Inspiring reluctant writers in your classroom

The following article comes from Jamey Boelhower, An experienced Adjunct Professor

I have taught writing for over 20 years. At the moment I teach two different dual credit college courses for seniors, regular English for seniors and a quarter (9 weeks) exploratory writing class for seventh graders. I’ve learned that there is no easy answer to motivate a reluctant writer because each student has a different reason for their hesitancy to write. Some students are artists and would rather draw everything. Other students worry about so many aspects of the writing process that they struggle to even start writing. And yes, some students don’t care about school, while others don’t feel confident in their skills, no matter how strong their writing is. 

If teaching writing was simply about the technical aspects like grammar, strong introductions, or paragraph structure, it would be easier to develop students’ skill sets. But writing is personal expression, and that creates hurdles for all educators no matter what subject they teach.  

I am not going to share cookie cutter activities, I hope to share with you more of a philosophy to the approach of writing that will help move reluctant writers to confident and joyful writers. 

In all of my classes, but especially my dual credit course, I have three levels of writing. Essays and research papers are at the top level. The expectations for this level of writing is academically intense.

For a typical dual credit semester, students will write five essays. Their essays are graded on a number of traits, like introduction, grammar, and how the examples in the body of the essay connect back to their thesis.  

The middle tier of writing is specific for the class or unit topic we are covering at that moment. For example, when we are working on a research essay, students will have five research journals for one essay. The journals are graded on proper in-text referencing, but most of the grade is based on the student’s personal response to what they have learned.

The first level of writing is where the students and I have the most fun. For the same dual credit class example, students write about 20 paragraphs during the semester. The paragraphs are graded on conventions and their response. The topic of the paragraphs are aligned to the subject matter I am covering in class. For example, when students are writing their narrative essay, one of the paragraph’s prompts is about advice they didn’t follow. Another paragraph topic to help students strengthen their descriptive writing is to sit outside and write about all five senses they are experiencing as they write. 

This is a popular assignment for the students. Here are a few lines from their paragraphs (with their permission). 

“My eyes were locked on the sunset. It was the time of day where you could look around the sun and not be blinded. There was a slight breeze hitting my right shoulder. The breeze reminded me of the fall.” – Drew 

“I take a long refreshing swig of water and then inhale deeply to make fresh air flood into my nostrils. It’s strange how quiet but not quiet it is right now. This evening is a perfect night to sit outside and relax.” – Jerzi 

“I can barely hear the birds chirp and I hear no cars driving past. I feel calmer than I have since the school year began. My stress is completely melting away. This, I think, is a fantastic way to begin a productive day.” – Paul 

“The sweet coffee glides down my throat. All of my worries have stopped for a moment. I enjoy the moment that I am in right now. The calming sounds of nature make my Saturday morning extremely comforting.” – Abby 

I think you can read the secondary goals I had with this assignment; to show that writing can be a positive experience and give the seniors a chance to relax. 

For my seventh graders, level one writing is even more creative. I may share a picture of an object in a situation, like a boulder that is on the edge of a cliff, and have them personify the object. They give the boulder a name, then jot down what the boulder might be thinking. Another day we will start with a writing prompt on the whiteboard. “You find an envelope with 1000 dollars and a note that says you have to spend it on friends by the end of the day.” Then they get about 10 minutes to write about what they would do that day. 

Writing can be a positive experience and give the seniors a chance to relax.

Students understand the expectations for each level of writing. Yes, everyone enjoys the first level writing, and there are still hurdles for students when working on essays. However,  many students discover that writing is a joyful personal experience because of the last suggestion I have for you, sharing. 

I build in time to share writing throughout a semester, even for the dual credit college courses. Sometimes it is as simple as sharing a prewrite activity with a classmate for the seniors to a seventh grader reading the first poem they’ve ever written. Sometimes students will add their work to my classroom walls. Below is a seventh grade assignment for similes. They start with the phrase “Friendship is like…” then they draw the comparison. Viewers have to figure out the comparison from the drawing. 

There are many different reasons why a student might be reluctant to write. One way to help them see writing in a different light is to create different opportunities to write, not just essays or other academic assignments that carry a lot of points with them. Also, let them share, let them feel the connection to others writing establishes for a writer. I can’t guarantee that students won’t groan when it’s time to write an essay, but I know you will see better writing from them. 

Author:Jamey Boelhower

An experienced Adjunct Professor

Jamey Boelhower is an experienced Adjunct Professor with a demonstrated history of working in the higher education industry. Strong education professional skilled in Educational Technology, English, Social Media, Editing, and Curriculum Development.

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