This post originally appeared on the blog Gil Teach.
I’ve recently created a resource that combines all of my writing lesson plans — prompts, creative assignments, units on persuasive essays and personal essays, and some just weird fun stuff that I think is pretty innovative. So I have been thinking a little about my philosophies on teaching writing.
I remember early on in my career as a teacher, when I realized that I was doing fine with the literature and books, but that I was really lagging behind with the writing instruction. I was assigning plenty of papers and stories, but I wasn’t doing much to actually teach my students to write. So I decided to just dedicate a day a week to writing and go from there. That was over 10 years ago, and since then, I have tried hundreds of experiments and new ideas. I still haven’t come close to figuring it all out. But I do know a few things that work.
Here are my top 10 rules about teaching writing.
1. Write-to-learn is essential. Freewrites, reading logs, and more freewrites. I am a firm believer in the idea that the more you write, the better you write. I know that just writing a lot isn’t enough to teach writing, but the more comfortable students are with writing, the better they feel about it, and the better their writing gets. In my experience, fluidity only comes from lots and lots of practice.
2. Mentor texts are super useful, but you can’t just read them and leave it at that. I love examining a personal essay for its grabber or looking at an argument piece for its structure or examining a sentence for its use of figurative language to create a vivid image. But it’s not enough to just point out author’s techniques. Students need to analyze them, to think about how they work, and then to try them out for themselves.
3. Students need specific suggestions for revision, at least at first. Just telling students to revise their essays will never result in more than a word or a comma changed. Revision is a skill that, like all others, kids have to be taught. This is why I love to have specific suggestions for revisions, at least when they are first learning.
4. If students don’t see at least some kinds of writing as fun, you’ll all be miserable. It’s not really surprising that students say they don’t like writing when the only writing they do is dense academic analysis. I love a good poetry paper as much as anyone, but I also know that often, a creative assignment can get the job done just as well. One of my favorite assignments is one that I often do after reading a Shakespeare play with my classes. Students get together and, in small groups, they paraphrase, update, and perform a short scene from the play we have studied as a class. Not only do they learn how to work together, they also really focus in on a specific part of the play, and they work together to write something within the confines of the play format.
5. Creative writing teaches us how to improve all kinds of writing. I think that often, creative writing gets left for last — it’s seen as something fun and nice, if you have the time. And of course, teachers are always running out of time. But creative writing teaches students about all kinds of writing. Great persuasive essays often start with a short anecdote. Interesting informational pieces often have a mini personal narrative in there somewhere. All different kinds of writing utilizes description and detail and show-don’t-tell. In the real world, writers utilize aspects of creative writing in all kinds of pieces.
6. Writers write because they want their readers to know what they think about a topic. Sure, they also write to entertain or to tell good story, but there’s always something of a drive to get their point across. Students also need to feel that desire to have their ideas in written form. When kids are passionate about the point that they are making, their writing just soars. And in my experience, the best way to guarantee that they are excited about getting their ideas across to a reader is to have them write about ideas that matter to them, that they have chosen.
7. Always start with the evidence. Teaching kids to start with the thesis first is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to teaching. The idea that students should draft a thesis, find evidence to back up that thesis, and then just write a paper on it all is absurd. This method leads to weak papers, and it often leads to incorrect ideas. If I wanted to, I could find plenty of evidence to prove that the world is flat or that climate change isn’t real, but if I examine all of the evidence before I formulate my ideas, I’ll get the fullest, most complex, and best idea.
8. Learning the writing process is not easy, but it’s so worthwhile. In my experience, students are not easily sold on the writing process. They would so much rather just finish a piece and be done with it. But once they see how much better their writing is after they revise it, they are more likely to buy into the process. And when they learn how to conduct effective peer conferences, there is nothing that beats watching two students talk together on how best to improve their work.
9. All students need to learn to write well. Whenever I’m trying to convince my students that it is important that they too learn how to write well, I give the example of my husband. He is a landscaper and organic farmer, but he also has a blog. All sorts of professions require writing in different forms, from grant writing to emails to presentations. Writing is no longer the sole territory of college classes or academic pursuits.
10. Don’t get out that red pen. Teachers need to spend time on conferences and reading drafts, and not on commenting on the final piece. There is plenty of research to show that writing lots and lots of comments on the final draft is not beneficial to students, but in my opinion, the best argument against that red pen is the toll it takes on teachers. If you’re spending 15 minutes reading and commenting on every single thing your students write, chances are that they won’t be doing much writing (or that you’ll be hitting the help wanted section of the paper very soon).
I’ve created the kinds of resources that I wish I could have found those early years of teaching — and even some resources that I never would have had the time to develop while I was still in the classroom even after 16 years of teaching.
You can get everything I have for a discount by clicking here.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for 16 years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She blogs about empowering students to find their own answers at GilTeach.com.
She believes that analyzing a poem with 20 17-year-olds is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, that teenagers should celebrate the epic battles of their lives, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects.
When she is not busy milking goats or working in the garden, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.