I have several students in each class who begin any writing assignment with a long pause. For some that pause can be 10 minutes or more. While I respect that “think time” is important, these same students will say (after their “think time”) that they don’t know what to write. I know that their “think time” is not very productive. So I’m very choosy about the writing topics I pick. Free choice doesn’t usually work. For the students who hesitate, it’s like looking into a snow globe and trying to decide which snowflake to describe.
Something that worked!
Recently we studied photosynthesis. AFTER the students had memorized lines for a play, and AFTER we had taken a test (so I could be sure the vast majority of students understood the process), I asked the students to write an informative paper about photosynthesis. We brainstormed that the introductory paragraph might reveal what photosynthesis was, along with where it happens. We brainstormed that the concluding paragraph might wrap things up with why photosynthesis is so important. The middle paragraphs were to explain the process – naming the ingredients and how they arrived at the chloroplast – naming the result (sugar and oxygen) and where they went when they left the chloroplast.
The best part of this was that the students didn’t have to think about what to include. They knew the information. They could focus on organization and making sure details explained what a reader might not understand. A rough draft was finished within three days for most. I conferenced with students as they were writing and we talked about making the introduction inviting. Then they typed it, and I made editing suggestions. Final copies are now in my hands. If there was confusion about the photosynthesis process that the test did not catch, this writing certainly helped the students make sense of it.
What a beautiful pairing of science and writing. And because they had such a grasp of the information already, we could really focus on the writing. Those who normally begin by pausing so long, began relatively quickly! For a change, they didn’t see writing as such a daunting task.
So what writing practice to do next?
Yesterday I asked the students to write a paragraph. Just one paragraph – three to five sentences long. The nervous looks shot around the room like in a pinball game. Then I revealed the topic: Tell me the one thing you would absolutely without-a-doubt NOT want for Christmas (or as a gift in general for those who don’t celebrate Christmas). I thought this might be fun, seeing as it was unexpected, but I could not have predicted how their responses made ALL of us laugh! Bravo! And everyone wrote a paragraph!
I don’t think you’ll mind if I share a few …
“Something I do not want for Christmas? An avocado. I really really dislike avocados. I’ve actually seen kids get avocados, so I know it can happen. I tried one once and started gagging. Please, just know that if you’re getting me anything for Christmas … make it anything but avocados.” S.B.
“What I don’t want for Christmas is my sister! She is always so annoying and rude. She is much older than me, so I can’t fight her. I still do, but then I get punched, so I back off.” T.R.
“One thing I do not want for Christmas is a math test. They are too hard and they get me frustrated. I do not like math tests!” J.K.
“I absolutely do not want Expo Markers! My math teacher told us that if we needed them we could ask for them for Christmas. I thought he was crazy when he said we could sacrifice one present for Expo Markers. No way!” M.B.
“The one thing I don’t want for Christmas is underwear. It is so weird. Why can’t you buy your own if you want some? Just imagine getting excited for your presents and then you get underwear. Then when someone asks what you got for Christmas you have to say, “undies”. What the heck? Please don’t give someone undies!” M.B.
“There is one thing I really DO NOT want for Christmas, and that is to be sick! If I were sick on Christmas, that would really stink. I would miss everything because I would probably have to stay in bed ALL day.” G.L.
“The one thing I don’t want for Christmas is a snake. One reason I don’t want a snake is because of their skin. Ick! I also hate the tails of snakes and the fact that they can kill you if they bite you! I hate mice too, and I would have to feed it mice. Otherwise it might eat my dog!” R.G.
“The one thing I really don’t want for Christmas is socks. I have lots of socks already. Whenever I get socks, they never fit. Please don’t get me socks!” K.B.
“The thing I do not want for Christmas is chores. Chores are not a gift. Since chores are work instead of spending time with family, I would rather not have chores for Christmas.” N.A.
“Please! Don’t get me this for Christmas. I do not want a dead fish. First off, you can’t play with it! Secondly and thirdly, it smells and does not move.” J.S.
“Something I don’t want is crayons. I have too many. I have about 500, so if you are thinking about gifts for me, do not get me crayons. It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s that I have too many. I have so many colors. We had to sort them.” E.G.
“I would absolutely not want to spend Christmas without my family. My family is my life. Without them it would not be fun or enthusiastic.” R.B.
“I would not, not, not want a life supply of pizza. I wouldn’t even like ONE piece of pizza. And a life supply? Uggghhhh! Pizza is my second to last least favorite food.” A.S.
“One thing I would not want for Christmas is another sister. That just means more makeup. I might even have to share a room with her. She would probably be very annoying, too.” G.S.
“I do not want a toad. They’re boring. They do nothing but eat, sit, and sleep. That is why I do not want a toad.” M.W.
Aren’t those great? I need to make a list of other writing prompts that are unexpected in this same way. With this prompt they were able to practice thinking on paper with less hesitation time. I want the ideas to flow and the writing experience to be enjoyable. I want their ‘critic’ to remain silently tucked away while their ‘creator’ is free-styling! For some reason, these students try to to the writing and editing all in one step (and generally they skip revising altogether). That’s like seeing all three of the stoplight colors at the same time while you are driving! Yikes!
First they need to have something to say. If I can choose something for them to write about that is fun or that they already know about, the writing is less labored. The next steps of revising and editing are there to improve the writing. They provide an opportunity to reflect on the initial message to the reader. Maybe rephrasing a sentence will make the idea in it stronger. Maybe certain words used don’t capture the feeling the writer intended. Is there another word that would work better? Is there information that is missing? Do the ideas in the sentences keep the reader focused on the intended message?
But like I said, first they need to have something to say. My goal is just that – to give them prompts that interest them and make it fun to respond.