Real-World Writing Examples: A Blogger Reveals His Secrets

Mark Phillips makes guest appearance as “the teacher’s dad,” sharing his writing process with his daughter’s students and answering their questions about rhetorical strategy.

January 27, 2016
Photo credit: Bruce Matsunaga via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I want to share a story that I hope will be instructive for both teachers and other blogger/columnists.

Years ago, I taught high school. I left in spite of the kids, not because of them. I wanted to train teachers, but I missed being with adolescents. In my retirement, I seize every opportunity to guest teach in high school classes. Being with adolescents helps keep me young!

My daughter Tracy teaches high school English and drama. She and I teach well together, and I love visiting to co-teach one or two of her classes.

This time, the lesson was also instructive for how we can use our columns (I’m an old-fashioned journalist and still prefer that term) to help high school kids learn how to write their own editorials.

The Setting

Tracy teaches in Mount Eden High School, set in a quiet neighborhood of Hayward, California with demographics that we usually associate with inner city schools. The class is a wonderful mix of ethnicities and races. There are second-generation immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, Afghanistan, the Pacific Islands, and Asia. There are also many Latino students and some African-American students. Many of these kids will be the first of their families to graduate high school. I love the diversity; it makes life in that classroom very interesting for me.

The classes are also heterogeneous academically, a mix of college-bound kids and those who are more challenged academically and engaged in vocational training. Additionally, we had a number of high-achieving kids with permission to get out of their other classes and join us. There's an attraction when "the teacher’s dad" visits!

Most of these kids are hungry for teaching that engages them and teachers who care about them. Of course, there are some who are significantly at-risk, and a handful tuned out before I even began. My daughter said that it would take "a juggler or fire eater" to get their attention.

The Assignment

Tracy and I team teach these classes. Although I do the primary teaching, we design the assignments and class sessions together. She also helps prompt student participation.

We always choose a topic for which I have the necessary experience and knowledge. This time, it occurred to us that my process of writing an Edutopia column (a.k.a. blog) might be a perfect topic for them in their unit on rhetoric, specifically the part that focuses on editorial writing. I also hoped to illustrate how other Edutopia writers might consider making their blogs part of teaching the writing process to high school students.

The assignment was for students to convincingly address the public on an issue they were passionate about. The culminating assignment was to develop this appeal into an argumentative essay.

Tracy noted that the kids usually love this assignment. They enjoy voicing their thoughts on a topic about which they feel passionate, and they challenge themselves to use the rhetorical appeals that they've been learning in class. The aim is for them to not just rant, but to articulate their point of view thoughtfully.

I gave them three drafts for my column on the film Finding the Gold Within: my brainstormed notes, my second rough draft, and my final draft. We chose this column because it also provided the opportunity to use some video excerpts during the class, usually a very good attention grabber.

As a homework assignment (which of course some didn't do!), they were to generate questions for me about my process, my inspiration and/or ideas for this particular piece, and how I usually find inspiration. The focus was on my final draft. They looked at my vocabulary, how I grabbed the reader's attention, my apparent strategy, my evidence, and any other rhetorical strategies or appeals that I used.

They were also told that, in order to score points for a positive grade, they needed to participate and not just listen. Tracy reminded them of this a number of times during the class!

The Class Session, Part 1: Connecting With Students

I began with a brief introduction about my role as an Edutopia columnist and mentioned that it was a George Lucas publication, because all the kids know who he is and I figured that would gain me some credibility points and increase interest. Then we began an extended Q and A session. Here are just a few representative examples of the exchanges we had.

A student who I wasn't even sure was paying attention eagerly raised his hand and said, "I have a hard time getting any idea of what to write about. Do you ever run out of ideas?" I responded, "Oh yeah! I often think I have nothing else to write about. I feel like I keep saying the same thing: 'I can't think of anything for next month's column!' But eventually I get some ideas."

An energetic, alert young woman who I knew was totally with me asked, "What's the biggest challenge for you as a writer?" I replied, "Just getting from my brainstormed notes and, in this case quotes from the film, to a good first draft. I feel very nervous until I get that first draft written." She responded, "I always feel nervous when I start." And I assured her that was very normal. She smiled in recognition.

Somehow this makes the students feel better about their own anxieties as writers. I try to make it safe for them by being honest about myself. It also helps them be more open with me.

Another student chimed in, "Well, then how do you get started?" I explained that it was different in this case because I was writing about a film. So I started with watching the film and taking notes. But I told her that I always begin by brainstorming ideas, just jotting them down without any thought of how they'll all fit together later.

An inevitable question followed from another student, a young man who I mistakenly thought wasn't tuned in. "How do you make the final draft better?" I responded by admitting that my wife helps a lot. "She's much better at grammar and catching typos, and she also keeps me from sounding too academic. So she does the final editing before I send it to my Edutopia editor."

Overall, their engagement was great and their questions were on target and focused on helping them with their own writing.

The Class Session, Part 2: Viewing Scenes From the Film

I selected a few scenes from Finding the Gold Within so that they'd have a better idea of what I'd written about. But I especially chose scenes in which the young men shared feelings about their struggle. I wanted these students to personally relate to the film, not just present it as an illustration. Most of them were glued to the film, and I only wished that we'd had more time to talk about it.

Finally, they had a few minutes to ask me for additional help with their writing. As just one example, a young woman asked, "I have a lot of trouble getting started. What would you suggest?" I said, "Try to find a topic you really care about. Then just write down any ideas you have. Don't worry about sentences or paragraphs or grammar. Just get some ideas down to start you going."

Mutual Gifts

The feedback afterward was highly positive, with most enjoying the whole process, especially the Q and A and the film scenes.

It was a good idea for a lesson -- and it worked. Later, my daughter wrote, "I feel like you were giving a gift of reminding them of the universal challenge and joys of being a writer as much as supporting their finding their way." But of course, their engagement was also a gift to me.

Tracy said that one student told her, "Your dad is really chill!" At my age, that's a very high compliment!

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  • Literacy
  • Professional Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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