Did you read the post today on The Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project blog, Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students Write? It’s a great read with questions and suggestions to help writers who cry, “I don’t have anything to write about.”
I also read Karon LaBonte’s post “Composing vs “Digital Writing,” which explained her personal process of and struggles in writing with all the digital and analog possibilities. I commented on her personal process and we both agreed that it’s the “personal” part of writing that engages students, yet our classrooms may be so focused on the requirements of nonfiction writing and essays that we neglect this most important aspect.
Which is why I enjoyed the “Helping Students Write” post. Lynne Dorfman suggested questions and getting to know the student:
…what the student likes to read, who his favorite authors are, what he watches on television. I ask him about his interests and hobbies. I want to know who is important in his life. Sometimes, I will try to find out if he has written a story, poem, description, etc., that he felt really good about and would like to tell me about that piece.
I love how Lynne invites the writer to think about writing through questions that show how personal writing is– that it starts with what the writer knows, his or her interests and passions.
Especially important for hesitant writers (and those who do not regularly write at all) are the questions about writing outside of school, and the questions about their interests. I try to listen to these students in conversation with others to discover in their chatter the story of the shot s/he made at recess, or the planned trip to a basketball tournament, or the dog who chased away the cougar, or the new video game played. Anything that will allow me to ask a question so the student tells the story, which then can be written.
Once they are written, the feedback on what was written well is key to encouraging students to continue. The action, the strong verb, the precise noun, the dialogue. After a few successes, sharing with peers to offer the positive feedback to each other begins the journey of thinking like writers.
Once students begin identifying the good writing, the teacher starts suggesting using that good skill in more areas, or suggests a skill another writer has shared. After a few sessions of the “compliment sandwich” [compliment, suggestion, compliment], students can begin compliment sandwiches with each other. They become a community of writers.
Still, there are students whose only writing may be the texts in their chats. It’s true that I’ve found students with piles of composition notebooks filled with poetry, but who don’t write at school until that talent is tapped. But many times, I’ve students who just have never written as a choice.
Key to engaging those students is the process of writing about what they know. The relationship between teacher and student is key — the discovering of their interests is key. Listening to their stories from your discovered questions asked from learning about them is so important. Guiding them to write by jumping into their action with an event or dialogue also helps them start the writing. A person can have a story, have told a story, but starting the story can hold them back.
I ask them to freeze a portion of their story — take a snapshot. Whatever action is there becomes the focus — frozen, we begin describing the moment, get it down as if it is just happening using action verbs, second by second. Soon the moment is alive and the student has a first action memoir.
It is those few first stories, that show how writers write about what they know, that begin the development of confidence so that students can find their own story and voice in the days to come, and begin their journey as writer.
And I love when those at first hesitant writers become the models for others.
How do you engage the hesitant writers?