Last night I attended a writing class, sponsored by PEBC and presented by Stevi Quate, Alisa Wills-Keely, and Annie Patterson. This was a third in a series of four offered this year. Our conversations brought back both fond memories and ideas that I’d forgotten about teaching writing.
I have spent many years (40+) either teaching writing or working with writing teachers, but it’s been a while since I’ve focused on the joy of writing. Stevi shared with us that research suggests that if we want to develop proficient writers, one of the most important things we can do is to allow students time to play with writing, time to be creative, time to simply write. I know we all get caught up in “preparing” them for the type of prompts they’ll see on assessments, but that is only a small portion of what helps them grow as writers. As Judith Langer stated in her meta-analysis of what works in teaching language arts, isolated test prep is not it!
With that in mind, I want to share a couple of writing activities that I’ve used in the past, activities that have kept students highly engaged and led to their focus on writing craft: style, voice, structure, all while requiring them to read closely and analytically in a text.
In today’s climate, we have far too many people who never see beyond their own perspectives. This writing activity encourages students to do just that–think about how someone else feels and thinks and why she acts the way she does.
The assignment is this: You’ve just read the book. You’ve learned a great deal about at least one character, the protagonist. Now, choose a different character from the book–a parent, a friend, an enemy, a teacher, the antagonist– and write a missing chapter for the book from that person’s perspective. Choose an event or major issue in the book and focus on that.
Before you get started, take some time to “read like a writer.” Look at how the author structures paragraphs, dialogues, sentences, descriptions. What patterns do you see in the writing? Try and write your chapter so that it matches the author’s style. Make it hard to tell the difference between your writing and the author’s.
The essential question for this activity is: How can “reading like a writer” and using inference be used create an addition to the book that offers a different perspective and still sounds like the author wrote it.
Learning Targets are:
- I can read like a writer to imitate an author’s style of writing.
- I can infer in order to determine a person’s perspective.
On the grand scale, this requires students to put themselves into someone else’s shoes. Maybe build tolerance and understanding? But it also focuses on writing craft. By focusing on imitating style, it requires that the writer pay attention to writer’s craft–word choice, structure, and patterns.
When I’ve used this writing activity with classes, it’s been highly successful. Students have been engaged, they’ve talked about their writing, they’ve asked questions, and they’ve collaborated. And the final results have not only been enlightening, but fun to read. And as an English teacher reading LOTS of student writing, that is always appreciated!
Retold Fairy Tales
This next activity had a source, but I can no longer find it. However, the activity is alive and well on FanFiction, and you can find examples there: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5118726/1/The-Wolf
I used this with Catcher in the Rye, but it could work for many other books. The idea here is to again have students “read like a writer.” You want them to pay close attention to writer’s craft–patterns, use of language, sentence structure, verbs, etc.
The assignment is this: Choose a fairy tale and rewrite it in Holden Caulfield’s voice.
When I used this assignment, I did not allow students to use swear words. You’ll notice in the examples on fanfiction, that the writers there did not have this particular rule. It is possible to create a great facsimile of his voice without swearing!
Key Ingredients: Mentors and Modeling
Something that I didn’t mention above but is vital to ANY writing lesson is the use of mentor text and teacher modeling. Students need to see what good writing looks like. With high school students, I use novels, essays from magazines and newspapers, picture books, etc. I choose excerpts that show the focus of the lesson. Sometimes it’s structure (how did the author structure his argument in this essay?). Other times, it’s patterns (What repetition do you see? How does that impact the meaning?)
If you want students to write, you need to model and think aloud for them. Do what you want them to do. Model “reading like a writer” by thinking aloud what you notice about the author’s craft. Then actually write a bit using the document camera to show students what it looks like. This gradual release of responsibility enables students to get started much more effectively than if you merely assign, plus it’s simply good instruction and what we should always be doing.