Writing manifesto: Teach writing like it’s swim practice

When I was in high school, swimming was everything.  Practice eight times a week, meets on weekends, pictures of Summer Sanders and Pablo Morales taped to the back of my door.  My best friends–and every single date I had in high school–were all people I met swimming. I wasn’t Olympic material, but I gave swimming everything I had day after day after day.  

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Making the abstract visible

Literary analysis often lives entirely in intellectual space. When I talk about analysis, however, I often rely on physical metaphors: put the pieces together, hold a magnifying glass over the text, identify the threads that run through the text.

For my recent unit on The House on Mango Street with 8th graders, I made the abstract visual, particularly the concept of thematic threads. Here’s what I did.

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The value of in-class editing

Here’s my favorite report card comment:  Devote more time to editing; learn to be a brutal editor!  

I’ve learned, though, that that comment is not enough; I must actively teach students how to edit.  For students “editing” can be an amorphous word (Am I proofreading? Am I checking my commas?) and they often don’t know what to do.

When students edit in class, I can both teach specific techniques and answer any questions that arise. Students often can hear the sentences that don’t work, but they don’t yet know how to fix them.  

I’ve had success with all of these strategies:

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Teaching analytical writing: Getting students to care

In my teaching career, I’ve learned so much about teaching writing—but little of that knowledge came from an educational book. Most of what I’ve learned has been through hard-won experience, through assignments and techniques that bombed and then through tweaking and tweaking until I finally created something successful.

And so much of what I’ve learned about writing has boiled down to this:  students must care deeply about what they’re writing.

Caring deeply is relatively easy with a creative piece or poetry or memoir.  But with analytical writing, it’s harder.  When I started teaching analytical writing, I chose assignments that allowed students to use a highly-structured five-paragraph essay format with prompts like, “Write about three significant symbols in Lord of the Flies” or “Analyze the three most important film elements that the director uses in Of Mice and Men.”  Yes, these essays were well-organized, but students rarely cared deeply about them.
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