Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wondering what your student writers need? Watch yourself write.

I recently was asked by a former student to write a recommendation letter for college.  Of course I didn't hesitate to agree, but as I sat down to start typing I realized, I have never written a college recommendation letter before.  I have no idea what to write!

The last time you needed to write in an unfamiliar genre, what did you do?  How did you figure out where to begin?  Details to include?  How to organize the writing?  Tone?  Structure?

When we ask students to write in unfamiliar genres, teachers need to think about the process they use and allow students to grasp the same generative skills.  Often we assume that students know how to brainstorm and find models of the genres we ask them to write.  Sometimes we even ask them to write in ways that they can't find models for because the genres only exist in school (like the 5 paragraph essay or DBQ).  We've all heard the addage "Teach the writer, not the writing," but how does one truly follow that?  What does it mean to teach the writer?

The key word is: generative.  What skills can we teach our writers that they will carry to any piece of writing they approach henceforth?  We can teach a writer to write an introduction for the formulaic five-paragraph "essay," but will memorizing the number of sentences to plug in help him or her when it's time to write an article or literary criticism?  Rather, allow students to look in Time, Newsweek, and Discovery at the essays written by professional authors.  Check out the introductions:  some of them only have one sentence!  Yikes!  That certainly doesn't fit the old 3 to 5 sentences rule!  But what can they notice from these introductions?  That the authors lead readers into the piece in ways that are funny, serious, awe-inspiring, and reflective.  The skill is generative:  introductions are writers' tools that engage a reader, no matter what the genre.  Mentor texts themselves are generative:  when in doubt, look to the professionals.

As for my college recommendation letter, I searched online to find mentor texts and recommendations.  I brainstormed characteristics of the student I felt were important to include.  I sent it to a colleague to proofread and comment on.  I ran spell-check and reread it after printing it.  Writers are not born with a golden pen in hand.  They read, they talk with other writers, they brainstorm and draft and play with the words on the page.  Maya Angelou states it beautifully:  "Some critics will write 'Maya Angelou is a natural writer' - which is right after being a natural heart surgeon."  Our students deserve to learn the skills that will carry them as gifted writers long past their years of school.  Think generative.

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