Back to School: a writing routine in the age of uncertainty

Depending on where you live, students have begun to return to school, or will in the next few weeks.

It is clear that this back-to-school season is different from past years.

It is clear that this classic Staples commercial is more tone-deaf than usual in 2020.

It is clear that there is a heightened sense of anxiety among many who work in a school, have a child in school, or attend school.

Photo Credit: David Shoykhet

I want to start by acknowledging these anxieties and sympathize with those who are feeling the added stress. Still, in this post I will shift the focus from the “back to” aspect of this time to “school” — where, regardless of how classrooms are set up or whether students attend in person or online, learning will take place. This post covers how to start the year off encouraging students to write.

The first step, which may seem obvious but in my somewhat experienced opinion is lacking, is to write more. Those who teach the younger grades have this figured out. If students are learning how to print, type, or — in the case of the more adventurous teachers — write in cursive, they need to constantly practice. If students are learning how to form sentences and paragraphs, they need practice. Generally speaking, this fades as time goes by: as students are expected to already have these fundamental skills, the writing that occurs in the classroom is reserved for the more advanced essay, lab reports, or passage analysis — assignments where the writing is subsumed by content.

In my opinion, we need space in the classroom for students from grades 1–12 to practice writing. We need designated times (most likely in the English or Social Studies classroom) to ignore content and focus on sentence structure and flow, sentence variety across a paragraph, subject-verb agreement, the use of repetitive language, enhanced vocabulary, or the plethora of elements of writing that are not covered in grade 2.

Beyond this, students need to write more because that’s the only way to improve. A student in grade 11 English does not write anything substantial until the first essay is due partway through the term. This is equivalent to a runner sitting on her butt for two months before a race. One example seems more extreme than the other, and this is a problem.

Students need to write more. One way which this can be accomplished is through journaling.

Journaling

Gabrielle Henderson

Some embrace it. Others cringe when they hear the word. Journaling, the practice of regularly writing in a journal, somehow became a controversial issue. I blame the ’90s, which saw the proliferation of television shows in which a character (usually pre-teen or teenage girl) has her diary stolen and exposed to her great shame.

Here’s the secret. When writing in a journal or diary you don’t have to pour forth your heart’s torments. You can, and some find it therapeutic, but the true value of journaling is writing consistently without worry. There is no audience to write for, no character that needs to be three-dimensional, no plot that needs to be gripping. Just you and the thrill of a blank page and whatever comes out. It is a chance to reflect on the day, set goals, muse on something you heard or saw, or work out an idea that may turn into a fture piece of writing.

In the classroom, the metacognitive piece (reflection, self-assessment, goal setting) is sometimes a hard sell. While I believe that metacognition should be part of some journaling exercises, it should not be the only aspect. Remember, journaling is about consistency and unburdened writing.

Here are a few tips for establishing journaling in the classroom (if you are a teacher) or at home (if you are a parent/guardian).

Start with the right tools.

Students should have a designated “journal”. This can take the form of a notebook, a duotang with lined paper, or a specific folder on their computer or cloud drive. Nothing fancy needed, although don’t rule out the allure of a fancy notebook. It’s a gimmick, but some may be more motivated to commit to journaling because they like their notebook.

Establish a routine.

This will depend on both the students’ grade level and how the school’s schedule works. I recommend dedicating time for journaling in class at least twice a week for high school students, and three times a week for elementary and junior high students. This may seem excessive, but the success of consistent writing begins with shorter sprints. If you implement half-hour journaling sessions, students will quickly lose focus, motivation, and begin to resent the activity. Begin with ten minutes and work towards fifteen minutes per session. The important piece will be sticking to a routine, which is difficult in schools where there are no shortages of distractions. Let the students know that after lunch on days x, y, and z they will have the first ten minutes to journal. Or start the day with it. Every schedule is different: find a time you can stick to.

Prompts

If you tell anyone, from a young student to an experienced writer, to sit down and write, a lot of time will be lost in thinking of what to write, or else you will see a torrent of words typically about the inability to write. Some say there is value in sitting down and writing I suck fifty times just to “get it out of your system” — I disagree.

Provide students with a prompt, or option of 2–3. Keep the prompt open enough to allow them to start writing immediately, but specific enough as not to be boring.

“My daily routine” is a boring prompt.

“The dangers of a first-past-the-post voting system to rural communities” is too specific for this exercise.

Prompts can be general questions or statements:

“If time and money were not an issue, what is the first thing you would do?”

“Rules are made to be broken.”

Prompts can be tied to current events or based on a topic that students are currently studying. Prompts can be creative and random. Remember, the focus is not on content, this is a vehicle to get to the heart of the matter: consistent writing to build up the muscles.

Accountability

This is not meant to be a piece of summative assessment. Students should be told that they will not be marked on the quality of their journals. It might even be worth mentioning that they don’t have to share every entry with anyone, including their teacher. Yet, there should be some formative assessment. This can take the form of a check for completion. However, I recommend using the journaling exercise as a step towards the next phase of writing.

Revisions

Chicago Manual of Style Fig. 2.7

An increase in the volume of writing will be beneficial to students, yet one hindrance to the mastering of writing is the dying idea of the draft.

When I was in the early grades, our writing was done with pencil and paper, as was yours if you are of a certain age. Out of necessity, writing exercises were broken into drafts. We wrote a first draft, revised and edited, then recopied the draft onto new sheets of paper. Depending on the grade or assignment, this may have been done at least three times until we had the final draft. I loathed the recopying process and was grateful when computers eliminated the need.

In retrospect, the fact that I was an early adopter of the word processor ruined my ability to write individual drafts. I began to edit as I wrote, and by the time I was done writing, I would consider it complete. Even today, if I call something a first draft, I’m lying. The problem with this is that revisions need specific consideration, separate from writing. By having distinct drafts, and by forcing yourself to recopy your work, you give yourself permission to focus on the editing process. This process can be (and will be) its own post: for now, let’s return to the classroom.

In the scenario we are establishing, the idea is not to have a polished draft that has been recopied three times. The idea is for the students to take their written work (for example, a week’s worth of journal entries) and apply the elements of writing you want the students to focus on.

  • Are your sentences varied?
  • Do you have too many run-on or fragmented sentences?
  • Do you repeat a word too many times?
  • Do you have spelling or grammar errors?
  • Does your writing have a rhythm or melody?
  • Do you start and conclude with impactful sentences?

 

Of course, these questions will vary depending on the students’ grade. The idea is to set some time aside (during your allotted writing time) to guide students through these or other questions, to give them the space to focus on nothing else but examining their writing for specific elements, and to recognize the small, tangible steps they can take to improve their writing.

Particularly in the higher grades, no time is specifically allotted for revision. Students are told to complete the entire process within a certain timeframe, and due to lack of breaking down an assignment coupled with the natural urge to procrastinate, editing becomes lost to time.

Future posts will have strategies for teaching editing in the classroom, as well as a deeper look into the elements of writing that students should know.

 

Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald, Calgary, AB. 2012

 

For now, as school begins and we all try to help our students learn through the fog of anxiety that hangs over our pandemic world, encourage them to write more and to write patiently. This will go a long way to instilling the confidence they need to write well.

If you are returning to school, or have a child returning to school, I wish you all the best. And as always

Thank you for reading.

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