Whether you’re teaching expository, descriptive, narrative, or persuasive writing, the challenges are relatively similar. You’re there not only to teach students writing skills so that they can succeed in school and at the workplace, but also to ensure that they’re enjoying the writing process.
It’s a well-known fact, after all, that students learn best when they’re having fun. According to neurologist Judy Willis, “when classroom activities are pleasurable, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholine, which increases focused attention.” In other words, people learn better when their learning is associated with positive emotions.
So what exactly can you, as a teacher, do to get your students writing–and even enjoying the process? Below are three tips that have worked well for me in my writing-intensive classes, and I’m confident they’ll work wonders for you too when used properly.
1. Create Mind Maps
As Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Everything connects to everything else.” Even for those us of who aren’t a fourteenth-century Italian polymath whose interests ranged from drawing and painting to science and inventions, this couldn’t be more true.
The same applies to writing. By drawing mind maps, you’re able to establish connections between seemingly unrelated ideas before writing. In addition, mind maps allow you to outline and organize your writing and save precious time.
Although mind maps are perhaps most often used as a way to brainstorm writing topics, there are so many other ways to use them: developing a character or scene, organizing research, reviewing what you’ve read in a book, and even outlining a presentation. Due to its convention- and mechanics-free nature, mind mapping can be useful for virtually any academic activity that requires some brainstorming and creativity.
You can draw mind maps on paper or on a computer. Websites such as MindMup.com provide free online mind mapping services, and for a fee you can avail additional services, such as the ability to share and collaboratively edit your maps and the option to save your maps to Google Drive.
Whether you’re using paper or a website, it’s best to keep your map simple. However, you should also rearrange and remove whatever information you think isn’t necessary as you’re developing your map.
2. Encourage Freewriting
The various obstacles that prevent students from achieving their full potential as writers aren’t just grammar related; they also have to do with the various affective filters that affect people’s performance when writing or acquiring a new language. These filters include stress, anxiety, and lack of self-confidence. Thankfully, these affective filters can be reduced through techniques such as modeling behaviors (rather than correcting your students) and setting individual goals with your students.
For writing-intensive classes, one affective filter-reducing activity you can incorporate is one known as “freewriting”. Developed by writing theorist Peter Elbow, freewriting can basically be defined as writing for a set amount of time (e.g. twenty minutes) without stopping or editing.
That’s not to say that editing is detrimental to writing; it just suggests that editing shouldn’t be done during the initial writing process, which is what many people tend to do. Traditional education, after all, dictates that output must be perfect and grammar error-free. Thus, people get overwhelmed with fear rather than motivation, focusing on spelling and grammatical perfection rather than inspiration and empowerment.
That being said, despite the fact that freewriting, like mind mapping, lacks a set of conventions and mechanics unlike formal styles of writing, learners aren’t exempt from feedback and constructive criticism. Freewriting just gives learners an opportunity to share their voice freely and uninhibitedly, increasing their chances of delivering original and authentic written output in the future.
3. Promote Peer Editing
There are several reasons you should allow your students to edit each other’s work. Firstly, the added responsibility of editing a classmate’s writing motivates and empowers students because it shows that you, the teacher, trust them. Relying on trust, therefore, allows students to better deal with accountability, while building integrity.
Secondly, by editing someone else’s work, students can more easily spot errors that might appear in their own writing. In a similar fashion, peer editing sharpens a learner’s critical eye; thus, they can more carefully judge the strengths and weaknesses of their own output and create higher quality writing.
Lastly, peer editing activities expose students to different kinds of writing, including those that are more linguistically advanced than their own. This was certainly the case for me in high school. Although, at first, I was intimidated by the writing abilities of my peers who, in my eyes, just seemed to possess a special knack for writing without even trying, my peer editing experiences gave me a better sense of what “good” writing looked like and even allowed me to attain the highest SAT Writing score in my high school, placing me in the top one percent nationally and, more importantly, helping me become a better writer.
So there you have it! As you can see, the three tips I’ve included above have more to do with connecting ideas, reducing stress and anxiety, building confidence, and being accountable than with improving grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. The latter should come, well, a little later. Happy writing!