There’s something extraordinary about middle school writers.
Maybe it’s the tension of existing between childhood and adulthood and their ability to articulate this tension. Maybe it’s their fully intact imaginations and natural inclination to creatively express themselves. Whatever it is, they’re capable of astounding us and each other if we teach them well.
What I’ve learned to be true about teaching writing to middle schoolers is rooted in the importance of both coaching them on the conventions of writing in English and giving them room to be who they are.
What I’ve Learned
1. Choice is crucial, but students need help choosing: When students are able to follow their interests and curiosity, it’s more likely that their writing will be honest and compelling. However, if left to their own devices, students sometimes begin writing about topics that don’t lead them anywhere.
Before writing, students should brainstorm and have the opportunity to talk with you—and their peers, if possible—about their ideas. They’ll need your help discerning which idea would yield the most engaging writing for them. Your guidance is invaluable.
2. Clichés are fantastic for teaching creative expression: Middle schoolers often use clichés, in the belief that using them makes their writing better. When we define clichés for them and explain the better choice of describing familiar things in fresh, unique ways, students begin taking more risks in their writing.
A colleague gave me the idea to create a cliché graveyard for my classroom—a poster cut into the shape of a gravestone that we add clichés to as we identify them. This makes hunting for clichés fun, and each time we bury a cliché, students come up with new creative descriptions. Theirs are always better.
3. Simple rubrics make a huge difference: Rubrics let students know what you’re looking for in their writing, and middle schoolers are most attentive to rubrics that include as little text as possible.
I list vertically the five to 10 elements (title, lead, thesis, etc.) that I assess on the left side of the rubric, and horizontally along the top I include four simple categories: AWESOME, Pretty good!, OK..., and a crying emoji. More text can overwhelm students and limit you when you’re grading.
4. Students should interview published writers: Middle schoolers learn a ton about the craft of writing when given opportunities to interview published writers. Thankfully, many writers are happy to visit classrooms and meet with students for free. Visits by video call also work.
Before a visit, students should read a small selection of the writer’s work and prepare five to 10 questions on that work and the writer’s process. As a class, they should ask their questions and take notes on what the writer says. It’s amazing how much ground they can cover in one class.
5. They need to name their strengths and weaknesses: When meeting with students one on one, begin by asking them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of whatever piece they’re working on. Students can often name the strengths of their writing, but you still need to encourage them to be specific: “What makes this sentence work well?”
It’s more difficult for them to name weaknesses. “I just don’t like this part,” they’ll say. Again, your job is to help them be specific.
The more students are encouraged to name the strengths and weaknesses of their writing, the more self-sufficient they become as writers.
6. We can embrace the quirks: It’s important to teach students the terminology and structures of English grammar so that they understand what you mean when you discuss the makeup of a sentence. And generally a writer should know the rules of the language before breaking them.
However, middle schoolers sometimes create sentences with peculiar characteristics that look and sound striking but are grammatically incorrect. Because they haven’t fully internalized English grammar, they’re still playful with the language.
On these occasions, I’ve found it helpful to allow them to break the rules but also let them know how they’re doing so. This way, grammatical conventions aren’t forgotten—they’re purposefully ignored to help students develop a voice on the page.
7. Letting them try on different writing styles is invaluable: A great way to help students develop their writing voices is to let them imitate others. When students read short pieces by authors with distinctive voices and as a class identify how—on the sentence level—the writing is unique and interesting, they learn practical ways to infuse writing with personality.
If given opportunities to use these styles in their own writing, students are one step closer to understanding how to make their written work more representative of who they are.
8. They need to consistently ask themselves two questions: Middle schoolers often leave important ideas off the page because they either assume you know they’re talking about or haven’t pushed themselves to think critically about what they’re saying.
If during class and in your comments you consistently challenge students to answer “How?” and “Why?” they learn to be more thoughtful and thorough in all of their writing. These simple metacognitive questions lead to fuller, more sophisticated thought processes for them and stronger pieces of writing for others to read.