Why I Taught Formulaic Writing

Obviously, I am a writer. Obviously. You’re reading something I wrote right now. I write a wide variety of works, everything from poetry to book reviews. I’ve published a novel and create unique curriculum resources. I even write in the world of fan fiction. I will be the first person to champion free-form, creative writing. In fact, I am not a huge fan of strict structure in most writing (have you ever actually tried to write a sonnet?). So, why would someone like me resort to teaching formulaic writing in my classroom? I’m not talking about “beginning, middle, end” structure. I’m talking about essentially fill-in-the-blank templates for students. It might seem counter-productive. I’ve even had other teachers side-eye me when they hear or see what I do. Heck, I’ll be honest, the first time I saw this type of writing instruction, I side-eyed it.

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But I have my reasons. I have taught 7th, 9th, 10th, and 12th grade ELA (in that order). Every single grade level I have taught I kept hoping it would get better. I kept hoping that my students would come to me as good writers and I could take their writing and help them soar. I wanted to take them from good to great. I wanted them to enter contests and win scholarships. I wanted them to score straight 6’s on the state writing test. But for 3 years, my 7th graders demonstrated over and over their inability to form a coherent paragraph (some even struggled with a coherent sentence). When I moved up to high school, I was sure the students would have more basic skill. I was wrong. I started my formulaic writing in middle school and continued it in high school for 1 simple reason: I had to.

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I taught low-performing, low-achieving students. I won’t pretend that I had any sort of Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Minds experiences, but I had students routinely performing at level 1 and level 2 (level 3 is considered proficient in my state) and in remedial reading classes. I had ESE students in my FUSE classes. I had scores of students who either couldn’t write, thought they couldn’t write, or didn’t want to write. I would give writing prompts and watch as students put their heads down on their desks without writing a single word. Over and over I would try to get to the root of the problem. “Why aren’t you writing?” I would ask. Over and over I would hear some variant of the same answer: “I don’t know what to write.”

formulaic writing student head down

Well, finally, I said enough was enough. No one should not know what to write unless they’re halfway through a novel and can’t figure out how to relate a once-vibrant subplot to the theme. The prompts that the vast majority of my students were asked to write on were no cause for this answer. They didn’t require endless wells of creativity. They required some basic grasp of the main writing traits: structure, conventions, and ideas (I know there are 6 writing traits, but for students who typically hand in a blank sheet, even just getting 3 three under control is a major accomplishment). The vast majority of my students will not only likely never be published authors, but also don’t have any desire to be. I just had to figure out a way for them to live within their reality. I had to figure out a way to help them demonstrate some sort of mastery of the basics. If I could do that, then I could consider myself successful.

formulaic writing success

And so my formulaic writing was born. I began with my lowest students and created the skeleton essay. This is where I put every structurally required element in for them and they only had to come up with quasi-coherent content. I began with the three basic paragraphs: introduction, body, and conclusion. I skipped the hook (because face it, you can have a functional essay without one) and wrote the thesis statement for them. I wrote all the transition words and the blueprint for the body paragraph as well as the conclusion paragraph. I started with easy questions. Inflammatory questions. Questions that are in no way related to the higher-order thinking prompts required on state writing tests and SAT and ACT writing portions. But you know what? That’s okay. Starting with the hackneyed, “Should there be school uniforms?” is okay when you’re trying to get a kid from blank-page-head-on-the-desk to turning in something with meaning – something that shows him/her writing is something s/he can do.

formulaic writing argumenet

I started with blueprint, formulaic writing with insanely basic prompts and allowed anecdote after anecdote for “evidence.” I fostered the mentality that “no one cares if what you write is true; the reader cares if what you write is reasonable and related.” Once my students knew the formula and felt “allowed” to (essentially) make up evidence, they had no excuse. There was no room for “I don’t know what to write.” Because now they had a blueprint. They had a formula. They didn’t have to figure out how to start. I began having students who would write absolutely nothing turning in multi-paragraph essays. Not grade-level vocabulary or even sentence-length, but they felt like they had accomplished something.

