Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How to turn off left-brain writers from writing--and possibly some right-brainers as well

Selected lesson plans from ReadWriteThink, which partners with the National Council of Teachers of English, and whose mission it is to "provide educators, parents, and afterschool professionals with access to the highest quality practices in reading and language arts instruction by offering the very best in free materials."

1. "Langston Hughes was Born in 1902"

Provide students with a copy of Hughes' poem "Dreams" Each stanza of the poem is one sentence, and each sentence contains a metaphor for a dream. Tell students that a metaphor compares two objects or ideas that are not generally associated with one another. Have them identify the metaphor in each sentence, and then ask them to think about what Hughes was trying to convey about dreams by using these metaphors. What kind of dream would a "broken-winged bird"represent? How about a "field frozen in snow"?

Brainstorm with the class some other metaphors for dreams that Hughes might have considered for his poem. Conversely, have the class brainstorm metaphors for dreams that people may have that they hope will come true. Working in groups, students can then compose poems using metaphors for dreams coming to fruition.
2. "Book Report Alternative: Creating Careers for Characters"
Students first explore resumes using the internet. They then work as a class to construct a sample resume for a character in a book they have all read. Next, they explore want ads and online job sites for possible jobs for a character from a book they have read on their own. They write a letter of application and create a resume for their character for the selected job.
3. "Cooking up Descriptive Language: Designing Restaurant Menus"
Students explore the genre of menus by analyzing existing menus from local restaurants. After establishing the characteristics of the genre, students work in groups to choose a restaurant and then create their own custom menus. They then analyze the use of adjectives and descriptive language on sample menus before revising their own menus with attention to descriptive phrasing.
4. "Author Lois Duncan was Born on This Date in 1934"
Share with students some of the mysteries from Ken Weber's Five Minute Mysteries series and test their sleuthing abilities. After students have had a chance to solve a handful of mysteries (the solutions are in the back of the books), ask them to brainstorm the critical attributes of a good mystery. What elements do mysteries share? What do authors need to do to write a compelling mystery for readers?

Once the class has completed this part of the activity, place them in small groups and ask them to compose some short mysteries themselves. They can plan their stories using the interactive Mystery Cube. Groups can then exchange and attempt to solve one another's mysteries. The mysteries from each group can also be compiled and shared with other classes as well.
5. "Writing about Writing: An Extended Metaphor Assignment"
This lesson asks students to reflect on their writing process, and helps the teacher learn more about students' habits and techniques as writers. Students begin by reading and analyzing the poem "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur, particularly discussing the use of extended metaphor. Students then reflect on their own writing habits, compare themselves as writers to the writer in the poem, and brainstorm possible metaphors for themselves as writers. Finally, students complete one of several recommended projects to extend the metaphor describing themselves as writers. Throughout the process, students share their work in small groups.
6. "Draft Letters"
Draft letters ask students to reflect on a single piece of writing that they have completed, thinking more deeply about their writing and how they work as writers. This process of deep reflection helps students improve as writers. Dawn Swartzendruber-Putnam explains:

“Reflection is a form of metacognition—thinking about thinking. It means looking back with new eyes in order to discover—in this case, looking back on writing. As Pianko states, ‘The ability to reflect on what is begin written seems to be the essence of the difference between able and not so able writers from their initial writing experience onward’ (qtd. in Yancey 4)” (88).

Beyond the importance of critical thinking, active learning allows students to take ownership of their work while increasing their engagement with the activities at hand. Activities such as draft letters encourage students, rather than teachers, to “direct . . . every action and decision about their writing” (88).
Note what counts as justification for the last lesson: not empirical findings on how children learn to write, but a tendentious "statement" by one person embedded in a tendentious "explanation" by another person--neither of whom knows how to write a coherent sentence. Has either Swartzendruber-Putnam or Pianko consulted with anyone who can?


Niels Henrik Abel said...

I'd be happy if students could possibly learn to write a short essay in which they took a position on a topic and supported their position with rational arguments. (Ban all sentences that include the phrase "I feel that..."!! Who cares how you feel? Tell me what you think.)

As an added bonus, how about teaching students to use complete sentences with proper punctuation and spelling? Not using run-on sentences is nice, too.

Liz Ditz said...

A blog and a post I've stumbled across and wanted to share with you.

The blog is I haven't read it all thoroughly but she seems down-to-earth.

The post is Aaron Eyler's Why Teachers Should Not Be Pushing Creativity.

I believe that it is our job, as educators, to provide students with an environment where they are allowed to be creative and take risks without fearing the penalties of failure. I do, however, question our ability to assess whether something is creative or not and whether our assessment should count for anything when it comes to student learning. This isn’t to say we can’t observe student creativity and commend them on what we deem creative (or should we?), but it doesn’t seem logical to me that we should ever allow for creativity to count for, or against, a student grade. For all of you who think that making “creativity” a component of assessment in a student grade spurs creativity I am about to convince you otherwise.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, Liz,

Excellent post on creativity! I'm making a mental note to feature it in a future blog.

Will keep an eye on the writing blog as well.

Hainish said...


This post reminds me of something I read many, many months ago about how Students with autism struggle with many writing assignments because they don't have the "right" frame for understanding what is expected by the assignment (i.e., what would make for "good" writing).

The post I read was a pro-autism rebuttal to the idea that there is a "right" frame and that students should automatically be expected to know what it is.

Try as I might, I cannot find the original post, despite searching ALL OVER the internets. I was hoping someone here might know what I'm referring to.

Katharine Beals said...

Hainish, I'm not familiar with an article that focuses on this issue in particular, but there certainly has been some published discussion of the various ways in which children autism struggle with writing assignments, for example in Tony Attwood's Comprehensive Guide, and Tim Page's memoir Parallel Play.