Start small

When teaching writing, it’s vital that you not bite off more than your students can chew.

In the first days of a school year, students are unsure of themselves and their surroundings.

Give them the security of writing tasks that connect to something concrete and familiar.

Assignments that ask students what they expect to learn and do in a class are useful: They give you the opportunity to correct misconceptions.

Responses to writing prompts that ask students to predict how this year’s English course will be like and/or unlike last year’s can also be enlightening.

Use student responses to help you set your course for the rest of the year.

I highly recommend using initial writing to establish students’ entering command of writing mechanics, so you can develop Individual Mastery Plans for your students. IMPs are the best way I’ve found to eliminate serious mechanical errors in student work.

Don’t break the ice: Melt the resistance

This month many teachers are thinking about how to get a new school year off to a good start. If you are one of them, instead of trying to find ice breakers for opening week, think about ways to involve students that will melt their resistance to your course.

In my writing classes, I use an activity I call I’m a writer.” I ask students to begin by putting their names in this sentence: “I’m ____ and I’m a writer.” I have them explain what they do that’s writing, which means defining what they think writing means, and discuss their strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I do this activity through informal writing, but you could use it with small groups as oral activities or through a combination of informal writing (to aid in gathering ideas) and oral presentation to small groups.

Teachers in other subjects with whom I’ve shared this idea have adopted it to other disciplines, with openers like these:

  • “I’m ___ and I’m a mathematician.”
  • “I’m ___ and I’m a scientist.”
  • “I’m ___ and I’m an historian.”
  • “I’m ___ and I’m a visual artist.”

Introducing themselves as practitioners of the course content puts all the class members on the same playing field. Some may be better players than others at the start of the school year, but the wording of the activity forces students to identify themselves as individuals who are already participants in the discipline of the course.

Students may not believe they are writers, mathematicians, etc., but just saying they are makes writing or doing math a bit more palatable. If you can start the year without anyone saying flat out “I hate writing” or “I hate maths,” you’ve already won a victory.

[Updated 2/27/2014 to remove links to material no longer available.]