Teaching Writing Part 2: Offering Students an Outline

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners,a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


cketboot

Top 2 Things I Don’t Have Time For: 1) Inventing Rocket Boots. 2) Teaching Organization Properly.

Maybe you’re lucky, and you have a curriculum that includes teaching students how to organize thoughts, how to ensure that they’ve backed up their ideas — most likely, it’s all part of a unit on how to write an outline.

And maybe you also have a golden Lamborghini and a pair of boots that can fly. And a machine that can make any kind of food you want.

Students often do not know how to organize their thoughts or write an outline. And so, I would receive an essay from students I had no idea how to grade. Namely, an competent writer would look at the prompt and say, “I will need to compose a thesis, come up with three good supporting points, find evidence to back up the points, lay it out in an organized way, and end with a conclusion tying the thesis to some further ideas or questions.”

But what I get often reads more like Kafka’s stream-of-consciousness diary entries. Each idea meanders around, maybe offers a thesis, maybe not. Maybe ideas are developed, maybe they leave the reader wondering if life is nothing but absurdity and darkness.

Now, I am not an English Teacher. I teach a series of humanities electives that borrow from psychology, sociology, and literature. They require cross disciplinary thinking, and any essay students will write for me will require some creative thinking, some mastery of content, and some organizational finessing. This is not: “Compare Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy.”

But I have a background in English Lit. And the English Teacher in me says, “Well, if you can’t follow the student’s thinking, and the ideas are not developed, then that should be reflected in the grade.”

But what about the ideas? The thinking? The mastery? The content at the center of the topic which the student never gets around to because he or she is paddling around, lost, stuck, in circles at the edge of the pond? This is an essay, yes. But it’s also a test. And the main goal of this particular unit was not necessarily to teach writing.

One year, a student with some learning differences bombed an essay test she should have thrived on. She touched on zero of the brilliant ideas she’d fronted in class discussion. At a conference, her mother said, well, was there an outline I could give her to make sure she touched on all the main ideas?

Sure.

The next time we had an essay exam, I gave her an outline in advance, and she thrived.

But what about the other students? Should they learn how to write an outline? Sure. But what about this week, when it’s time for the essay exam for the end of the unit? A third of them don’t know how to organize their thinking.

Should I have them write and submit outlines which I will review and give pointers on? Should they submit a revision of the outline? I will give a third round of revisions, and then they will write the exam!

No! Who has time for this? The essay exam is this week!


QOL refers to "Quality of Life" - a tool I created for analyzing people's well being. For more, visit http://bit.ly/magclassqol

QOL refers to “Quality of Life” – a tool I created for analyzing people’s well being. For more, visit http://bit.ly/magclassqol

Here’s what I started doing.

  • For every essay, I include an outline. The thesis is highlighted in purple. It provides very explicit places to write supporting ideas, textual evidence, a restatement of the thesis, and questions for further thought.
  • If I will include additional requirements (like quoting a support-statement from an in class film or partner work) I build spaces for this into the outline.
  • In their actual exam, their thesis is purple. Their support statements are green. Their textual evidence is orange. Their additional requirements are blue. It’s easy to find these “points of assessment” as I read.
  • And when I grade their essays, I know I am grading not only their fledgling writing skills, but more importantly, their mastery of the material, their creativity, and their critical thinking.

Some day, will I begin to differentiate between students who receive an outline and those who must write their own outline?

Someday.

But the essay exam is this Friday. Onward, we write. With outlines.


* * *

I’d love to invite you to check out Teaching Writing Part One: On Giving Feedback

and Teaching Writing Part Three: The Best Way to Encourage Revisions

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The Calendar and the Template: The Batman and Robin of Lesson Planning and Presenting

batmanThis post was originally featured on Thought Partners,a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, Class Dojo.


The hardest thing about lesson planning is the blank page.

And the hardest thing about starting class: when students enter the room, unless you make it so, your classroom is a blank page. Sure, you have posters on the wall, and you’re midway through a unit.

