Check out this short video on how to teach kids to use engaging, telling details in their writing. This tactic has worked every time for me, and the results are fantastic!
Check out my TEDx talk on kids and happiness! My talk starts at minute 59 of this Livestream:
I got an editorial published in the Savannah Morning News about local writing scores!
HOW TO TEACH THE WRITE STUFF BY CATHERINE KILLINGSWORTH
People are asking a lot of questions about Chatham County’s low eighth-grade writing scores. There is much speculation about curricula, test fairness and time spent writing in the classroom.
Yet no one is asking the question that will really make a difference:
Do kids care about becoming skilled writers?
If not, how can we change their minds?
Every parent knows that kids can learn how to do pretty much anything they really care about and get satisfaction from. Kids master impossible video games. They practice free throws for hours to perfect their shot. They text faster than the human eye can follow.
If kids are not learning how to write essays in standard academic English, it is most often because they do not believe it is important.
Either that, or they think it is impossible and thus not worth the effort.
Imagine a kid — a smart, talented kid — who doesn’t speak standard English at home. He uses body language to make a point.
None of the people he admires have gone to college. He, like every kid, wants to grow up to be like the people he loves.
While we educators may believe that teaching him to write a timed essay on a topic he knows nothing about is important (indeed, learning how to do this will give him access to the cultures of commerce and academia, thus providing him with more choices in the future), to this kid it seems pointless and demeaning.
He is forced to translate his thoughts into a language no one has taught him. Perhaps he wants to pass the test so that he can go on to the next grade, but odds are he doesn’t think that writing itself will be useful in his future. He is not going to go home and scribble persuasive essays into his journal for fun.
In my work at Deep, a nonprofit that provides free after-school writing programs at local public schools, we have achieved tremendous results with improving students’ writing skills, and we are successful because we believe that motivating kids is as important as teaching them.
We use the Georgia State Writing Test rubric to score writing samples from our students, and on average our kids improve their scores by 20 percent after just 10 Deep classes. Our students — many of whom come from the schools that are facing criticism, including DeRenne and East Broad — are winning state, regional and national prizes for their writing.
Our kids write well because we give them a compelling, rewarding reason to: we publish their work in a professional anthology and invite them to read it to hundreds of community members at a book release event. We give them an opportunity to share what is important to them with a large audience.
We are not in this game to “fix” our students (a surefire way to destroy anyone’s desire to learn). We are simply here to help students through a difficult but rewarding writing project.
If we want children to succeed, we must approach the project not from the test down but from the kid up. We must ask: how are we making the project of writing meaningful, relevant and rewarding? How are we making it worth their time?
If we can answer that, then our kids will rise to any challenge.
We all want to be cool. Often, even when we are the most experienced, knowledgeable, and confident person in the room (as we often are–though not always–in middle school classrooms) we still want our kids to like us. This is why we often do three very stupid things in the hopes of making ourselves more appealing to our kids:
1. Being sarcastic. We all have vague memories of a high school teacher who was sort of bitter and sarcastic, and we remember thinking he was entertaining. He reminded us of that cool teacher from TV, right? So if we’re sarcastic in class, that makes us cool, right?
Wrong–especially with kids under the age of 14. If think back further, we remember that,while it was sometimes funny when teachers made fun of historical figures, we never liked listening to jokes we didn’t understand, and we REALLY didn’t like feeling stupid or dismissed in class. Kids 14 years old and younger largely don’t understand sarcasm yet, particularly students from families that don’t care for that kind of humor (which are common, especially in inner city areas). Being sarcastic around kids who don’t understand sarcasm, or who feel attacked by it, can undermine trust and make you seem out of touch with their sense of humor.
2. Telling personal stories in class. Again, we all remember that high school teacher who shared personal stories about their crazy college days or their first marriage. We remember, vaguely, wanting to stick around in that teacher’s classroom at lunchtime. It made us feel cool. So if we tell stories about ourselves it makes us cool and easy to relate to, right?
Again: wrong. While telling high school students the occasional tidbit about your life may get them to like you (though it is equally likely to make you look pathetic or needy), it DOES NOT WORK WITH MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS. Young adolescents are so consumed with themselves (remember how important that zit seemed at the time?) that they generally are not interested in the lives and feelings of adults. Talking too much about yourself is more likely to make you seem irrelevant than it is to make you look cool. The only exception to this case is if your story about your life directly relates to your students’ lives. (For example, sharing your acceptance or rejection letters from literary agents with your writing class could actually be very cool and informative.)
