It’s quite likely that many of your students dislike writing. After all, they’re often expected to compose lengthy pieces that typically require lots of brainstorming, researching, planning, outlining, drafting, revising, and editing—and that can be exhausting. My class of high school boys had the same attitude, and their short, underdeveloped, and passionless pieces were most telling. I had to overhaul my approach.
During my quest for an alternative practice, I quickly learned that by building students’ knowledge about the topic on which they are expected to compose, and by initially assigning them shorter and more authentic writing tasks, we can successfully motivate them to write longer, richer, and more compelling multiparagraph pieces. Yes, baby steps—from a creep to a stable walk—can work wonders.
Incorporate Knowledge-Building Activities
Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler said it best in The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades: “Writing and content knowledge are intimately related. You can’t write well about something you don’t know well. The more students know about a topic before they begin to write, the better they will be able to write about it.”
Documentaries, podcasts, TED Talks, and other authentic and engaging audiovisuals can facilitate this knowledge building. Field trips, as well as interviews with relevant community-based experts, can also offer students significant fodder for their writing.
Moreover, when students have interesting discoveries to share, they’ll be excited about the writing tasks, and their compositions are likely to be longer, more detailed, more affecting, and more compelling. Because they have a rich knowledge bank, they’re less likely to get stuck and frustrated as they write. Knowledge stimulates ideas.
But information gathering is not all. It’s also important to show students how to use the newly learned content. We don’t want them to plagiarize information or inadvertently silence their own voices by over-quoting others. Their research should enhance what they write, not substitute for their initial thoughts or suppress their creativity.
What can you do then?
Go beyond lessons in citation format. Model, through write-aloud, how to make decisions about the content included in written work, how to paraphrase and summarize from the original source, and how to ensure that the added content actually strengthens what you already have.
Offer Authentically Rooted Writing Assignments
Finally, make sure that the writing assignments are authentic—with realistic, real-world communicative goals and true-to-life audiences (not just the classroom teacher). Here are some suggestions that you can implement in your teaching practice:
Travel blogs: Take students on virtual field trips. Nearpod, Google Earth, and YouTube are excellent for this. Following this activity, have students write a blog post to describe the place they visited. If your students have visited resorts or attraction sites locally, they could write about that experience, recommend activities for prospective visitors, and simultaneously persuade them to visit when it is safe to do so.
Their insights might even persuade others to travel to this site. Students could use pictures to supplement their writing. They could also convert their written piece into a mini-video production for a real or imagined YouTube channel that promotes exotic getaways. Their composition would become the audio narration, and, with some background reggae, R & B, or any other culturally popular music, their piece would be beautifully transformed into a riveting marketing pitch.
Movie reviews: Due to the pandemic, we know that many of our students may be watching far more movies than ever before. Therefore, let’s repurpose this social activity and use what they love or do for pleasure to help them refine a key academic skill. Have students write a review of their most recently watched or favorite film.
Prompt them to provide a summary of the movie, share their impressions of major characters and the plot’s unfolding, and examine the techniques used to create suspense and mounting tension. Later, when they’re writing their own narratives or putting on drama productions, they can adopt and adapt some of these techniques.
Song or music video reviews: Some students enjoy listening to music, so a song or music video review could also motivate them and facilitate interest-based differentiation. State where the review may be published—a local tabloid, a social media page, etc. Have students keep that in mind as they write so that their finished pieces are authentic and fitting for the context and audience intended.
Social media: Based on your content area, you could have students make discipline-specific posts and write related captions. For instance, if you are looking at rocks in geography or soil types in science, have students photograph different types and post related descriptive or explanatory captions. They’ll be learning and teaching concurrently.
Provide Mentor Texts
These activities are exciting, but before you scuttle off to assign them, find or create models of the kinds of writing that you want your students to produce. Discuss the sample by prompting students to keenly attend to the content and the writer’s craft (style and techniques) throughout the piece.
Finally, make arrangements to have your students publish their pieces—through a safe online space or through an in-school magazine or newsletter—for authenticity at its finest.