In its weekly "Teacher Feature," Education World highlights neat activities and classroom practices from educators in all locations and at all levels. Recently, three educators who have enjoyed the spotlight in this feature shared some writing-based activities that they and their students love. From hall graffiti to a winter memoir, these activities will have your students, too, penning with pleasure. Included: Three creative ways to encourage writing skills.
When it comes to kids and writing, nothing gets words flowing faster than a bit of fun, communicating with friends, or sharing with family. Here three teachers tell how they use those strategies to motivate students to write.
When her students arrived on the first day of school last year, Cossondra George had waiting for them a unique opportunity to write for fun. On the wall near a water fountain and the restrooms, she had hung a poster that read, "Sign your name if you are happy to be back at school." It was an offer her middle schoolers couldn't resist.
"Writing on hall posters was just a fun idea I thought of to get kids interacting with teachers and one another," said George, a seventh grade math teacher at Newberry (Michigan) Middle School. "I continued it through Christmas, changing the poster and prompt every week or two."
Because of its strategic location, everyone in grades 6-8 joined in the activity, which because of its interactive nature, was enjoyable for all. Some of George's favorite "poster prompts" included What book are you reading?, What are you thankful for?, Tell something you have learned in school this year, What is your favorite book?, and What do you like about winter?
By the time George detected that a few students were being less than positive in their replies on the posters, she was ready to discontinue them. The activity had served its purpose -- to break the ice between the students and the staff.
"When it comes to prompts, I keep it simple and ask questions with short answers," George stated. "I really enjoyed sharing in that way, as did the students. It is easy and involved the whole school in cheap fun!"
In Houlton, Maine, Trisha Fogarty's classes learn to support one another's writing efforts. Her sixth grade English and writing students at Southside School exchange finished pieces of work and respond in letter format.
"The students focus on what was required for the piece and comment on what was done well and what they think could be improved," Fogarty explained. "I encourage them to make connections to their personal lives, other pieces of writing, or even books they have read. They often suggest a sequel idea as well. I tell them to share whatever sparks their brains as they read their friends' words."
The assignment is a challenging one at first for Fogarty's students because, in most cases, they have never done anything like it. When they begin receiving letters from their peers, they form an immediate appreciation for this type of feedback. The students' skill in responding to other students' work also grows throughout the year. Fogarty noted that some students even form new friendships when their writing reveals interests that they share.
Although the concept is simple, Fogarty's activity is multi-faceted. Students must know and understand what is expected in the composition in order to comment on the work of others. In addition, they have to find good examples of the material they are working on or provide ideas that will help. Whether the focus is word choice, sentence fluency, or another topic, the students concentrate on the objective of the piece in their response. As a rule, Fogarty requires two "good" comments for every comment that asks the student to focus on a weak point. They also can address material from past lessons when they find relevant examples in the peer's text.
"Many students take what their peers have to say more seriously than what I say to them," observed Fogarty. "They listen to me all day, every day. It's nice to hear the opinion of someone else. Knowing that other people besides me will read their work is always a giant motivation to revise and edit. They want the approval of their peers, and this is a great, personal way to get that."
Fogarty's favorite part of the assignment is watching her students' faces as they read their letters. They are filled with seriousness and smiles. She knows that a letter is especially good when a student shares it with a classmate. Although the letters come from peers, they generate great pride.
"Each student also receives two other letters -- one from me and one from a keeper, an adult who keeps track of him or her throughout the year," Fogarty added. "After the students receive all three letters, they write back to me. That letter is a reflection on the whole experience of the piece of work, and it's where I see the value of the peer letter. Students often comment on what a friend said to them, so I know it sticks. Many times they refer to a letter received earlier in the year because they have since worked on a skill and now know that they have fixed that problem."
To further their writing skills, Tena Linsbeck-Perron and Randee Allen's sixth through eighth graders at Scarborough (Maine) Middle School spend a day finding their childhood "voice." The result is a winter-themed memoir that focuses on their families and themselves. When it is complete, each child gives his or her memoir to someone special as a gift.
"Each student comes to school with a brand new unopened 8-count box of crayons and their favorite childhood picture book based on a winter theme," explained Linsbeck-Perron. "The classmates push tables and chairs away, sit on the floor and listen to story hour as the teacher and students read from some classic picture books."
Next the children choose a coloring book and retrieve their crayons. They are not permitted to open their crayons until everyone is ready.
"Sensory perception is often the basis for good literary pieces, and this project addresses all learners," Linsbeck-Perron said. "The teacher asks each child to close his or her eyes and open the crayons. Quietly, students are asked to remember the scent. What memories does it conjure up? Coloring itself is relaxing, and students are encouraged to share childhood memories with one another."
The students' colored pages are torn out and hung around the classroom. The class then cuts paper snowflakes and shares memories of toys and friends. Later, students watch a film version of Raymond Briggs' The Snowman.
"At the end of the day, the kids gather to brainstorm and list possible topics for their project in their writing notebooks," Linsbeck-Perron told Education World. "Many begin drafts of their ideas. Mini lessons are continued in the ensuing days and the memoirs are completed and polished in writing workshop. Their gifts are wrapped, and the kids deliver them to the lucky beneficiary."