Yes, I'm serious...engaging students in writing! It can be done!
Middle school students may not love writing. They may not even like writing a little, but that doesn't mean we can't try to get them interested and change their opinions, right?! Mrs. Schultz & I tried several strategies with her 7th grade Language Arts students this past month to motivate and engage students to become better informative writers! Here are some of our favorite strategies:
Create Real-World Scenarios
Informative writing is a broad standard to teach in writing. Finding a way to make it interesting and relevant for the students is absolutely key to getting them started. After collecting a sample of their informative writing and identifying areas of need, Ms. Schultz came up with a great first step in our informational writing journey, a tutorial. Not only is it a real-world example of writing they see regularly, but something students who may not enjoy writing in paragraphs could sink their teeth into at the beginning of the year. We started with a simple task...write us a tutorial on how to make breakfast (of any kind - their choice). Our intention - use these to teach the importance of details, finding the right topic, and the writing process.
In their final writing task, we asked them to compose a tutorial on a process of their choosing, something they could be an expert on. We had a wide-variety of topics from creating the perfect smoothie to being competitive. Choice and real-world scenarios got the students interested from the start.
Use THEIR Writing to Teach
At two points in this experience, Mrs. Schultz & I incorporated the use of student examples to help further discussion, model revision techniques, and find common areas of success or room for improvement.
When deciding which examples to use, we first considered:
The first time we used their writing in a lesson, we changed the wording, but allowed for the same structures to exist. Some students were able to identify if it was their writing, but we didn't tell the students. Some thought it was their writing, and it wasn't (which was actually okay considering they took feedback away that they could ultimately use as well). Using the student examples, students worked in groups to identify areas for improvement, areas that distinguished "informative" writing, & pinpointed one successful area that they enjoyed in each piece.
We thought the students gained so much from this process that we did it again to communicate the need for "elaboration and details" in our tutorial rough drafts! When asked to make breakfast, we filmed ourselves executing two of their tutorials. We also did two other ones live for the class. Needless to say, the students were really able to take away a lot of areas for improvement - and I think they thought we were clueless in the kitchen!
Teach Like a Pirate: Have Fun with It!
If you read the paragraph above, you'll understand how we were able to have fun with this! We wanted the students to learn from this experience and REMEMBER it. How do you do that? Make it memorable!
If you have read Dave Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate, you know all about his use of hooks in the classroom to keep students engaged. Props, chef, reality TV (we channeled our inner Martha Stewart's)...these were just a couple we really hit during this part!
Check out our video for Fruit Salad and How to Make Breakfast
Streamline the Process
Getting students to understand the writing process and use it effectively is one of the biggest undertakings of any middle school writing teacher. Thus, it's important to move students along at the right pace, offer feedback often, and see the revision/editing process at work.
Mrs. Schultz thought of a great way to streamline our process for revision using Google Docs. This format allowed students to create their rough draft, receive feedback, and make changes all in one document. Perfect...there isn't such a thing, but it was a great way to see how revision/editing impacted their final pieces.
Informative Writing - Tutorial Example
What the Data Says!
Overall, we saw a huge growth from their first writing sample to their final assessment. Specifically, 40% of students fell in the 1-2 range (Standards-Based Grading) on their first sample and only 5% of students on the final assessment (which was a 2 and not a 1!). On the first sample, 55% students were at a 3 and 5% were at a 3.5. On the final, 76% were at a 3 and 19% were at a 3.5! What a great feeling to know that so many students walked away with a better understanding for this type of writing! Thanks to Mrs. Schultz & her class for inviting me in and making such great strides to conquer this unit! You all rock!