But unless your posters and unit are as interesting as whatever the students were talking and thinking about in the hallway on the way to class (and let’s face it, to most students, it’s not), the students walk in the room with their own agenda. Their agenda is: try not to do anything.

The good news is that most students, being social beings, will step into line as class begins, even if you’re not playing your A game. The better news is that if you’ve set up class effectively, the span of time between “blank page” and “being productive” can be shortened.

How do you get students to get into gear? How do you reduce the behaviors that make it hard to start class? How do you get students thinking, quiet, and productive — reviewing the themes of the class —while you take attendance? How do you organize your lesson planning workflow so you never forget to include essential components?

The answer is the same for all these: lesson plan with a template, and make the lesson plan available to students upon entering class.

There are low-tech and hi-tech ways to do this; allow me to share a few, and their pros and cons.


Hi-Tech — Editor’s Choice: Google Calendar

By far, my favorite way to present the days work, including the vital “first thing work” that gets students quiet and engaged for 5-10 minutes is a shared Google Calendar. While many schools have a Learning Management System that allows teachers to post their lesson plan for the day, I often find that these LMS calendars similar to, well, the free email that comes with your Cable Internet – you know: lmaluddite@Glopast.com. It works. But the tool doesn’t get updated or improved or work well across the most common devices like Google Calendar does.

I begin the year, during the first week of orientation, teaching students how to bookmark the shared class Google Calendar from a laptop, and even a smartphone/tablet.

Each day, as students enter the room, they open their tablets, phones, or laptops and see the entire day’s lesson plan. It always begins with First Thing Work, and ends with Homework and students I need to meet with. For a detailed description of the various elements built into each day’s template, I invite you to check out A Template For Change – And Workflow.

Additional Benefits:

  • Unlike some other class calendars, a student can open the class Google Calendar integrated with their own Google Calendar. As a result, if they have already begun using Google Calendar for their own lives, they can easily keep track of classes they missed and the lesson plan, homework, and announcements for that day – on the same calendar they check which day they have Disney Musical Club, their Jai Alai tournament, and their family trip to Walla Walla.
  • If you make a mistake that needs correcting in class – the link to an assignment is broken, say, or you decide you want to change the homework assignment — once you change it in the Google Calendar, it’s changed for everyone, instantly.
  • You have the same access to the class calendar from excellent smartphone apps that you do from your work laptop. This means you can COMPOSE YOUR LESSON PLAN ON GOOGLE CALENDAR! I suggest you combine the calendar with a Template – to keep your thinking organized. For more on lesson planning with Templates, I invite you to read: How Not To Cook From Scratch.
  • Referencing how you did something last year: I used to use Word for lesson planning, and by the end of the year, I had dozens and dozens of files – one for each day. I could never find anything. Now, when I want to see what I did last year, I can browse the classes on the calendar – or search for a word or phrase I know I used in my lesson planning.
  • Fast and Portable Lesson Plan Fixing and Peeking: You’re in class, moving around the students, keeping an eye on the playing field. Are you going to bring your laptop with you? No. What do you do when you need to check what’s next? You look at your smartphone, where the same Google Calendar is ready for you to look at. Or, on the way to class, you can adjust a prompt, fix a page number, or jot a note under: assignments. From your smartphone! While walking!

Cons:

Students need regular access to a device: school provided or “BYOD.”


Low-Tech — Editor’s Choice: Overhead Projector

Ah, the lowly overhead projector. It’s actually not so lowly. It has major benefits over the whiteboard (the other place you might write a Low-Tech lesson plan)

Mainly: with a teeny bit of planning and the flick of a switch, your lesson plan is ready. You can write your plans in advance, file them in a filing system, and refer to them as needed.

Benefits:

Besides being low tech and inexpensive, it’s easier to browse your lesson plans written this way, just as it’s easier to browse through a book than to click and click and click.

Rewarding students for checking the calendar: how do you reward students for coming to class, checking the calendar, and getting to work? ClassDojo! The first three students quietly working get a badge! The last two also get a badge!