Writing – To Think…or Not to Think…

Writing is power for me.  It is literally the pathway to my best thoughts.

I’ve been recently recording some videos for a mini-training we are launching on state assessments (coming in March!- shameless plug). I typically write out a script to the trainings, and then chunk it down and record it bits at a time, but I’m not looking at the script while I’m recording. There were some sections that I really got stuck on – like I could NOT get my words out the right way, even though I wrote the content and felt super confident with the message I was trying to convey – then I would look at how I had it written down and think “Dang – why can I not say it like I wrote it?!” Well, when I write, my thoughts are clear and concise.  When I’m just trying to explain, sometimes they get jumbled up. Not that I needed another reminder, but this was just another example in my life of how connected writing is to my thinking.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that state assessments are killing thinking through writing – and before you say “Amen!”, I want to add this.  I don’t believe that is the intention of state assessments. I don’t believe the state thinks, “We want our students to be the best in the world at 1 page, 5 paragraph essays.” I think they just need a way to assess that our students are writing.  So I actually need to adjust that statement and say that I don’t think it’s the state assessments, I think it’s the writing instruction surrounding the state assessments. (Yikes – that may have hurt a little bit).

Just because students are expected to write in this format, I’m not sure we’re doing them a service by ONLY or PRIMARILY teaching them the “state assessment” format of writing. I think we are seeing that by trying to fit the thinking and creativity that writing requires into a formulaic box, we are actually not improving writing.  Sure, strategies are great.  Sure, rubrics are helpful. But when EVERY paper has to have an introduction, 3 body paragraph with an example and an anecdote, and a conclusion, is that really writing? And if the thoughts I have in my head don’t fit into that format, does that make me a bad writer?

Forgive me if I’m stepping on toes -but as a writer working with teachers who have struggling writers, it genuinely hurts my heart to see this ongoing struggle.

So we wanted to share a few ways to get the students interacting with their own thinking, and with others.

Brainstorm Carousel… The teacher poses 6-8 thought provoking questions around the room. Students are given 1 minute to quietly read the questions and start formulating answers.  They are then given 8 minutes to walk around the room and answer the questions OR respond to others’ answers.  *Note – for a higher structure classroom, students can be placed in groups, assigned a question, and given a specific time (maybe 1 minute) to answer that question.  Then, on the teacher’s cue, students rotate to the next question. (EL Saber, Writing Stra-tiques, 2019)

Placemat…Students are grouped in groups of 4-5.  They are given a large piece of paper in the middle of their tables.  Students will make a big box in the middle of the paper, and then divide the remaining paper into as many parts as their students in the group. Teachers place a question on the board and give wait time so that everyone can formulate their own answers. The students write down their answer in their own space. After each students has answered the question, the group comes to a group consensus on the prompt. *Note – It may be helpful to have them brainstorm independently on reasons that back up their answer to that they can defend their answer.  Also,  make sure to ask a question that has more than one right answer.  For example, a prompt like “Agree or Disagree: All people are born good and learn evil” may be better than “Agree or Disagree: It’s important to be a trustworthy friend.” (EL Saber, Writing Stra-tiques, 2019)

Thesis Throw…Students write a question on a piece of paper. (You could give them a list of prompts to choose from).  On the teacher’s cue, they toss the paper balls across the room.  Students each pick up a paper ball, read the question, and give one detail or description.  For example, if the question says, “Why is it important to have courage?” One student may write, “to try new things”. Then, they crumple of the paper, and on the teacher’s cue, toss it across the room again.  Students retrieve a new piece of paper, and add a thought.  Another student may write, “to get through hard times.” The teacher can direct the students to add thoughts and toss as many times as they want (I recommend 3). The last time, students pick up a piece of paper, read the question, and then write a thesis statement, using the ideas from other students on the paper as brainstorming ideas.  *Note – they do not have to use any of the ideas – these are simply to help with brainstorming.

Pic-Share-Write….Students each take a piece of blank paper and fold it vertically in half.  On the top flap, students write the prompt given by the teacher.  After giving wait time for students to process the prompt, they open the piece of paper, and on the top flap, students begin to draw out an example of their answer to the prompt. After a given time (I recommend 4 minutes), students pair up with a partner, and share their answer to the prompt using their example they drew. For example, using the prompt above, “Why is it important to have courage?”, perhaps a student illustrates a time his brother had courage when he tried out for a team.  When he is telling his partner, he will answer the prompt, and then share that example.

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The primary goal of Pressing Onward is to empower teachers to move their students into being independent learners through culturally responsive teaching.  I would challenge you to always be thinking about ways to move your students into independent thinkers – how can they problem solve, debate, formulate opinions, prove their answers, back up their thinking…? Writing is the perfect avenue for this – are we using it in this way?

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