Ideas for Teaching: Writing

from the National Writing Project

They have thirty, but I am only going to put down the ones I think I might use. Some of them I already use, so those aren’t in here. Examples of that are creating a real-world application of the students’ writing and modeling writing for our students.

Writing about Writing

8. Ask students to reflect on and write about their writing.
Douglas James Joyce, a teacher-consultant with the Denver Writing Project, makes use of what he calls “metawriting” in his college writing classes. He sees metawriting (writing about writing) as a way to help students reduce errors in their academic prose.

Joyce explains one metawriting strategy: After reading each essay, he selects one error that occurs frequently in a student’s work and points out each instance in which the error is made. He instructs the student to write a one page essay, comparing and contrasting three sources that provide guidance on the established use of that particular convention, making sure a variety of sources are available.

“I want the student to dig into the topic as deeply as necessary, to come away with a thorough understanding of the how and why of the usage, and to understand any debate that may surround the particular usage.”

JOYCE, DOUGLAS JAMES. 2002. “On the Use of Metawriting to Learn Grammar and Mechanics.” The Quarterly (24) 4.

I am going to be doing a journal portfolio and an essay portfolio in one set of classes and an essay portfolio in the others. I like the idea of having them write about their writing. Perhaps I could do this as part of their final?

I found a connection between the metawriting and having the students questions.

Students Asking Questions about their Writing

21. Help students ask questions about their writing.
Joni Chancer, teacher-consultant of the South Coast Writing Project (California), has paid a lot of attention to the type of questions she wants her upper elementary students to consider as they re-examine their writing, reflecting on pieces they may make part of their portfolios. Here are some of the questions:

Why did I write this piece? Where did I get my ideas?
Who is the audience and how did it affect this piece?
What skills did I work on in this piece?
Was this piece easy or difficult to write? Why?
What parts did I rework? What were my revisions?
Did I try something new?
What skills did I work on in this piece?
What elements of writer’s craft enhanced my story?
What might I change?
Did something I read influence my writing?
What did I learn or what did I expect the reader to learn?
Where will I go from here? Will I publish it? Share it?
Expand it? Toss it? File it?

Chancer cautions that these questions should not be considered a “reflection checklist,” rather they are questions that seem to be addressed frequently when writers tell the story of a particular piece.

CHANCER, JONI. 2001. “The Teacher’s Role in Portfolio Assessment.” In The Whole Story: Teachers Talk About Portfolios, edited by Mary Ann Smith and Jane Juska. Berkeley, California: National Writing Project.

I like giving the students questions and having them think about them or talk about them. Perhaps this could be part of the preparation for the final?

And maybe I could incorporate this suggestion as well:

Grade persuasion

23. Require students to make a persuasive written argument in support of a final grade.
For a final exam, Sarah Lorenz, a teacher-consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, asks her high school students to make a written argument for the grade they think they should receive. Drawing on work they have done over the semester, students make a case for how much they have learned in the writing class.

“The key to convincing me,” says Lorenz, “is the use of detail. They can’t simply say they have improved as writers-they have to give examples and even quote their own writing…They can’t just say something was helpful- they have to tell me why they thought it was important, how their thinking changed, or how they applied this learning to everyday life.”

LORENZ, SARAH. 2001. “Beyond Rhetoric: A Reflective Persuasive Final Exam for the Writing Classroom.” The Quarterly (23) 4.

If I put those three things together, both during the presentation of the final and the final, the students might come out with some excellent final writing pieces about their work and their learning. I think this would be especially useful in the basic writing class.

Despite my personal expectation that students ought to know grammar by the time they get to college, I know that often they don’t. One of the things I do with grammar is assign homework based on the grammar they missed in their papers. I think that it would also be fun to incorporate these next two ideas.

Acting out grammar

19. Make grammar instruction dynamic.
Philip Ireland, teacher-consultant with the San Marcos Writing Project (California), believes in active learning. One of his strategies has been to take his seventh-graders on a “preposition walk” around the school campus. Walking in pairs, they tell each other what they are doing:

I’m stepping off the grass.
I’m talking to my friend.

“Students soon discover that everything they do contains prepositional phrases. I walk among my students prompting answers,” Ireland explains.

