Questions & Authors: Priming Students to Write

In the latest installment of our Questions &  Authors series Mark Overmeyer shares his ideas for getting students in the mood for writing. Getting students in the right mindset before writing workshop can set them for success and might provide you and students alike with some funny moments. Mark’s latest DVD, How Can I Support You: Strategies for Effective Writing Conferences will be available soon on the Stenhouse website. Mark is also the author of What Student Writing Teaches Us and When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working.

Priming Our Students to Write

I have been reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating new book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and I am surprised at how often his ideas have resonated with me as a writer and as a teacher of writing.

Early in the book, he defines the “priming effect” as the unconscious influences different associations create in our brains. In one experiment, college students were asked to complete a series of word association exercises. Students who were asked to work with words that evoked ideas about old age (e.g., forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkled) walked more slowly down the hall when compared to students who worked with words that did not evoke age. This idea of unconscious priming led to other studies, including one in which participants rated themselves as happier when they were asked to smile for a short time.

I began to wonder about how we can prime our students to be successful during the writing workshop. Here are some tips that may help you create a space where students want to write (or, as Kahneman might say, where your students will be primed to write):

1.    Enthuse. Be enthusiastic when you begin your writing workshop. Let students know that you enjoy teaching writing, and that you like reading what your students write. I have become somewhat skeptical of the obsession with rubrics lately – though I do believe rubrics help us to assess students fairly, and I also believe they can help students understand what is expected of them, rubrics can also drain enthusiasm from a writing classroom. When you begin a conference with a student, wouldn’t it be much more meaningful to begin with honest praise rather than the sharing of a rubric score?

2.    Model. I recently visited a fifth grade classroom in a school I have been working at for many years. One of the students, now 10 years old, asked about my cat Milo. She remembered my “Milo is a Lazy Cat” essay from when she was a third  grader. Then she said: “I wrote about Skittles my ferret in third grade.” I was so excited to reconnect with Madison: “Skittles! I remember! The troublemaking ferret!” When we model our writing process for students, they remember. I only spent a few minutes several days in a row showing my thinking about how to craft an essay about Milo the Lazy Cat for Madison’s class, but she remembered it. When we model for students, we do not have to be perfect. It is better if we just honestly work through the process of developing ideas, framing a story, or revising an initial draft of a poem. We can prime students to want to write merely by showing them that we also write…

3.    Laugh. Every writing workshop can be a place filled with laughter during appropriate units of study. During a poetry unit, fill the room with titles by Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky alongside books by Ralph Fletcher and Cynthia Rylant. During a personal narrative study, keep all the classic books you love from Patricia Polacco and Jane Yolen, but include excerpts from Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Knucklehead by Jon Sciezska.  Check out this lead to one of Jon’s hilarious memories about growing up with five brothers:

“Watch your brothers!”
That’s what my mom used to tell me and Jim – “Watch your brothers.”
So we did.
We watched Jeff roll off the couch.
We watched Brian dig in the plants and eat the dirt.
We watched Gregg lift up the toilet lid on the toilet and splash around in the water.

Of course the writing workshop should be a place that allows for and welcomes all emotions. I have shed tears many times with students as they share memories of losing a pet, a grandparent, or a friend. These emotions are real and should be encouraged. I am just advocating here for priming our students to feel welcome in a place where they can tell their stories – even (and maybe especially) the funny ones.

4.    Specify. The more specific I am during mini lessons and conferences, the more writing happens in my classroom. I try to keep in mind that the purpose of the writing workshop is to help everyone get better at writing, so I am as specific as I can be during mini-lessons. I might say: “Today, I am going to teach you how to make your personal narratives even better with dialogue that shows, and doesn’t just tell…” The other place to be specific is during a conference. Last spring, I had the opportunity to work with a fifth grade student as he revised his personal narrative, and I said: “VaShawn, you are the kind of writer who can tell a story with a great punchline. You had all of us laughing so hard when you told about the time you fought back at the petting zoo when an angry goat tried to butt you from behind. Since you are so good at coming up with an ending, I wonder if we could talk today for a few minutes about leads…”

Being specific forces us to have intentions as teachers of writing, just as we want our students to have intentions as writers. Intentional, specific teaching does not limit our students – it allows them to grow because it requires us to be very engaged as teachers. A classroom full of specific teaching points, clear model texts, and a course of action resulting from a goal setting conference primes students to see the workshop as a place where they can flourish as writers.

2 comments February 15th, 2012

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