One thing is inevitable when a teacher is reading drafts or grading essays: They’ll notice that almost every single student has missed the boat on the same element of writing. Students have failed to write an effective thesis statement or to transition between pieces of an argument or to explain evidence or to conclude their pieces in an engaging way.
There are plenty of mysteries when it comes to conducting an effective writing workshop, but teaching a quick lesson on a specific element of writing doesn't have to be that hard.
The following steps will help you plan and organize a lesson that focuses on one element of writing.
Pinpoint the issue that students are having before they finish the piece. Chances are that they fall into one of a few categories—main idea, show don't tell, citing sources, etc. What keeps coming up in writing conferences? On which items are you spending the most amount of time? What are some sticking points for students? Take notes as you are reading students’ drafts so that you can find the trends.
Decide what you’d like students to get out of the lesson—but don't be surprised when they see much more than you had anticipated. So if you have three grabbers to show them to compare different techniques, for example, make sure that you have thought through the writers’ techniques ahead of time (one example might be a good one for showing students how figurative language creates vivid imagery that pulls in a reader or one example might be a good one for showing students how strong topic sentences state the main ideas of the paragraphs to follow). But also be open to students pinpointing more elements that you had anticipated.
Find some examples of student writing that have not yet accomplished what you would like students to get. Make sure to get students’ permission or make the samples unidentifiable. Singling out students for failing at elements of their writing will never go well. Also, it might work best if you find examples that are only missing one piece—otherwise, the class might get distracted pointing out all the errors. And think of a few ways that the chosen pieces might be able to accomplish what you’d like. Perhaps there is a better statement of the main idea in the conclusion to the piece, or one simple addition would make the citation smoother and more logical.
Find some examples of writing that do accomplish what you would like students to do. Again, if you use student samples, make sure to block out any identifying elements or clues. Students might be just as likely to feel embarrassed if their essays are shown as good examples as they are when they are given as examples of what not to do. These examples don’t have to be perfect either, but they might have that one element down. Saving essays or paragraphs or even sentences from past years is also a great practice.
Show students short examples of the different pieces. Single sentences or at most paragraphs are the most effective for pinpointing specific elements. Except with the most exceptional of examples and the highest level students, reading entire essays usually only results in a loss of attention.
Engage students in a discussion about what works and what doesn't and why. Project the piece on a white board or get students to annotate it in another way. Get them to talk about what they like and why they like it. Take notes, brainstorm together, and ask them to notice as many specific details as they can. Come up with some concrete ways that students can imitate the good examples. Again, students will likely notice more than you had anticipated. The more specific you can be about how students can incorporate these techniques the better, though. So they might try their hand at writing vivid imagery with figurative language or at rewriting the topic sentence of their first body paragraph so that it clearly states their main idea.
Spend some time playing around in class with alternative techniques based on what you have observed. Make this a low-pressure activity and a chance for students to experiment. You might want to require them to make one or two specific changes to their essays, but the less high-stakes the requirements, the more likely students are to experiment with new techniques. When students can see their peer’s work as mentor texts, they will realize how much they can accomplish with their own work.
Students benefit so much from concrete and focused mini lessons—and then make sure to get back to writing workshop so they can keep experimenting and growing with their writing and applying what they have absorbed.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.