In Flordia, the state writing exam is usually around the end of February. For this reason, I’m continuing the theme of writing in this blog entry.
If you’re a writer, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking writing. For my students, though – especially those who struggle with writing – it’s a chore. As a good writer, I struggled initially with how to effectively communicate how to be a better writer. Ironic, I know, that I found communication about communication to be difficult when I am a self-professed communicator. Through trial and error, and being fortunate enough to work with some really great writing teachers, I began to put together methods for improving my students’ writing. I always started with debunking some myths.
Myth #1: Essays have to be 5 paragraphs.
I would pound into my students that essays can be 3 paragraphs; they can be 8 paragraphs. What dictates the length of an essay are two things: what you have to say and how long you have to say it. I would give my students practice topics that would lend themselves well to various lengths/paragraph numbers. Creating a thesis statement with one, two, three, or even four points helped my students understand that it’s not the number of paragraphs that matters, it’s what’s written in them that counts.
Myth #2: Onomatopoeia is anything with an exclamation point and is the perfect hook.
So many of my students would routinely use “Bam!” or “Boom!” as a hook, thinking they were using onomatopoeia. I spent countless lessons teaching them the true meaning of onomatopoeia (i.e. crackle, pop, rustle, etc.) as well as numerous other effective hooks.
Myth #3: In a state writing assessment, the graders care what you think.
I had so many students write poor essays (or none at all) because A) they only wrote about what they believed or wanted, or B) they couldn’t think of what to write. I pounded into their heads that no one cares what they think, they just want to know if they can write coherently. I would give prompt after prompt and ask them not what their thoughts were, but what could they write about. I often used the topic of uniforms or extended school year because 99% of students are against these two things but often don’t have strong written arguments against them, so I would make them write in favor of them because those arguments are the ones they hear in the news or from teachers. Once they figured out that they didn’t have to agree with what they were writing, many of them showed marked improvement.
Myth #4: Anecdotes are the only supporting details you need.
I taught my students other types of supporting details (historical references, etc.) because the only ones they seemed comfortable with were stories about themselves or their friends.
Myth #5: Anecdotes, when used, have to be true.
For some reason, students tend to labor under the misapprehension that everything they write has to be true. When I did allow them to use anecdotes, I made sure they understood that the stories had to be supportive of the thesis but not necessarily true. I taught them how to come up with anecdotes that are relevant and supportive but not even close to true. My mantra was it has to be “plausible, not true.”
It took years of practice, but I came up with a workshop that addressed these and other myths and helped my students develop into more proficient writers. My experience has been with average and struggling writers, so my suggestions may not apply for gifted or AP writers, but my writing workshop can be found at my teacher store.