
What are some ways you can activate students’ prior knowledge?
- Write personal narratives and other stories based on experiences.
- Offer choice in writing topics.
- Freewrite regularly.
- Keep ungraded journals.
- Use learning logs.
Reading may seem like an obvious ingredient in a writing classroom, but let's not underestimate the importance of the reading-writing connection. Reading immerses students in the language, structure, and conventions of good writing, and it generates ideas and knowledge that students can use in their own writing. Reading is also a crucial part of the writing process; a writer cannot revise without reading.
How can you make reading an integral part of your writing classroom?
- Have students read examples of good writing, both professional articles and student models.
- Provide opportunities for pleasure reading, silent and ungraded.
- Have students keep reader-response journals.
- Assign a current-events “Article of the Week” for students to read and respond to (perhaps in a reader-response journal).
- Host peer-response sessions.
Students benefit not only from reading exemplary writing but also from viewing a writer in action. That’s where modeling comes in. When you demonstrate the different stages of writing for your students, you help them understand the choices, moves, and struggles that occur along the way. If you make mistakes, students will see that writing is not a perfect linear process. Mistakes also let you model revising and editing, key skills for any writer. Your openness will encourage students to take risks with their own writing, persistently improving their work from draft to draft.
How can you integrate models and modeling into your classroom?
- Immerse students in the different genres of writing with numerous student models and mentor texts for each new unit.
- Offer models at different points of the writing process. For example, show models of an essay before and after revisions.
- Adopt an “I do; you do” approach to your classroom instruction.
- Write while your students write.
When you let students choose their own topics, you demonstrate respect for their interests and ideas. And since choice taps into preexisting interests, students will be more motivated to learn and will take greater ownership of their writing. Ownership leads to a stronger work ethic during drafting as well as closer, more complete revisions.
How can you encourage choice in your classroom?
- Allow students to read and write about topics of personal interest.
- For assignments that require a narrower focus, offer several topic options rather than a single strict requirement.
- Offer multimedia alternatives for some final writing projects. For example, give students a choice between writing an essay, creating a video, designing an infographic, or recording a podcast.
Mix of High- and Low-Stakes Writing
Make no mistake, the best way to become a better writer is by writing. Students should write every day, even if only informally. In fact, regular low-stakes writing activities, often called writing-to-learn actvities, build confidence and fluency and help students identify as writers. For most low-stakes writing activities, you can give students points for doing the work, but you should avoid correcting grammatical issues or assigning a grade. Low-stakes writing assignments provide students a safe place for exploring thoughts—and prevent you from having to grade even more stacks of paper.
What are some examples of low-stakes writing?
- Learning logs
- Note taking
- Reader responses
- "Stop 'n' Write"
- Group writing
Social psychologist Lev Vygotsky maintains that all learning takes place within social situations where knowledge is shared among people. Make your classroom a hub for creativity and collaboration. Develop a community of writers by giving students plenty of opportunities to share, evaluate, and discuss each other’s writing.
How can you create a collaborative writing classroom?
- Use a writing workshop approach.
- Set up writing groups—groups of 3-5 students who meet weekly to discuss the writing they are doing in class.
- Include peer-revising sessions during revision.
- Assign collaborative writing activities, such as back-and-forth stories.
Positive feedback in person and on graded papers spurs a growth mindset. Show you care about students on a personal level, and truly engage with the ideas in their writing. Do you notice the difference between these two bits of feedback for an essay?
- Your ideas are all over the place. I'm confused.
- I’m so intrigued by the points you are making here. Could you clarify what you mean?
The first places blame on the student and provides no instruction for improvement. The second reinforces interest in the student’s ideas and encourages revision. The first is problem-focused and the second solution-focused.
What are some ways you can connect with your students?
- Schedule desk-side conferences.
- Avoid fixed-mindset feedback such as "this is bad" or "this is good." Instead use growth-mindset feedback such as "this could be even stronger if . . ."
- Comment on ideas rather than only mistakes.
- Share favorite ideas, sentences, and paragraphs from students’ writing.
If you ordered chili and your waiter brought you a Caesar salad, you’d rightly feel confused. Similarly, if students believe their writing will be graded on one set of criteria only to have their papers graded on an entirely different set of criteria, they’d rightly feel blindsided. Avoid such confusion by setting clear expectations not just with grading but also with the quality and quantity of writing you expect from students. Do not set the bar too low—give something for students to strive and reach for.
How can you set clear expectations?
- Provide models of good writing.
- Give clear instructions and scaffolding for each assignment.
- Demonstrate how writing will be assessed, perhaps with writing rubrics.
What did we miss? What other ingredients are essential to your writing classroom? We'd love to hear from you. Contact tkemper [at] thoughtfullearning.com with suggestions, questions, or feedback.