Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tunnel Vision: Incorporating Writing into the Classroom

Those who know me in real life know that I can sometimes be a little too focused (ok - stop the laughing; I'm not that bad). I start on a project and bury my nose so deep that I manage to tune out the rest of the world until the project is near completion. That has happened this week, which has greatly interfered with my reading and blogging time. I started revising my syllabi for the upcoming year on Monday and managed to complete 4 out of the 5 classes (those classes that will be taught basically the same as in years past). The only syllabus remaining was for my 9th grade English 1 class, and that was yesterday's project. This class will change from a strong grammar focus (which is now the focus of 8th grade), to a strong writing focus. While the two are always taught hand-in-hand, I hope to really branch out in this 9th grade year. I want to explore the writing journal, have students experiment with creative writing projects, and even expose them to some journalism techniques in the hopes that they might consider joining the school newspaper their sophomore year.

The grammar curriculum has always taken about 30% of the class time, which means that I need to develop quite a bit of new material to fill that void. I managed to find 3 books on that should help me achieve that goal (I had a sizable credit and decided to put it to good use). Two of the books will help me quickly, but I think effectively, review some grammar rules throughout the year. English Workshop Activities provides reproducible pages of literary passages. After reading the passage, students are asked a variety of questions that will hone their literary analysis, as well as grammar usage skills. I plan to use these exercises along with those found in the Nancy Dean's books, Voice Lessons, which are wonderful for helping students understand the components of an author's voice (such as diction, syntax, figurative language, detail, and tone). I will also use a book entitled Phunny Stuph, which provides a reproducible paragraph that students must proofread and correct. Each paragraph is rather humorous, so the hope is that the dry subject matter can be countered by the silly reading passage.

What took most of my planning time, however, was the concept of the writing journal and the development of writing projects throughout the year. I used the book, Yoga for the Brain to aid me with prompts, as well as ideas that I gleaned from reading Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away and Susan Wooldridge's Poemcrazy. I think I currently have about 100 writing prompts, and I am sure that the list will grow as the school year continues. My plan is to cut each prompt into a strip of paper and put all strips in a large "writing journal jar." Each day one student will draw a prompt from the jar. It is my sincere desire to have all students begin each class period writing for approximately 7-10 minutes in their journal either using the daily prompt OR a topic of their own choosing. Every 6-7 days students will then be asked to select one of these daily writings to develop into a more formal writing project. Sometimes I will tell them the form to use (personal essay, short story, poem, etc) and sometimes I will leave the form up to them.

I also hope to incorporate three concepts that I learned in my writing class this summer: the writing workshop, the cover sheet, and the read-around. The writing workshop is used to help students help one another, mostly in terms of revision. Students are divided into small groups: about 3-4 students in each group. The concept isn't to praise or criticize, but rather to offer possible suggestions: "What if....", "What you thought about .....?" The read-around is an opportunity for students to share their work in front of the class. Again, no judgment is made, just helpful comments: what works, possible suggestions, and always a round of applause.

The cover sheet was the most helpful tool I learned this summer and I think my 9th graders will be mature enough to use it as well. Essentially, the cover sheet accompanies each final written project and completes the background information: what was the inspiration for the piece; why was the piece written as a short story, poem, personal essay, etc rather than another form; why was the piece written in 1st person rather than 3rd person (or vice versa). This subtly forces the students to make conscious decisions about their writing rather than just completing the assignment on the fly (and if they have completed the assignment on the fly, they still need to validate those decisions). A large component of the cover sheet is to detail all revisions made and WHY. Again, this will subtly encourage students to work on more than one draft, and even if they procrastinate they will have to give thought to WHY.

In our class this summer the cover sheet was also an opportunity to voice what revisions we would make if we had more time. As an adult perfectionist I liked this opportunity to indicate that I knew the piece needed more work, and I could elaborate as to what I wished to further change. I am not sure that I will include this section with 9th graders; the temptation would be too great for them to make NO revisions, and just tell me that would make them at some indefinite time. I may see how the cover sheet concept works first semester and slowly introduce this component second semester.


  1. You might also try Notebook Know How by Aimee Buchner. It is geared towards middle and jr high students but the concepts for the writing notebook/journal are awesome. She stresses the creative process versus using prompts.

    Good luck this year!

  2. Bree: Thank you for the great suggestion. I will check out this book right away! I am somewhat hesitant to never use prompts, especially with this age group, as I would constantly be told "I don't know what to write" I am trying to be flexible enough for creativity, but strict enough to avoid excuses. Does that make sense?

  3. Oh, how I wish my son had had a teacher like you! Your passion shows!

  4. I'll echo what Kathy just said...wish you were teaching in my district!!

  5. I haven't worked with writing journals, but I have had experience of asking undergraduates to keep a reading journal and to begin with they have always been very reluctant. I used to find that telling them in advance that this would be the case and not to worry about it was a real help and once I had a collection of those from previous years (no help to you this year!) having some available to show how people had grown was useful too. Your course sounds great. I'm sure it will go really well.

  6. Every district needs more teachers like you.


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