An Anabaptist Resource for Teaching and Learning
Creativity flourishes best within boundaries—or at least, that’s what they say. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it is absolutely true when it comes to teaching children how to write.
As a teacher, perhaps you’ve had the unfortunate experience of giving your students a writing assignment that you thought would be straight-forward: provide a sentence starter and have each child continue the story. However, you found that several of your students seemed to be stuck like rubber boots in spring mud, and they just couldn’t get further than that first line.
Or perhaps you’ve given your students a writing assignment that you were excited about, only to receive compositions that were flat and boring or random and meandering.
In both of these situations, it’s easy to think that a student’s lack of creativity is to blame. And while it is true that some children struggle to create imaginative writing, it is also true that there are things that we as teachers can do to help creativity to flourish.
That’s where the structure of our writing classes comes in. Often, by providing some boundaries, we can shepherd students toward writing in ways that are vibrant and well-crafted.
The so-called “writing process” is often broken down into the following categories: prewriting, writing, revising, editing, and publishing. Putting structures such as these in place breaks a complex task into more manageable chunks.
Instead of a five-step process as listed above, it can be helpful to simplify it further, and think of it as three basic stages: pre-writing, writing, and post-writing.
Pre-writing includes a taught lesson followed by brainstorming or planning. In this stage, we want to introduce the writing assignment, let our students unleash their creativity, and start to build a story in their minds.
Writing is, well, the actual writing. It’s the students actually putting pencil to paper.
Post-writing is editing, revising, and feedback. It’s both the student and we as teachers going back over their writing and making improvements. This is some of the hard, gritty work of writing, but it’s essential in helping our students learn to write well.
Think of it like building a house. The pre-writing is the foundation on which the rest of the story is built. The writing of the rough draft is putting the framing in place by giving us the barebones structure on which we can expand. The post-writing is finishing the house (or the story) with all the things that make it functional and beautiful.
And just like if a carpenter would skip any one of these steps, his house would be missing something, our students are going to tend to be shakier writers if any of these parts are missing in their writing experience.
Pre-writing can take on many different forms, but the basic goal is to help our students create a foundation that can ground their writing. In its simplest form, pre-writing is getting our students to think about what they’re going to write before they actually write it.
This may feel unnecessary or time-consuming, but time spent well in the pre-writing stage will always pay off in the writing stage.
If you’re teaching a concept (such as foreshadowing, conflict, character development, sentence flow, etc.) that you want them to include in their story, this is where your lesson happens.
Another way to give your students some instruction before they write is by using a mentor text, which is simply using a book or poem as a guide for the students to write their own story or poem. The idea is that just like you can learn how to be an artist by imitating the great artists, you can learn to be a writer by imitating great writers.
So a mentor text might be reading a sample from a chapter book rich with similes and metaphors and using that as a model of how to use similes and metaphors in their own writing. It might be reading an example of the kind of assignment you’re about to give them—maybe even one you’ve written yourself or was written by a student from a previous class.
Well-written children’s books make wonderful mentor texts. You can use any book, really. Just ask yourself two questions: “What is the thing about this story that I love?” or “What is the thing that makes this story unique?” Then, take that thing and have your students piggyback off the idea by writing their own version of that type of story.
In the pre-writing stage, alongside the instruction part (whether that’s teaching them an actual concept or giving them a model by reading a mentor text), it is important to allow students to plan and brainstorm.
This is one of the best ways to beat the blank page. Giving students time and space to think about their writing guides them in coming up with ideas, breaks down mental blocks, avoids aimless meandering, and improves writing quality.
Brainstorming and planning is going to look different depending on what you’re teaching. However, some standard forms like bubble maps, mind maps, or t-charts are a great way to allow students to brainstorm. (If you’re unfamiliar with these strategies, a Google search should provide you with lots of examples).
Another way to guide students in planning is for you as the teacher to create a series of questions for them to answer. For example, if your lesson is about conflict and their assignment is to write a story that includes conflict, you might give them a brainstorming sheet that requires them to answer a series of questions. What type of conflict will your main character encounter? Who/what is your character struggling against? How will the struggle be shown to the reader? How does the character react internally to the struggle? How is the conflict resolved?
After students have thought through these questions, they should have at least a partial story-line created in their minds. This will help the actual writing feel less daunting and increase the chances that their story will actually include well-developed conflict and resolution.
Brainstorming can even be done as a whole class. For example, if students are writing a short poem, work together as a class to write an example poem. This helps the task feel manageable and accessible to students.
The pre-writing stage can sometimes take over half of the class period. But once students have been given instruction on what to write and a chance to plan their writing, they are fueled and ready to take off into the writing part.
The pre-writing stage includes a lot of involvement from us as teachers. But in the writing stage, the class becomes almost entirely student-centred. This is a time when you as a teacher can be less hands on. Students need space and time to simply write. Be available to answer questions or help students who are stuck, but mostly allow them time to transfer ideas from their brain to the page.
And then comes post-writing—the part that we tend to not spend enough time and energy on, and it has a direct impact on the quality of our students’ writing.
We would never let our students go through a whole year of school without pulling out the answer key and checking their math pages to let them know if they’re doing their assignments right or wrong. But if we stop after writing the first draft and never go further, we’re essentially doing the same thing. How can we expect them to get better at something if we never show them what they’re doing poorly and where they can improve?
This is where the last stage of the process comes in: editing and revising. Sometimes these words are used interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. Editing has to do with making changes to capitalization, punctuation, and spelling in order to improve grammatical accuracy. Revision is making changes to thoughts and wording in order to improve content.
Too often, when we tell students to revise their work, they actually just edit it and stop there. Editing is more concrete, and therefore easier to accomplish. But learning to revise well is a core part of learning to write well, so we want to put energy into making sure that our students are not just editing. We already have whole classes dedicated to teaching grammar and spelling, so writing class should be the place to focus on building essential revision skills.
Like most things, the skill of revision requires explicit instruction. Spend time showing students what it looks like to examine a piece of writing and improve the wording, add more creative phrasing, cut out excess, and improve sentence flow. Another great way to guide students in revision is to create a checklist or self-evaluation of various writing elements for them to use as a guide in their revision. At this stage, the teacher should be very involved again, answering questions and offering suggestions to students.
By building our writing lessons around the structure of pre-writing, writing, and post-writing, we will eliminate many factors that hinder students from writing well and offer an environment that allows creativity to thrive. Students will become better thinkers, dreamers, and writers—and that is a beautiful thing to see!
Do the Write Thing, Part I: Why Writing Matters
Do the Write Thing, Part 2: Integrating Writing into All Subjects
CONTRIBUTOR: Meghan Brubaker
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