formulaic writing happy student

I’ve learned over the course of my teaching career that I have to meet and teach students where they’re at. If I asked my 4-year-old to do Calculus, he’d hop down from the chair after less than a minute and want to go play. He wouldn’t care if it was state-mandated that he demonstrate mastery. He wouldn’t be able to do it. I have had to let go of the idea that I could get every kid performing at or above grade-level over the course of the year. I have seen time and time again that if I teach a student where s/he is at, engagement is higher, motivation is higher, and that student’s achievement is higher. Have I made up for years’ worth of deficits? No, but have I prevented yet another wasted year? I like to think so.

If you’d like to see (and perhaps try!) some of what I used to improve my students’ writing, come check out my mini-lesson on writing thesis statements or my writer’s workshop!

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Summer BOGO #2!!!

Maybe last week’s BOGO wasn’t for you. Maybe you teach something other than math. Maybe you teach English/Language Arts. Maybe you teach a subject where you teach students about non-fiction writing (persuasive, informative, research). Even if you’re not an ELA teacher, you are still (if your state has CCCS or something like it) responsible for teaching writing in the content area. But writing is a skill, and it’s a difficult one to master for many students. For many struggling writers, teaching writing in small, manageable chunks can make learning how to be a better writer more accessible. For many struggling writers, visual examples of what good writing should look like can make learning how to be a better writer an easier process.

For example, when teaching students how to write essays or papers, instead of simply assigning a paper (topic, prompt, etc.) and grading the finished result, try assigning specific parts one at a time. Spend a bit of time (1-2 days) just on writing quality thesis statements. Once students have mastered that, move on to instruction on additional components of the paper.

For example, pick an arbitrary topic and write an outline for a paper, talking about the process out loud to your students as you go through and write. Present students with sample topics to mock-outline to practice. Then when you assign the real topic, they’ll feel comfortable with making their own outline and produce a better end product.

For example, pick an arbitrary topic and write an essay, color coding the various elements (thesis statement – original or restated is red; supporting details are green; transition words are blue; arguments are yellow; refutations are orange; etc.). Then show students how the elements fit together so they can see how a thesis threads through a whole paper, or where transition words should appear, etc.

Of course, give your students consistent feedback using some sort of writing rubric. It might be your state’s writing rubric, but you might want something a bit simpler for less involved writing assignments.

Do these things sound like something you’d like to have or do in your classroom next year? Well, you are in luck! This week’s summer BOGO is a writing resource package. Purchase my best-selling and highly-rated How to Write a Basic Thesis Statement lesson and receive my best-selling and highly-rated Sample Outline for a Research Paper, my Writing Rubrics, and my Color-Coded Essay for free! This BOGO is only available through Saturday, June 13, so click on the link now to take advantage!

June BOGO 2

Summer Writing BOGO!

Teachers are Heroes!

It’s true, teachers really are heroes! Teachers are leaders, nurses, parents, psychologists, social workers, friends, confidants, and so much more. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to check out Teachers Pay Teachers, it has arrived! Today (only for a few more hours!) everything on the site – in every single store! – is at least 10% off! My store has everything 28% off! That’s right! If you’ve been eyeing that perfect lesson, activity, or resource, now is the time to stop by and stock up! There probably won’t be another sale until my birthday (that’s all the way in April, people!), so get test prep, Common Core and LAFS resources, math lessons, writing resources, reading activities, and so much more! And don’t forget, there’s a TON of free stuff on the site, too – not just my store, but hundreds – thousands (literally, there are over 70K stores on TpT!) – of stores with something for everyone. So no matter what or you teach – in a classroom K-12, early childhood, college, or even homeschool, there is something for you! Head on over and check it out!

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Get your teaching resources while the getting is good!