“I’m crawling under the tennis net,” Amanda proclaims from her hands and knees. “The prepositional phrase is under the net.”

“The preposition?” I ask.

“Under.”

IRELAND, PHILIP. 2003. “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” The Quarterly (25) 3.

Another grammar exercise, example, suggestion was

Using real-world examples for grammar

26. Use real world examples to reinforce writing conventions.
Suzanne Cherry, director of the Swamp Fox Writing Project (South Carolina), has her own way of dramatizing the comma splice error. She brings to class two pieces of wire, the last inch of each exposed. She tells her college students “We need to join these pieces of wire together right now if we are to be able to watch our favorite TV show. What can we do? We could use some tape, but that would probably be a mistake as the puppy could easily eat through the connection. By splicing the wires in this way, we are creating a fire hazard.”

A better connection, the students usually suggest, would be to use one of those electrical connectors that look like pen caps.

“Now,” Cherry says (often to the accompaniment of multiple groans), “let’s turn these wires into sentences. If we simply splice them together with a comma, the equivalent of a piece of tape, we create a weak connection, or a comma splice error. What then would be the grammatical equivalent of the electrical connector? Think conjunction – and, but, or. Or try a semicolon. All of these show relationships between sentences in a way that the comma, a device for taping clauses together in a slapdash manner, does not.”

“I’ve been teaching writing for many years,” Cherry says. “And I now realize the more able we are to relate the concepts of writing to ‘real world’ experience, the more successful we will be.”

CHERRY, SUZANNE. “I Am the Comma Splice Queen,” The Voice (9) 1.

I have been trying to think of how we could start the class writing, when I don’t really want to assign another writing assignment. And I think that this might be an interesting punctuation to beginning the courses. I don’t think I would talk about them as a drum and river, but maybe a dripping faucet and a wide open one.

Or maybe a postcard and a novel.

Hmm. Maybe I should actually have the students write postcards. That would be a fun assignment. I could buy a bunch of Houston postcards and get some soldiers’ addresses and have the students write postcards. They would have to have a short, focused thought for that. Maybe as part of the narrative paragraphs. Are we doing that assignment? I think we are.

Sentence Length

20. Ask students to experiment with sentence length.
Kim Stafford, director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College, wants his students to discard old notions that sentences should be a certain length. He explains to his students that a writer’s command of long and short sentences makes for a “more pliable” writing repertoire. He describes the exercise he uses to help students experiment with sentence length.

“I invite writers to compose a sentence that goes on for at least a page – and no fair cheating with a semicolon. Just use ‘and’ when you have to, or a dash, or make a list, and keep it going.” After years of being told not to, they take pleasure in writing the greatest run-on sentences they can.

“Then we shake out our writing hands, take a blank page, and write from the upper left to the lower right corner again, but this time letting no sentence be longer than four words, but every sentence must have a subject and a verb.”

Stafford compares the first style of sentence construction to a river and the second to a drum. “Writers need both,” he says. “Rivers have long rhythms. Drums roll.”

STAFFORD, KIM. 2003. “Sentence as River and as Drum.” The Quarterly (25) 3.

I like this idea as well, even though I hadn’t thought of it as a way of introducing introductions and conclusions. But I think it might be a good idea. When I am explaining about the five-paragraph essay to my basic writing students, this could be very helpful to them.

25. Encourage the “framing device” as an aid to cohesion in writing.
Romana Hillebrand, a teacher-consultant with the Northwest Inland Writing Project (Idaho), asks her university students to find a literary or historical reference or a personal narrative that can provide a fresh way into and out of their writing, surrounding it much like a window frame surrounds a glass pane.

Hillebrand provides this example:

A student in her research class wrote a paper on the relationship between humans and plants, beginning with a reference to the nursery rhyme, ‘Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies…’ She explained the rhymes as originating with the practice of masking the stench of death with flowers during the Black Plague. The student finished the paper with the sentence, “Without plants, life on Earth would cease to exist as we know it; ashes, ashes we all fall down.”

Hillebrand concludes that linking the introduction and the conclusion helps unify a paper and satisfy the reader.

HILLEBRAND, ROMANA. 2001. “It’s a Frame Up: Helping Students Devise Beginning and Endings.”The Quarterly (23) 1.

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