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Getting Kids to Write (Well) in Middle School

By Larry Sandomir, 7th grade English teacher

Writing is a process, and not always an easy one for middle school students. It takes time to become a writer, and progress is often registered in turtle-like steps. In a world defined by social media, texting and split-second satisfaction, such a journey is often seen as tedious by today’s students. They question why they should take the time to pen essays, write a poem or create a story when it takes so much time, organization and effort. The reason we teach writing is that words are powerful and can change lives, but how do we as educators in today’s society help young people realize this and develop their individual voices?

As an English teacher at Calhoun, my goal is simple: create the motivation for kids to use language and find it meaningful. I strive to encourage them to invest in the process because the outcome is worth it, and help students develop a singular voice that says important, thoughtful things. 

These are the elements I use in my teaching to help middle schoolers build strong writing skills: relevance, flexibility, setting an example, creating means to share, and being attuned to individuals’ most meaningful way to express themselves.

Relevance

Student reads in class

Back when I was in school, a teacher would give a topic to write about and we had to do it, regardless of whether we had any interest in it or not. I gained knowledge of the format, for sure, but the writing didn’t mean anything to me.

When today’s students write, it is helpful if what we ask them to do is interesting to them. Will they want to take the time to create something that they want to share, to submit with pride, and not be able to wait until it is returned? They need relevance: something connected to their lives, to who they are at this age, and to what matters to them. In fact, there are times when they can and should write about something they come up with, something that comes from themselves. 

I had a student not long ago who had never written poems before, but began to do so once I gave her a writing prompt that allowed her to express her personal story. Over the course of the year, she wrote stunning, brutally honest poetry about difficult experiences she had lived through. I didn’t need to rely on my assignments to recognize the immense talent she had with language – her story mattered more than any project I could have devised for her. She wrote about 50 pages of poetry throughout the year, unleashing immensely powerful words that she offered to anyone who wanted to read and connect with her. 

Flexibility

We ask our students to hand in work by certain dates because they need to learn time management. While this is an important skill, ensuring that students have enough time and space to write is also essential to fostering their creativity.
 
It matters that we get our rising writers’ best work, not their fastest. Creativity cannot be demanded because it’s Wednesday. Thoughtful analyses cannot occur because a date on the calendar says so. The submission date for work is a guide, but we also need to be flexible with students who are trying their best. We have to also recognize that our students have lives that will sometimes interfere with what we want students to do. There are sometimes legitimate reasons why the motivation to write is squelched or delayed.

The difference between compelling, profoundly meaningful work and just something that meets a deadline may be as little as a few extra hours or a day. That doesn’t seem to be much to give in exchange for something an individual can look at with pride.

Setting an Example

If we want our students to be motivated to write, it’s helpful if they see that we write as well. It can be very effective, when there are opportunities to do so, to show our students that we as their teachers love to write. 

When our kids know that we go home and write poems, stories, essays, articles or books, it tells them that language matters to us also. If we can share some of what we have written with them, it means we aren’t just giving them assignments in a void. We are part of the process, too.

Creating a Means to Share

Kids love to read one another’s work. There is an element of community in sharing something that was written with heart and feeling. It’s reassuring to students when someone they don’t know reads what they have created and then compliments their talent. When students write well, a big part of the reason is because they are invested in language and confident in their abilities to express ideas that matter to them.

One strategy I’ve used in my classroom is putting together publications, like literary magazines, of my students’ work. When kids see their work in print, even if it is stapled together and done on a copy machine, it elevates their spirits. When work goes up in a class area, it allows students to know their time was well spent. When a peer edits their work, and takes the time to discuss the piece of writing with the author, it conveys that these words and phrases are worth something.

There is one requirement, though. Since the writing belongs to the writer, we have to secure students’ permission to make their work public. They have the right to share their work with their name on it or anonymously, or they can say no and we have to abide by their decision.

MS student writes in class

Awareness of Specific Ways of Expression

Kids come to the written word from multiple directions. Those who are inherently talented and invested in writing do not need much motivation to put pen to paper. However, there are times that a different art form like drawing, video or sculpture can inspire the written word. 

For example, students might create a piece of art related to an idea and then, as in a museum, write paragraphs explaining their work. Aren’t they still writing with this type of project? When we can find what students love to do and then connect it with language, they are far more likely to want their writing to matter.

Comments and Corrections

If we, as English teachers, ask our students to take their time to use language in significantly meaningful ways, we must take our time to offer our detailed thoughts to them. Individuals become more invested in the written word when they know their work matters to the person reading it. When a piece of writing is returned with detailed comments and constructive criticism, rising writers know that what they did was important to the reader. If all that is at the top of the paper is a check and “Good work,” why should students push themselves to express their ideas with care, time and love?

I often ask, at the beginning of the school year, what my students need from me. One of the most frequent responses is to be honest about their work and help them to write more effectively. Students who are challenged by writing want to get better at it, and those who find writing enjoyable want to go farther. None of them can do that if the teacher doesn’t take time to write comments and make corrections without being unduly critical. It’s a little bit of a tight rope, but it creates greater passion and desire in the kids to be patient in the formation of their writing and to dig deep to make their voices heard.

In this instantaneous world, writing is one of the things that lasts. It’s a person’s imprint, their unique voice that endures and holds court forever. Students’ writing is their gift to us, a way for them to teach us lessons about humanity. Words matter.