While it can often be frustrating to teach writing, it’s equally frustrating for students to learn how to write well. Students understand the importance of being a good, clear writer, but grasping the concepts and ideas teachers are trying to convey is often challenging.
Here are four practical ways that sharing student writing can lead them to become better writers:
- Writing to Learn: Collaborating on pieces of writing is a great way to motivate students. As part of the writing process, student often peer-edit and revise one another’s papers. Although this exchange catches spelling and grammar mistakes and can lead to learning, it won’t necessarily increase the “real-world” feel of what has been written. The students all know one another and have the “safety” of their shared classroom.
But, when students collaborate with other classrooms and students outside of their school, they become more aware of the importance of writing relevant, clear material. This wider audience is more of an unknown, and students naturally feel that a more polished and professional product is necessary.
So how can this be accomplished? The traditional collaborative pen pal approach with another classroom, maybe created through Skype, is a great start. But simply exchanging letters isn’t necessarily a situation that would feel like the “real-world.”
Another, deeper approach is to ask students from different schools to collaborate on a topic to produce a product. For example, the students could work with other students on one of the science standards. Students can start collaborating on Stoodle, a collaborative whiteboard app, to both chat and sketch ideas for the topic. Then, each can write or create a portion of the project through a Google doc or something similar. Final products can be shared with both classrooms. This type of writing – writing with a purpose and writing for a real audience – results in much better products.
- Writing to an Audience: Writing hard-copy letters or emails to public figures or actual businesses helps students understand the importance of speaking to their audience about issues that concern them, and making sure their work is polished. Any type of letter can work for this. Students could write interview-type questions to get information from a person or organization, or write a persuasive letter to influence a business or agency to change their practices. This is a lesson in writing in a formal voice, which will help students learn the difference between formal writing and chatting or texting with friends.
Another win-win idea for student letter writing is asking an organization for a donation. One school where I worked held a large community raffle. Many of the raffle prizes were obtained for free from popular local college teams. The school obtained these prizes by having students write letters asking for donations to the cause.
- Writing Narrative: Creating a digital storybook helps students to focus on writing something that’s worth publishing. One of the hardest tasks for students when writing in a narrative voice is to keep the story moving while still adding vivid detail. Many students get bogged down in too much detail and not enough of a story; other students race through a story without really saying much at all.
To help students combat these tendencies, have them write an online storybook. This can be a pretty simple task for an older writer, but it can help younger writers focus on choosing just the right words. Boomwriter is a great collaborative writing site that actually allows students to end up with a published book. There are options for nonfiction writing projects, which tend to be much more difficult for students to tackle. Students could collaborate within the classroom or with classrooms in other areas of the country (see method #1, above). Story patch is a simple helpful app ($2.99), which steps students through the parts of a good story.
- Writing Opinion/Argument: Keeping opinion/argument writing relevant to your students’ own experiences can be challenging. Teachers often assign current events of the world as the basis of opinion writing, but such events are often very far removed from students’ day-to-day lives.
Make your topic selection relevant to the students’ own interests. For example, begin by asking students to form an opinion about a school topic. This could relate to the lunchroom, recess, snow days, etc. Students will be able to develop many ideas they can write about on these topics, which is great practice. But these topics may seem trivial when compared with writing about a real-world problem.
To take an opinion paper to the next level, students can choose a topic that has research behind it, and an audience with a vested interest. For help with research, ideas, and content, students can take a look at ProCon.org. There they can find more “serious” topics to choose from, develop ideas about their opinion, and read the counterarguments to it. Possible topics include the pros and cons of school uniforms, whether students should be drinking milk with their lunches, preventing school violence, and gun control.
The ultimate goal of an opinion/argument paper is persuading the relevant party or parties to actually make the requested change or decision. An important part of the research process is determining whom to contact about the issue at hand: who actually makes the decision and can effect change on it? It may also help to rally a wider audience to push for the needed change. This might be accomplished by writing a letter to the editor of the local paper, or publishing the opinion in the school newspaper, as long as the topic is relevant to the readers of the newspaper. By finding new avenues to make writing both more public and more relevant, teachers can motivate students to improve their writing.
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