Football Freebie! 11/18/14

I know, I know, I’m cheating again this week – but I’m hoping to maybe have a real post later this week. In honor of the (now #6 in the country!) Buckeyes’ victory Saturday against Minnesota (or as my goofy husband calls it, “tiny Pepsi”…back off, ladies, he’s all mine…), I have prepared for you the vertical alignment of the CCSS Language standards. I used it all last week in my work with my district’s second semester exams, and I thought (and hope) it might come in handy for all the teachers out there. It’s definitely great to see the progression of grammar, punctuation, etc. in an easy-to-read chart format.

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Here’s an better (albeit cropped) shot:

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ccss vertical alignment L

Football Freebie!

 

This coming Saturday, Ohio State takes on Indiana at home. I will be on Thanksgiving break all week and won’t be able to post the inevitable (sorry, IU fans, but…seriously…) freebie earned by the Buckeyes’ victory. Instead, I will be scheduling a pre-Cyber Monday event at my store. This Sunday, everything will be on sale for 24 hours! Stay tuned for more information.

Go Buckeyes!

Football freebie 11/5/14

Congratulations to the Buckeyes for securing another victory against the University of Illinois! I think our score made up for the close call against PSU the weekend before. Now we’re ranked 14th in the playoff top 25! I don’t think we’ll make it all the way up to the top 4 to be in the playoffs, but I feel good about making a respectable bowl game. This coming Saturday we have the big game of the week: 14 Ohio State vs. 8 Michigan State (amidst many other top 25 match ups, I know). Cheer hard for the Buckeyes so you can get another freebie next week!

This week’s freebie is a compilation of 19 writing prompts. There are 4 informative, 4 persuasive, and 11 text-based prompts in this freebie. Enjoy!

writing prompts freebie

Writing Prompts

Football Freebie Frenzy!

Whether you love college football or you just follow my blog, you should be aware that The Ohio State University trounced the Kent State Golden Flashes this past Saturday, 66-0. Aside from being a fabulous victory for the Buckeye faithful, it also means you get first crack at my newest freebie! This time, it’s a great resource to help your struggling writers plan their essays. It includes a “notes” page with reasons why to plan, how to plan, etc. It has 9 practice prompts, and 5 different planning graphic organizers. It goes great with my Expository and Persuasive Writing Workshop, too. Enjoy!

how to plan an essay

How to Plan an Essay

How to Plan an Essay

And Go Buckeyes!

Just an FYI: Ohio State has a bye this weekend, so you’ll have to wait until the 27th for the next opportunity!

Imagery

First of all, I want to apologize for having a bit of a late post. With back-to-school looming, things have been crazy, as everyone knows.

Second, I want to let everyone know that TeachersPayTeachers is having their annual Back To School sale, and that I am running a sale to coincide, making everything in my store 28% off! Most sellers are doing the exact same thing, so check it out and get great deals on classroom management resources, math Power Point lessons and other activities, and ELA reading and writing products. Here is my store.

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When I taught writing to my students, I was constantly struggling with getting them to “show not tell.” If you’re a new English teacher and you haven’t heard that phrase, you will hear it soon, and often. One of the best things I learned about effective writing is that the power is in the verbs, not the adjectives. I’ve see teachers do “dead word” walls and activities, which I think are fantastic. Descriptive writing, however, requires students to “show” the reader. It requires them to craft their writing in such a way that the reader can relate to it himself and experience it as he reads. The use of imagery engages the reader because they can picture, smell, feel, taste, and hear what the author is writing.

Getting students to use effective imagery, however, is a daunting task. Ask a student to describe something and you’ll invariably get the most flat, one-dimensional words imaginable: “red,” “big,” “small,” “hot,” you get the picture. Words that are so vague they don’t really mean anything to the reader. To get students writing with better imagery, I ask follow up questions about their descriptions.

1) One question to ask is “how” or “which”. The student writes, “Her dress was red.” I ask, “Which shade of red?” The student writes “The house was big.” I ask, “How big was it?”

2) Another question I ask is “than what?” The student writes, “The car was small.” I ask, “Smaller than what?”

