Friday, September 18, 2015

Workshopping the Writing Process

It's wonderful how I have the opportunity to refine and develop good ideas into good practice with each passing school-year.  Last year, I had the idea of having my students write out their thesis statement and start outlining their essay more than a week before the teacher's draft was due.  This year, I have extended and developed this into a more formal writer's workshop.

We started at the same place as last year--I had my students choose the prompt that they wanted to respond to.  We then reviewed characteristics of an excellent thesis statement (clear, specific, debatable) and looked over samples from the previous year.  For several of the samples, I identified the main points and the organizational pattern for the students, but for the final sample, I asked them to identify the main points and the organizational pattern themselves.  So far, so good--the students could all correctly identify the thesis statement within the introductory paragraph, could identify the main points of the essay in the correct order, and could identify the logic behind the order of the points at first glance.

Here is the final sample that the students had to figure out on their own:

Sample Introduction and thesis:
The old saying goes, "you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family."  In reality, we can replace the word "family" with the word "classmates", "neighbors", or "colleagues" and the statement still holds true.  Unless we exile ourselves from society as hermits do, we cannot avoid life in community.  What is within our control, however, is the way in which we interact with those around us, and it is in this choice that community either grows or suffers.  The growth of community is dependent upon a personal willingness to humble ourselves, a commitment to accepting others, and a common mission to serve the world beyond the borders of our community.

Point #1: (Personal willingness to humble ourselves)

Point #2: (Commitment to accepting others)

Point #3: (Common mission to serve the world beyond the borders of the community)

Organizational pattern: (Internal to external/personal to interpersonal)

Then, I had the students write their own thesis statements using our trusty Moodle journal tool.  I promised that I would provide feedback on each of their theses before class the next day, a promise I managed to keep.  Going over the samples ahead of time clearly helped to refresh the students' memory and I found myself making smaller, pickier suggestions for improvement--the wording of certain points; why not switch point 2 and point 3 for a more natural sense of flow?; etc.  Everyone wrote a passable thesis the first time around, and by the second round, most of them were fairly good, some outstanding.

Here are a few that my students wrote:

Communities can be broken by individuals undermining the community, groups of people discriminating other groups, or entire governments abusing their power at the expense of the community.

We must give mercy by encouraging friends with compassion, forgiving enemies with kindness, and serving the community with love.

Granting mercy does not show one's weakness, but instead displays the courage to restore relationships, repair a community, and stand up for God's love which heals the world.

In order to be a "City on a Hill", law by itself is too regulating, yet love in human terms is too accepting, laws must be motivated therefore by love, and love must be regulated by laws.

Being greedy with one's own rights leads to inequality in relationships with others, which results in a community that doesn't trust each other.

In order to be both just and compassionate, you must first be able to see in yourself right from wrong, then you must be able to fight for justice with compassion, and finally, you must be willing to show compassion to the unjust.

As with last year, my next instruction was for the students to take their main points and begin building a bullet-point outline, brainstorming examples from history, literature and Scripture which they could use as evidence for each point.

Today, I gave a brief tutorial on how to structure a body paragraph (topic sentence, examples/commentary, transition) before setting the students to work.  

To provide an extra layer of modeling, I am writing an essay of my own along with the students, and have my computer connected to the projector so that the kids can see my thought and writing processes in action.  This has been good, as it allowed me to remind the students (and teach to the new students for the first time) how to set up an MLA formatted Pages document--something I may have neglected to do, otherwise--as well as various other odds and ends.

Just like last year, the kids are all at very different places: some of them were still working on their outline today, while others already had a few paragraphs written.  What was good, though, was the fact that I did not monopolize the time--my tutorial on how to write a body paragraph was brief, and after I finished, the kids could get to work where they were at, and ask me for clarification on body paragraph writing later, if need-be.  Perhaps this is something that I can flip--that is, record and post a short tutorial video on--in the future.

I was impressed at the number of high quality questions I was asked while the students were working.  In fact, I barely had time to make progress on my own essay today, as so many students were asking me about the logic of their points, the hook in their introduction, the transition between their first two points, their topic sentences, what would be the best examples to use for a given point, and much more.  

There were, of course, students who did not make much progress.  Some students find it more difficult to focus on sustained writing during class-time, and my being busy answering other students' questions does not exactly lend itself to helping students for whom this is the case to find traction (this is where a co-teacher would be wonderful!).  Nonetheless, even the students who struggled to write more than a few sentences during class today have all completed thesis statements that have received feedback from me, and have all written a basic outline to help guide their writing.  Nobody will be starting from scratch next Thursday evening, the night before the teacher's draft is due.  

Once more, I am excited to read this first round of essays.  Increasingly, I am enjoying the opportunity to edit and give feedback on my students' essays.  It's a dialogue of a slightly different variety than I typically get to have with the kids in class.  There are plenty of opportunities to encourage and affirm, to challenge and critique, to suggest and direct.

I'm sure I'll have even more ideas for how to keep developing this re-introduction to writing at this time next year--I am looking forward to it already!!

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