Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Finding your students' inspiration to write through interest inventories

I’ve been wandering around my house for days thinking it should probably be blog time, but as I went into my brain, looking for a good topic, I kept coming up blank.  That’s a bad feeling for a writer.  Summer is tough.  I don’t have teachers around me asking questions or wanting to upgrade their instruction with some more engaging strategies.  It’s all me.  A perfect example of why I could never just blog and why I surround myself with inspiring people. 

Last summer I had colleagues, friends, and family feeding me articles to ponder, and I was taking classes that gave me more reading to process.  I had blog ideas all summer long last year, and they took me right up through Christmas break. This summer my friends have been quiet (I’m not sure this is a good thing), and I’m not taking classes – so I’m back to relying on myself to come up with stuff my readers will appreciate!  As I started thinking about this, though, I realized that one of my favorite places to get blog topics is from learning I do myself - things that hook me and give me inspiration to do what I love to do.

It was then that an idea struck me.  If my favorite writing topics are things that hit me emotionally and inspire me, shouldn't it be the same for our kiddos?  I know what you’re thinking.  “Duh,” right?  Well, it’s kind of willy-nilly to get up in front of thirty eighth graders and say, “Ok, all!  Write about what inspires you.”  Most of them haven’t got a clue what inspires them.  That’s when I started formulating a fantastic idea for getting resistant writers to write!

  • Start with interest inventories.  Many of you might use them for reading, but why not use them for writing also?  If you look at an inventory and find that a student loves to watch scary movies, then you have a place to start.  What kind?  Ghost stories?  Slasher movies?  A quiet kid in the back of the room bleeds football, plays for the school team, and spends the entire weekend watching college and NFL games with his uncle.  What can you do with this information?
  • Go to Google.  Type in “effects of watching horror films on teenagers” and watch what happens.  Dozens of websites and articles pop up.   Now google “teenager playing football”.  Again, dozens of websites and articles that somehow relate to teenagers playing football – all with different angles.  These websites don’t even have to be “evidence based”.  All we are looking for is something to inspire writing and get our kiddos writing passionately.  This type of activity is a great start to finding a good writing topic.  Grab the laptop cart or go to the lab and have your students do some searches with one goal in mind - to find something that really grabs their attention and sucks them in.  You could even have them work in pairs to help each other come up with good search topics.  And we all know they LOVE using Google.  This, in itself, could be a great collaborative lesson with the school library media specialist!
  • Once your students have their articles (hard copies might be a better choice), you can have them read and react.  A mini lesson on close reading or annotating might be good here.  The idea is to get some meat and potatoes from the article and get the kids thinking, feeling, and eventually writing. 
  • Free-writing is the next step.  If the topic is truly inspiring, these kiddos will now have lots to say. Give them as long as they need to write about what they read and their reactions.  Model this process.  Start a free-write by talking and writing in front of them.  Then let them go and keep writing in front of them.  The more you write, the more they will write.  I’m a firm believer in creating on the spot so they can see me struggle with it like they might.

From here, it really depends on your goal.  If you want some material for grammar lessons, try using some of Jeff Anderson’s approaches.  They’d fit perfectly here.  If you’re looking to move into a specific type of writing, ask students to go back into their writing and start pulling out information that applies.  In my opinion, once you have the inspiration – the possibilities are endless.  For a kiddo who reads an article on negative effects of horror films on teenagers, he could write a piece that argues the other side or a narrative about a kid who started hurting people after going on a horror film watching spree.  He could compare types of horror films and their effects or do his own study on how middle schoolers view them. He could compare horror books to horror films to see what the differences are in their effects on kids. 

The keys here are to begin with a goal in mind and to get your students writing about relevant topics.  If you know that your idea is to get some good free-writing down for grammar instruction, you may want to give free reign on what they load up from the internet.  If you have a specific writing goal in mind, then when you conference with your students while they’re searching for material, let them start by reading anything from the internet, but you’ll need to teach them how to find credible sources once they’ve picked a topic.  It all depends on where you want to go with the instruction, and don’t forget to tap into your resources yourself.  Use your media specialist to help you out from the get-go!

As I have found over and over and over again, once I find a topic that inspires me, the 833 words I crank out in 30 minutes seems like nothing.  This is what we want for our kiddos.  Writing should not be work.  Revising and editing?  That will and should be work.  But writing itself should flow from their fingertips like words do from their mouths.  If it does, they will create inspired works for you.  Guaranteed.

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