3) Ask “how do I know?” The student writes, “She was mad.” I ask, “How do I know she is mad?”

This type of questioning forces the student to be more specific in their descriptions, and I doing so, makes their writing more relatable to the reader.

There is a great activity that I do to help students branch out in their descriptions as they write. It takes a little while, but it’s worth it.

1) Each student will need a paper and pencil.

2) You will need several objects that have very distinct characteristics of the five senses.

3) You can divide the students into between 2 and 5 groups. 2 groups will allow students to experience more opportunities for sensory writing, but 5 groups will take a little less time overall.

4) Each group will get at least 1 object. The object should have a characteristic that clearly relates to one of the five senses.

5) The members of the group will INDIVIDUALLY describe the object with the condition that the person they are describing it to is missing (and has always been missing) that one (or you could do multiple) sense. For example, if the object was a bottle of perfume, the students would have to describe the scent of the perfume to someone who cannot (and never could) smell.

a. It’s important that students understand the person they’re describing to has never been able to use that sense. This will prevent them from giving flat descriptions. For example, if they have to describe an object to someone who cannot and has never been able to see, using the word “blue” means nothing. They have to come up with other words to describe the color. You get really cool descriptions.

6) Once each student has his/her description, the other group(s) listens to the description and tries to predict what the object will look/smell/sound/taste/feel like. For smell, taste, touch, and hearing, writing down the prediction is nearly impossible, but students will still be able to decide afterwards if the description was accurate/helpful. For the sense of sight, make sure students sketch the object based on the descriptions written by their classmates before showing them the actual object.

7) After the description is read and the opposing group(s) experience the original object, have them write 2 separate responses:

a. How accurate were their classmates’ descriptions? Why do they think the descriptions were as accurate (or un-) as they were?

b. What would his/her own description be for someone who was void of that sense?

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Making Fan Fiction Cool

If you were to find any of the hundreds of students I’ve taught over the last decade and ask them to tell you one thing about me, I’d wager a hefty sum that the most popular response would be, “She LOVES Harry Potter!” I was notorious for using Harry Potter examples for nearly everything I introduced: all the literary terms, plot devices, archetypes…you name it, I found a way to relate it to Harry Potter. I would always issue a challenge at the beginning of the year that no student could ask me a question about the Harry Potter books that I would not know the answer to. I only failed that test one time in ten years. Eventually, my students would learn that I am an avid reader and writer of Harry Potter fan fiction. The other die-hard HP fans would think this was the coolest thing ever and demand to read my works, which I would oblige them (the appropriate ones, anyway). The majority of my students, however, thought that reading and writing fan-fictions was just about the dumbest, nerdiest, most ridiculous thing they’d ever heard of.

So I decided to teach them a lesson.

I not only write fan fiction material, but I also have original works that I have been developing for many, many years. One of these is a young adult fiction novel (it’s a coming-of-age piece, really well done, if I do say so myself…the novel and accompanying unit is available in my TpT store – the novel is titled “Purple Storm” – but enough of the product plug). Once I had finally finished it and had gone through several rounds of revisions and edits, I decided to read it to my students. They absolutely loved it! When it was over, they were all disappointed and wanted to know what happened to several of the characters. They knew I had written it, so they implored me to continue writing the story. I told them that I was done and there wouldn’t be any more added on to the story. I then asked them if they wanted to write more for the story – things that happened to characters after the story ended. My students’ eyes lit up and they squealed with joy! “Yes! Oh, Miss, could we do that? I mean, you’d let us do that?” I explained that my work was my own, but I couldn’t stop anyone from writing things about it, as long as they didn’t try to make any money off of it. Once I was sure they were all gung-ho on writing their own parts to my work, I dropped the bomb.

“You want to write what happens next? What you think should happen next? That, ladies and gentlemen, is fan fiction.”

Boo-yah. The looks on their faces were pretty priceless. I had lots of requests to read my HP fan fictions after that. It was a good day.

