“But I’m just not a good writer”
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2017
By Deborah Rooney
As soon as I utter the words “writing assignment” a look of panic appears on my students’ faces. Their hands shoot up like rockets and the questions immediately start: “How long does it need to be? Does spelling count? When is it due? What happens if I don’t finish on time?” The children don’t even know what they are writing about; however, that is not what is important to them.
As I begin to enthusiastically explain the assignment, I know my students are not listening to a word I’m saying. Instead, they’re plotting how they can complete the assignment as quickly as possible. Children have told me they use many techniques to ease the pain of the writing process: altering margins, changing the line spacing, and using Arial font rather than Times New Roman because it takes up more space. I recall smiling to myself in amazement when hearing their strategies. I must admit, wish I’d thought of all of this when I was in high school. But I didn’t have a computer, so I relied on writing large enough to fill the page as quickly as possible!
Knowing how my students feel about writing, I have found a few procedures that allow them to complete the assignment somewhat painlessly and allows me to accomplish my teaching goals. Over the years I have learned not to assume my students, even at the high school level, know how to compose a well-written paragraph. So I start by teaching how to write one paragraph at a time and eventually build to two, three, etc. This helps develop skills and boosts their confidence.
Topics my students have been asked to write have proven to be just as important as the skills I am teaching. When assigning a single paragraph I ask children to write about themselves. This enables the students to swiftly and efficiently move through the writing process, as it’s a topic in which they are experts and enjoy writing about. Some topics I have assigned: What is your favorite activity? Who do you admire? What is the best gift you have ever given someone? If you had a Saturday all to yourself, aside from sleeping in late, how would you spend the day?
Once these skills are proficient, students move onto writing multiple paragraphs. I begin by having them compose two paragraphs with an emphasis on transition sentences. Writing about the similarities and differences of a topic is also helpful while being adaptable to a variety of learning styles, ages, and subject matter. My students have compared and contrasted topics like: the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadians, country music and rock music, and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. From this point, students are taught to write three to five paragraphs and eventually reports. When composing multiple paragraphs, one topic children at all grade levels enjoy writing is: If you could travel across the country with three people, living or dead, who would it be and why? The students’ essays are always creative, interesting, and some are even humorous.
Even though the boys and girls prefer to just jump right in and begin writing, I stress the importance of brainstorming, as undoubtedly after composing a few sentences they inform me, “I can’t think of anything else to say.” Knowing this will occur, I have students write: who, what, when, where, why, and how on the side of their paper and check off each after answering them. Once my students realize these steps saves them time when composing and eliminates a multitude of edits, they reluctantly admit, “It does help.” While the children continuously look at the number of lines still needed to be filled on the page, I provide a trick of the trade: to add length to a paper, incorporate multiple examples or quotes. My students always smile as if they have just been told the ultimate secret to the writing process.
Grammar and punctuation skills are not always taught to children. My juniors and seniors in high school have a tremendous amount of difficulty demonstrating these capabilities on standardized tests. They repeatedly tell me, “we never learned this” which only exasperates their frustration. This scenario extends to other grades as well. When I ask a child, “Why did you use a comma or a particular verb?” The common response is, “I don’t know, it just sounds better.” While this is occasionally true, I have found my students benefit from learning grammar and punctuation. I am a huge fan of the Rules of the Game workbooks. These books offer clear explanations, word lists, and a multitude of practice problems. The students do not cheer when I mention grammar work, but know it improves their writing. These lessons are especially helpful for students who compose very short sentences and struggle when required to integrate descriptive language. To encourage children to expand their thoughts and include multiple adjectives and adverbs, I ask them to compose an essay that describes in detail (sight, smell, sound, and touch) their favorite dessert. To put a fun spin on the assignment I bring my favorite dessert to class and invite them to bring in theirs too!
Finally, to eliminate any misunderstanding of what I expect from an assignment and to instill important abilities that can be used across the curriculum, I provide the children with checklists, from the moment the brainstorming begins to the moment the final edits are made. Another item on the checklists that has been especially beneficial is: remember you’re not speaking to a peer and you’re not writing a comment on a friend’s Facebook page! And laughter always erupts when the students read: please no emojis and don’t forget spelling counts—“You” is not spelled “U” and “are” is not spelled “R”.
When the time arrives to return my students’ papers, they do not look at the comments and corrections; rather, they hold their breath and immediately look at the grade hoping their hard work and hours of writing have paid off. Smiles appear across their faces and they realize, they are good writers!
Deborah Rooney M.Ed., is an educational specialist in Massachusetts and has a successful private practice teaching and advocating for children in kindergarten through twelfth grade. In addition, she works for the Belmont Hill School and Buckingham Browne & Nichols School; and recently created a writing program for all grade levels and a study and organizational skills program for middle and high schoolers.