Simple Ways to Get Kids Writing in the Classroom

Stressed science, math and technology teachers, no fear writing help.

Writing is thinking on paper. We don’t know what we think until we write it down.

These maxims and premises are essential if we want to turn learning and inquiry over to our students and stop being the sole knowledge-holders, then the quickest, easiest way to do this is to have kids write.

I’m not talking about whole-class write-a-thons, quarter-long research projects, but instead short, purposeful exercises that can get kids thinking. The upside: a very simple technology. No smart boards, laptops, computer lab required. Paper and pen are all that is necessary.

Here are five simple ways that teachers could integrate writing on a daily basis.

  1. Knowledge Inventory. Teachers begin by having students thinking about what they might know about a particular topic. Instead of simply asking them to think about it, have the students write down what they know. If students write these on index cards, they can be collected at the end of class, then written on poster paper and place at front of the room. As students move through the unit, these first writings can be used see growth. I actually buy the chart paper with the sticky edge for easy adherence to the wall and stacks of 4×4 lined Post-it notes. These two supplies make this kind of writing easy to do.
  2. Private write. My ideas on this form of writing are shaped by Shannon Marshall’s essay, “A Case for Private Freewriting in the Classroom.” I would strongly encourage it to those who willing begin to make this part of their routine; beyond this, one of my favorite bits of it is when she writes about how it helped her students, “ground out the ‘static,’ for sure, and it gave them a way to subdue their anxieties by encouraging to express what they felt.” As a teacher in our school’s International Baccalaureate program, my students are overloaded with work, stressed about performance, so I love to do this activity when my kids enter my room and they’re looking beat up. I give them ten minutes to write in their notebooks by just telling them to dump out all of what’s bothering them on the page. This is my version of in-class therapy. In those ten minutes, the students acknowledge what’s bothering them. Doing so, clears the air, and then, allows them to focus on the learning ahead. They don’t ever have to share this.
  3. Dedicated journals. I got this idea from reading Writing at the Threshold by Larry Weinstein. I used this the first time in my English 103 Research course. My students use their notebooks throughout the course for assignments and note taking, I have them set aside a section of their notebooks, called the Dedicated Journal, for their work on their research. If your instruction is inquiry driven or you use essential questions to drive your instruction, then a dedicated journal can be the place where students can write, perhaps daily, about how their knowledge evolved towards understanding of these questions. In my 103 class, students have five weeks to read and research. However, each week, a day is set aside to allow them to simply reflect on what they’ve learned towards their research question. They are actively developing mew knowledge. This would be an easy enough activity to develop while in any unit.
  4. Reflections. Lessons can quite often be broken down into discrete moments, steps towards the objectives. To see where kids are, stop for a moment and have them write and call on several students to respond. Benefits beyond writing are two-fold: you check a check for understanding, and students can check themselves against others in the room. Pair this kind of writing with what’s above in the knowledge inventory activity.
  5. Inquiry dialogues and the dialogic notebook. To begin class discussion, I have my students take their notebooks and break the double-page spread into four columns. The first column is for questions, interesting bits of text, important details. After everyone has had a chance to fill the first column, we rotate the notebooks to a new person, who comments on the first column and then we repeat. The final column is for a writer to synthesis the discussion. The activity takes maybe 25 to 30 minutes, but then leads to great discussion as everyone has had a chance to think and to generate ideas.

If under the Common Core, everyone is expected to teach writing, then that conception of what writing is needs to be defined. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to assign papers and research. Instead, writing can become a practice in the service of learning and thinking. This means small, purposeful writing activities that help facilitate student learning.

Works cited

Marshall, Sharon, “A Case for Private  Freewriting in the Classroom.” Writing-Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions. Ed. Teresa Vilardi and Mary Chang. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 7-23. Print.

Weinstein, Larry. Writing at the Threshold: Featuring 56 Ways to Prepare High Schooland College Students to Think at the College Level. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.

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