One of my first writing assignments of the year is I ask students to tell me their stories as writers. I want the whole thing: the ups, downs, frustrations, inspirations, breakthroughs, and breakdowns.
And while I know what is coming, every year I can’t help but be a bit blown back by what I receive. While some students come in glowing with confidence and ready to gush about their rich writing lives, most students, year after year, have a clear message for me:
“I am not a writer.”
The reasons they give for this response vary. Some have been worn down by being required to write in the same formulaic ways again and again (John Warner and Andy Schoenborn just wrote a great piece on this Monday). Others have experienced acute literary traumas at the hands of teachers or students that have them afraid of the written word. And others still dislike the fact that writing, even in the best circumstances, is undeniably hard work.
But in my classes the main reason given by the majority of students who identify as non-writers is the following: they don’t really know how to do it.
They might know bits and pieces–the five-paragraph form or that one should start a paper with a “hook”–but they are also acutely aware that their understanding has gaping holes. For many of these students, writing as a whole is a confusing and obtuse black box full of rules they can’t see, let alone follow, and writers belong to a secret society they could never imagine joining.
They might be able to write complete sentences with some consistency, but they often have no idea how to make a sentence that inspires someone to action, sounds beautiful to the ear, or transports the reader to another world–and so they conclude that they simply aren’t writers.
If I want these students who identify as non-writers to have successful years, I need to quickly get them to a place where they begin to believe that with a little effort they too can join the rank of writers.
This is why I start my writing instruction each year with a series of lessons designed to show every single writer in the room that they can write too. These lessons might seem a bit disparate on the surface, but what they share in common is that they are concrete enough to be grasped pretty quickly by nearly all students and powerful enough that they can noticeably improve many student’s writing right away. Here they are:
To Be or Not to Be
Native or advanced speakers of English generally don’t think about verb conjugation. Instead, it just happens. Consequently, native/advanced speakers don’t know that was, were, is, are, am, be, etc. are all variations of the same verb–to be–and that many of them are overusing it, which can make their writing feel simpler and more stilted at times than it would be if they had more active and interesting constructions. This is why I give students this sheet, which includes conjugations we do together…
…and encourage them to use the find function (Command-F) to explore their own “to be” usage in their own writing. Many students find that they use it 15, 20, 25, or more times per page, and having that information gives them clear action steps towards improving their writing in sometime dramatic ways.
There are few nearly universal writing rules, but one of them is that purposeful repetition generally makes things sound good. This is why so many literary devices (alliteration, rhyming, themes, etc.) revolve around repetition. It is also why parallel structure can quickly take ok writing and make it sound like something magical and special.
I have found that once students learn about parallel structure, it doesn’t take long for them to master it and quickly improve their writing by deploying it at key moments. Here is the sheet I use to help with that:
The Writing Revolution by Judith Hochman talks a lot about appositives, or a nouns/phrase that renames another noun/phrase next to it. At first I was a bit uncertain about why, but after playing with appositives in class, I got it. Appositives seem fancy, but they are actually a really concrete tool that writers can employ quickly in ways that really benefit their writing.
Like Hochman, I first teach them with fill-in-the-blank sentences concerning the books we are currently reading like the following, as a way to merge the writing and reading in the class:
Mercutio, ______________, is the first to die in the play.
We than look at professional examples, like this one from Clint Smith in the New Yorker…
“That year, Medgar Evers, a leading civil-rights figure and N.A.A.C.P. state field director, was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. That year, four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. That year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through downtown Dallas.”
…and the they start playing with putting these in their own writing.
In Embarrassment, Tom Newkirk writes that “Self-esteem cannot be built upon the wind or empty assurances–it requires objective and publicly acknowledged demonstrations of competence; being good at something” (p. 45). That is the goal of these lessons. They are meant to give students proof that while writing is magic, one needn’t be a magician to do it well. Armed with the right tools, they too can be good at it too. Because once they believe that, the sky is the limit.
Yours in Teaching,
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