After completing my first year as an English teacher, I looked back at some of the most important lessons I learned and one of them was how to overcome students' resistance to writing. I kept hearing the same complaints and excuses whenever they had to write an essay: "I'm not good at writing", "I'm not going to finish in time", "I don't know what to write", etc., etc. At first, I would not accept any excuses and simply expected them to write. Not surprisingly, the essays I received were incomplete and often lacking structure and cohesion. Even when I gave them templates, the students still struggled.
As I was researching different methods of teaching, I found this video on YouTube created by Musings from the Middle School. The information in this video helped me to restructure how I was teaching English and I was able to begin developing my own style of teaching that actually helped my students overcome their fears of writing.
Although I eventually came up with a different method of teaching that does not involve a writer's notebook, I was able to incorporate many ideas into my classroom. It was largely in part to the ideas I picked up from this video that most of my students transitioned from being unable to successfully write a 5 paragraph essay to being able to breeze through an essay in less than two hours. I even had a few students who expressed a desire to become novelists. One student even claimed that she learned to "like" essay writing.
Here are some things I learned:
1. Break Down the Barrier with Creative Writing
Before focusing heavily on essay writing, it helps to start out with fun creative writing activities. Short story assignments help students express themselves through writing without causing them the stress and uncertainty that an essay usually produces. I had my students write short stories and share them in the class. They enjoyed having the liberty of choosing their own topic to write about and when we shared stories, they were very interested in hearing their peers' stories.
Story-writing builds confidence and helps students understand that writing really isn't as terrible as they sometimes think it is. I purchased the writer's notebook package on TPT from Musings from the Middle School and used it with my sixth grade class. They enjoyed many of the writing prompts.
Another option that you have is that you can look for creative writing prompts on Pinterest and other websites and simply put it on the SmartBoard for your students to write about on loose leaf paper or in a journal.
2. Create a Simple Rubric that Encourages your Students
When I first saw the video, I was somewhat skeptical about creating a more lenient rubric. I wasn't sure if it was going to work in my classroom. Prior to the more lenient rubric, I had a much more complicated system of grading and I realize now that it was more challenging than it should have been. My students probably felt that they couldn't meet those expectations. The rubric I created after seeing this video makes it extremely difficult to fail an essay, but it also makes getting a perfect score as challenging as it should be. This helped ease students' anxiety and it also motivated them to continue improving. You can download my writing assignment rubric for free or use it as an example to create your own.
3. Use Effective Writing Templates
The first few times I used templates to help my students write essays, they were not every informative or detailed. The students were just as confused if not more so than if I wouldn't have provided a template to begin with. After attending a few classes at the FACCS, I heard a bit more about essay templates as a guide to help students become more comfortable with the essay writing process. I couldn't find templates that I liked, so I created my own.
For the template I created, my main focus was on the introductory paragraph because I felt that students have the most trouble beginning an essay (they usually don't know how to start). Throughout the year, I worked on creating some essay notes and added them to the template to help my students understand it better.
Although this is a work in progress, it helped them grasp the necessary elements to begin an essay strong and maintain a sense of focus throughout the rest of the essay. The essay template I created is for literary response essays. Students can use this template for any essay that is a response to a story, article, book, or poem.
4. Essay Write-Alongs
The essay write-along is another idea that I incorporated from Musing from the Middle School. She recommended writing an essay live so that students could see that writing is a messy process and that even as teachers we also make mistakes as we write. I partnered the essay write-along with my template and as a class, we wrote an entire essay from start to finish on the SmartBoard. We worked collectively to discuss how we would organize the essay, to decide on our thesis, and to select our supporting details. I encouraged my students to take notes so that they would have examples to look at for future essay assignments.
Had I simply given them a template and explained it, the students may have still struggled with writing. The essay write-along helped them observe how I applied the template and completed a successful essay by simply plugging in my ideas and organizing my supporting details.
5. Anonymous Kudos
For every essay assignment that we completed, I selected the best student work and read it aloud to the class. I often selected between 3 and 4 essays to share. I kept the student's name confidential to avoid students becoming embarrassed. Although I only shared the best essays, students in middle school tend to like being low key and they appreciated the anonymity. As a class, we discussed what the student did well and we also observed some things that could be improved. The anonymous kudos helped the students who did well feel good about themselves while not putting them in spotlight and it also helped the other students realize that essay writing was within their reach. The more anonymous kudos I gave, the more the students were reassured that they were getting better and could successfully write essays.
The End Result
It took a lot of hard work to help my student overcome their fear of writing and master essays. I also spent a lot of time in the classroom explaining the process and answering questions. A lot of students also wanted me to read their essays constantly for reassurance that they were on the right track. Despite the hard work and the time that it took for me to implement these steps, it was well worth the effort. I still had a few students who struggled to the very end, but the majority improved tremendously. More importantly, their attitude in regards to writing changed for the better. And that is definitely a win in my book.
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