Investing Students in their Journeys as Writers

Investing Students in their Journeys as Writers

Written by: jack.hesser

March 31, 2023

Writing is an essential skill for students of all ages, as it not only helps them to communicate effectively but also promotes critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving abilities. Writing plays a vital role in academic success, and it is also a necessary tool for success in the workplace. Practically every job involves writing in some form! Even beyond that, it is important to help our students see themselves as writers, and sometimes within the confines of our classrooms, that isn’t easy to do. Our students have things to say and we owe it to them to give them opportunities to use their voice.

“Our students have things to say and we owe it to them to give them opportunities to use their voice.”

This blog isn’t going to fix or solve all of the obstacles we face in getting to see students as writers, but it will give you some ideas to get students (and staff) excited about writing.

Let’s start with two short activities (less than 10 minutes) that non-ELA teachers can implement to support students in their writing journeys.

Rapid Writes

While these are popular in English class, they are a fantastic way to support your students’ writing skills/journey in your non-ELA class! One of the most fun activities I do each week is on Fridays when my math students have 6 minutes to write a creative story using ONE of our vocab words from the week – last week it was percents!

quick write-up

A rapid write, also called, “quick-write” is a timed amount of time where students write an answer/story in response to a specific prompt. The goal is to keep writing and not worry about grammar, spelling, etc. Of course you can follow up the activity with peer-editing if you’d like, the purpose is to help students get out of their own way.

One of these Things Doesn’t Belong

Another short activity you can incorporate in your non-ELA class to get students thinking and writing. Show four images (in my classroom, we’ll often do this with numbers) and have students write why one of them doesn’t belong.

That sounds… easy?

Here’s the twist! To make this the most engaging, select images, words, or numbers that have multiple correct answers. See an example below from the website, Which One Doesn’t Belong, which is great for math!

Which Doesn't Belong Image

You could say the, “9” doesn’t belong because it’s only one digit, the “16” doesn’t belong because it’s the only even number, the “43” doesn’t belong because it’s the only one that’s not a perfect square!

Giving students the opportunity to write down what they think and share with others is fantastic because far too often when we ask students to write, we give them room for only one right answer. Short opportunities to write which involve many correct answers gives you, as a teacher, the best bang for your buck.

Novel Writing: Young Writers Program

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual creative writing event that takes place every November. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to encourage and support aspiring writers to complete a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. The program has become so popular there is now a Young Writers Program (YWP) which is meant for students under the age of 18.

Like the regular NaNoWriMo challenge, the YWP encourages young writers to set a word-count goal and write a novel in 30 days. However, the word-count goal is flexible and can be adjusted to suit the age and writing ability of the individual writer. I start by giving students a starting goal and then talk with them about adjusting it based on their skills, interest, and experience – a fantastic way to differentiate for your students!

The Young Writers Program takes place internationally twice a year: April and November. But many of the tools and lessons can be applied whenever. Anyone who hits their goal, “wins.”

I usually run this program as an opt-in. I let all students know about it through their ELA class (about 20 minutes to roll it out), and those interested can come once or twice a week during lunch to work on their stories. While I don’t, “force” anyone to do it, I will invite/encourage kids to come for a day. Most of the students who I invite end up sticking around for the month.

I believe the two things which make this initiative so successful is that students aren’t graded on the quality of their writing, and the stories are all student-centered. Don’t get me wrong, I obviously provided feedback and help students problem-solve when they are stuck, but when students aren’t stressed about the “right” words, they are able to breathe. Furthermore, most conventionally successful writers will tell you that first drafts are usually terrible! Most writing is the process of re-rewriting, and this initiative encourages kids to throw all of their ideas out there with no reservation and then later decide what they want to keep or get rid of.

“When students aren’t stressed about the ‘right’ words, they are able to breathe.”

If you want to see students get excited about writing their own creative stories, this is a must-do!

Pro Tip #1 – There is an entire teacher-made curriculum available for free to support you if you want to use some, or all, of it in your classroom/school.

Pro Tip #2 – I found it helpful to have a focus on our lunch writing sessions: dialogue, setting, etc. to help students who didn’t know where to begin during that writing session.

Pro Tip #3 – Celebrate your students who hit their word-count goal by printing off their stories, having them create book covers, or even having a party!

group photo

School-Wide Essay/Poetry Contests

An incredibly low-lift opportunity to get some of your students writing is having a school-wide writing contest! Woah. I know that sounds like a lot of work, but the lift is less than your typical lesson planning – promise! The advantage of doing a school-wide contest is the students are seeing their writing in a real-world context. A great way to encourage higher participation is to offer extra credit in your English class (if your English Department agrees this would make sense to do).

The best prompts or topics are timely, whether it’s based around the time of year, cultural celebrations, historical moments, etc. It can also be an opportunity to bring more awareness about a subject which maybe your school community isn’t always able to shine a spotlight on. The table below is an example to help you get started but is absolutely not exhaustive – think about your own community and what might make sense for you and your students!

Month Month’s Theme
August Back to School
September Hispanic Heritage
October LGBTQ History / Disability Awareness
November Native American Heritage
December Different Holidays
January Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention
February Black History
March Women’s History
April National Poetry Month
May Mental Health Awareness

If your students have a longer homeroom, an essay contest can be a great way to utilize that time, but if you don’t and time during the school day is limited, I recommend a poetry contest. Before notifying students, it’s best to ensure staff know what’s up. When telling staff, be sure to communicate whether or not there is a prize!

I notified students through our morning announcements and fliers around the school/communal spaces, but you also can put reminder slips in teacher mailboxes, pop by classrooms, or even do a drop-in at lunch!

Pro Tip #1 – While there are many different ways you can select “winners,” I recommend awarding both a high quality piece, but also a second award via another metric (randomly drawn, class with the most submissions, etc.). The purpose is to encourage and celebrate all students’ writing journeys.

Pro Tip #2 – Prizes that kids seem to really like (besides gift cards and food which are both very popular) include a custom shirt or apparel that only the winners get, actually trophies or ribbons, or special privileges like eating in the staff lounge for a week, a homework pass, etc.

In Closing

Ultimately, we want our students to feel more confident as writers. These writing initiatives help students to explore different parts of their identities as writers and help all teachers and adults in the building better support them on this journey. So what initiative are you most excited to try? What do you still have questions about? Let me know @JackMcHair.



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