Encourage your students to write fan fictions. It’s such a good way to develop creativity and writing skills. In fact, I challenge you to write your own fan fictions. And find some good ones to read. They’re out there. I’m partial to the HP universe, of course, but others exist.

You might surprise yourself…

Here is a link to my novel, published on Amazon (for both Kindle as an ebook and available in paperback).

purple storm

Purple Storm novel unit

What Does That Say?

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you might know that my teaching experience is in middle and high school. Or you might not. Certainly if you’re reading this for the first time, you probably don’t know that. But now you do. I student taught in 5th and 6th grade and then taught in middle school for 6 years and high school for another 3 before moving into administration. If you teach elementary school, you probably won’t believe this; if you teach middle or high school, you absolutely will: My students’ handwriting had the potential to be atrocious. Sure, I had a chunk of students who wrote neatly enough that I never had to use context clues to figure out what they had written, but there was a large hunk that I routinely had to use trial and error to get through the bulk of their sentences. And that was just for English. Don’t even get me started on trying to read numbers on a math problem. Is that a 1 or a 7? A 3 or an 8? A 4 or a 9? An ‘s’ or a 5? So much head shaking. So. Much. I found it reprehensible that students made it to 7th, 8th, 9th, even 10th grade (or…yes…heaven forbid…12th grade) writing illegibly. I prided myself on being talented when it came to reading what my students thought passed for handwritten work. But it was exhausting. And time consuming.

What to do? Take a page from the elementary school book: handwriting practice. I would identify students who had handwriting so terrible that it took me significant extra time to grade their papers, and I would foist a handwriting assignment upon them. They would be required to do this assignment every day until I was satisfied with their progress. None of them wanted to do it, but I told them I would refuse to take their assignments unless they participated in the program. And the practice worked. Handwriting is all about fine motor skills and muscle memory. It took a few weeks, but I was able to retrain their hands to write more legibly. I didn’t create any calligraphers, to be sure, but I did get them to the point where I didn’t have to take extra time out of my day to try and figure out what certain words were. Don’t be afraid to require attention to detail from your students. If you make it clear that the expectation is there, they will meet it.

You can download my [FREE] handwriting practice tool here. It’s free.

Remembering How We Learned

Most learning is gradual. It is authentic. Yes, there are “ah-ha” moments, but by-and-large, we learn through a sort of osmosis. This struck me one day while I was teaching my 7th grade math class. I had a student, we’ll call him Fernando, who was struggling with multi-digit subtraction. In 7th grade. I know, right? I couldn’t understand how he had made it to me without mastering this skill. I had tried and tried to teach him how to subtract, but he just wasn’t getting it. I then tried asking myself how I learned to subtract; maybe my own experience would help me communicate it to him. I realized suddenly that I didn’t remember learning how to subtract. It was like I’d always been able to do it. I started searching for other concepts and found most of them to be the same way. How was I supposed to teach a skill I didn’t remember learning myself?

I ran into similar problems when I switched over to teaching Language Arts. All the students in my 7th grade classes were required to write a research paper for their science class. I wanted to be a part of that process (yay for cross-curricular teaching!) so I solicited comments/questions from my students. I asked to see their products at each stage of the process. They were all required to have an outline for their paper. I knew how to write an outline; I knew of several ways to write an outline. Nothing prepared me for the dismal results that were my students’ outlines. None of them knew how to write an outline. How could they not know how to write an outline? It’s not hard; it’s not even that time-consuming. The research is the long, difficult part. I tried to remember how I learned to write an outline. I couldn’t. So I taught myself again. I sat down and laid out the fundamental parts of an outline. I then put together an example and a lesson to teach students how to make an outline. The revised products my students showed me afterwards were amazing. It was like night and day.

The lesson here is that we often forget that kids don’t know what we’re teaching them. When we know how to do something, it’s hard to sympathize with the roadblocks our students face. Sitting down and forcing yourself to go through a process step-by-step can help you get better results.

Sample outline for research paper

Research Paper Outline