3. Giving easy assignments. New teachers often think that the easier an assignment is, the more likely it is that kids will be excited to do it. Not only is this wrong, it’s dangerous, and it can lead to lowered expectations and poor performance from your students. Think about it: would you want to play a game where you were absolutely guaranteed to win every single time? No! It would be boring. Likewise, your kids don’t want easy assignments all the time—they want you to give them a challenge.
Have you ever tried to seem cool for your kids and had it backfire (or work)? I’d love to hear your story!
At Deep, we are all about the craft of writing. This means that, while most reading teachers ask their kids to read like guests of a book (asking questions like, “How are you, Book? What are you about?”), we writing teachers want them to read like thieves holding the book at gunpoint (asking questions like, “What have you got, Book? What can I steal from you?”)
This approach has a ton of advantages. It gets kids excited about reading, it gives them a clear and fun purpose as readers, and it improves their writing skills. In my workshops, I run the exact same discussion every time we read a new text. It goes like this:
It’s a simple, fun discussion structure, and it leads to great results every time! I would love to hear your ideas, too–how do you get your kids to read like writers?
Have you ever sat down and said to yourself, “You know what I’d like to do right now? Sit down with a nice, thick stack of five-paragraph essays written by local sixth graders. What a fabulous way to spend an afternoon that would be!”
If you’re like most people, then the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Five-paragraph essays, particularly ones by kids, are notoriously dull and poorly written, right? Don’t kids hate writing? Shouldn’t we be proud to squeeze five reasonably organized paragraphs out of them?
Not at all! I love reading my kids’ essays and, in fact, have been known to spend a cozy afternoon or two re-reading them.
The real reason that kids write boring essays is so simple it hurts: kids write boring essays because they think that essays are supposed to be boring. They are shown boring examples and given boring topics. Kids are asked to choose theses, but never to pick a topic that makes them angry, or to write about an opinion that all their friends disagree with. No one tells them that it is okay to make jokes in an essay, or to use interesting extended metaphors.
If my kids are writing something boring, I make them stop and start over again until they have a thesis that gets them excited. I’ve had a lot of success teaching essay-writing via satire; I’ve had kids write essays with titles like “Why Boys Should Wear as Much Makeup as Girls” and “Why You Should Wear a Helmet in the Hood”–and they are a fabulous read. For the lesson plan and example essays, you can order a copy of the Deep curriculum here.
How do you get your kids to write interesting essays? I’d love to hear your ideas!
We’ve all had that moment before: we think we’ve explained something brilliantly. The kids are nodding and smiling. Our examples were charming and relevant. We know that our kids absolutely understand the concept.
And then we ask them to get to work and…it turns out they have no idea what they are supposed to do!
Here are a few of the most common reasons this happens:
1. You aren’t clearly outlining your goals and agenda. I never go to the movies without watching a preview first, I never order a new dish without reading the description on the menu, and I never book a plane ticket without researching the city I want to visit. Why on earth should I expect my kids to dive into a lesson before they have any idea what it’s about, or where it will take them? The easiest, quickest, most effective way to get kids on board and invested in your lesson is to spend a little time at the beginning explaining what you are going to do that day and why.
2. You are using think-y verbs, rather than action verbs. The most confusing thing you can possibly do is tell your kids to “think about” or “imagine” or “explore” or “look into” or “consider” something. It all sounds very inspiring and academic, but kids have no idea what these verbs really mean (and honestly, neither do I). Ask them to do things that you can physically see them achieve: write, act out, discuss, measure, underline.
3. You aren’t scaffolding. Often, tasks that seem obvious to us are actually really complicated to people who are new at them. For example: “take notes” seems easy to adults, but what we’re really asking kids to do is “listen to what I am saying while simultaneously sifting through the information for the most salient points (which you need a lot of context and expertise to determine) while also writing down these salient points in an organized and meaningful fashion using standard outline format.” Take every task–even seemingly simple ones–and break it down into a list of its component parts. If you aren’t sure that your kids know how to do each and every step, take the time to teach it to them!
4. You are using words they don’t know. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens; it’s easy to forget that some kids haven’t been exposed to words like “compare” before. Luckily, this kind of confusion can be avoided by simply asking kids to repeat your explanations back to them in their own words. If they can’t do it, then go back to find the culprit word and add it to your word wall.
Have you ever accidentally confused your kids? What happened and how did you fix it? I’d love to hear your ideas.