Posts Tagged thinking

An Outline Means I Have to Think–Oh, My!

So, here’s the Teachers Write! assignment for the week. It comes from Sally Wilkins, writer and researcher.

Assignment for this week:

If your project is at the idea stage, do a brain-dump, jotting down all the random bits and pieces. Begin to sort them into logical groups. Create a rough outline (or timeline, or map, or flow chart) from these groups.

If you already have a work in progress draft, create an outline from the text. Look for gaps and bulges in the outline. Think about (and jot down) how you can smooth and balance those problem areas in the next draft.

And a note from Kate…

If you don’t have one major project for the summer but you want to practice outlining and see how it all works, try creating an outline of one of your favorite books. When I was writing EYE OF THE STORM, I really wanted to make it fast-paced for kids who love action. Before I started writing my thriller, I sat down and studied the pacing in a book I admired for its pacing, THE HUNGER GAMES. I made a chapter-by-chapter outline and learned a lot about why we can’t put that book down. It’s a fun exercise!

I am sure that creating an outline is a good idea. I teach my students to do this prior to any kind of writing activity. “You need to think and plan before you write. It will save you time.”

But, here’s the thing:  This morning when I read the assignment, I knew that there weren’t enough thoughts in my head about what I want to write to think and plan anything. Then, I thought:  I am my students. That’s why they either skip the outline or create a skimpy one.

Now I am thinking:  How can I get my students to think about writing when they don’t really know what they think about anything–other than boys and girls and who’s hot and who’s not and other 14-yea-old phenomena? How can I get my students to think about organizing their writing when they don’t realize they have any thoughts that need saying on paper?

Somehow I have to get my students to see that knowing how they think and what they think about matters. Then maybe I can get them to think that their voices matter. Then maybe I can get them to want to share their thoughts and voices. And then maybe I can get them to organize their thoughts into a plan that will make their messages clear.

Oh, my! That’s a lot of maybes. And I have a lot of work to do. I better get organized.

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Scaffolding or Struggling, Sinking vs Thinking

So, when the school year started, I was all about scaffolding. I would do this, and my students would do that. I’d provide, build, prop, support until my students were writing their souls onto the paper. Good idea, right? Yeah, it worked about two weeks.

Then, I realized my students were bored. No matter how much I tried to get them interested in doing the learning my way, they were all about doing the learning their way:  they wanted me to “get them started” and then let them GO.

Since I am a control freak, this presented a problem. What if they did the work wrong? What if they didn’t learn the skill I needed them to learn? What if I couldn’t stay on the carefully crafted schedule I’d created?

Yep. That last question—see? There’s the problem. I wanted the learning to be about me. My schedule. My way or the highway. I had to learn to let go and let them.

My approach to writing instruction changed. Instead of pounding my students sweet heads with pre-writing strategies, although colorful additions to their writing notebooks, I started more carefully following the advice I’d learned from great coaches like Jeff Anderson, Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani.

One thing I changed:  I started using better mentor texts. I found pieces of writing that included the skill I wanted students to learn, pieces that were inflammatory or insulting—you know, writing that made students crazy with the need to respond? Pieces that made students think. We’d read these pieces together, and then I’d ask the students questions that helped them discover the writing skill in the piece. Inevitably, students will find what I hope they’ll find—if the mentor text is a good one.

For example, I just read this piece by Stephen King entitled “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake” that I plan on using in class one day soon. The title alone will make my students want to read it. (Careful–obviously, there is some salty language.) Take a peek:

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.

And hey, why don’t we get real about this? Most rich folks paying 28 percent taxes do not give out another 28 percent of their income to charity. Most rich folks like to keep their dough. They don’t strip their bank accounts and investment portfolios. They keep them and then pass them on to their children, their children’s children. And what they do give away is—like the monies my wife and I donate—totally at their own discretion. That’s the rich-guy philosophy in a nutshell: don’t tell us how to use our money; we’ll tell you.

The writing devices in this excerpt scream to be discussed:  Hello? Tone, Dash–baby, Word Choice Wonders, Asyndeton’s a-list, Repetition-Repetition, and more!

If I trust my students to search, find, think, and discuss what makes this writing effective—they will. Then, not only can I encourage my kids to use devices like this in their own writing, I can craft questions that get them thinking about topics to write about. Voile! My mentor text is now an ideas generator.  

Questions like:  What kind of story might be titled “One Single Red Penny”? What topics emerge from these paragraphs? Why should you care about United American citizenry? What are some things you’d like people to “get real” about? What are some things you consider “annoying responsibility stuff”? What are some treasures your family passes down from children to “their children’s children”?

My students will get into these questions, and look at all the different types of writing they can produce just by thinking about these topics? Literary, expository, persuasive.

Thinking. Maybe that’s the deal here. When I provide too much scaffolding, my students do not have to think near as much as when I let them struggle through.

In the rear of my classroom, I have a wall painted with chalkboard  paint that says in colorful fancy letters: It’s TIME to think. Maybe it’s just me, but thinking equates to struggle, and I am pretty sure that’s where the learning is.

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