LET’S BE HONEST
Do your students hate prewriting?
Do you they throw a few words on top of their papers and call it a “Prewrite” just to make you happy?
Do your students think that the prewriting stage of the writing process is a waste of their precious time?
If these issues sound painfully familiar, the solution might be a lot easier than you think.
After trying everything I could think of to convince my students about the “Power of the Prewrite,” I realized that the message I was really giving them was that “getting ready to write” was a tedious, boring, unnecessary component of the writing process.
After all, what could possibly be interesting or valuable about a piece of writing that no one (except me) would ever see?
Fortunately, that problem was resolved on the day I made one of the best professional purchases of my career. The day I walked out of a CVS with Tiger Beat, Seventeen, and Yikes! instead of People, Reader’s Digest and Real Simple.
ENLIGHTENMENT AT CVS
While searching for a few magazines that would entertain me at the beach, my eyes landed on the teen and tween magazine section. As I scanned some of the cover stories and flipped through the pages of some of the publications, I found exactly the kind of writing I had been hoping to see in my students’ pieces.
It was then that it dawned on me that I was guilty of using all the tired catch phrases to get them to improve their writing skills. You know the ones:
Show, don’t tell.
Be specific, not vague.
Seeing is believing.
In short, I was trying to reach budding writers with the types of clichés I wanted them to avoid.
I’ll show you exactly what I mean.
As I perused the headlines, it became clear that most of them fell into one of three categories:
#1: TOP 10 LISTS for narrative and informational pieces
- 10 Signs You’re Addicted to Breakfast Foods
- Weird Ways He Tries to Impress You
- Ten Tricks That’ll Boost Your Confidence Instantly
#2: PRO TIPS for expository and informational pieces
- Get Fit: Couch to 5K in 15 Minutes a Day
- How to Tell Him You Want to Be More Than Friends: Secrets Revealed
- How Bullies Made Me Stronger: Jennifer Lawrence Spills All about Dealing with Mean Girls
#3: WHAT’S HOT, WHAT’S NOT REPORTS for opinion, research, persuasive and argument pieces
- Back-to-School Finds and Fails
- What’s Hot Now: The Trend Report
- Should You Get a Tattoo?
Are you kidding me? These headlines were written to get consumers (your students) to flip to each article where the subtitles (prewrite subtopics) were typed in bold-faced, brightly-colored print – often with attention-grabbing fonts. It was obvious that the sales of these magazines were contingent upon baiting potential buyers with snappy headlines then reeling them in with engaging subtitles.
Here is a specific example from Seventeen:
HEADLINE: The Weird Ways He Tries to Impress You
COLORFUL, MULTI-FONT SUBTITLE SAMPLES: (1) Faking a British Accent, (2) Throwing a Grey’s Anatomy Party, (3) Joining Pinterest, (4) Pumping Up at the Gym, and (5) Binging on Veggies
TEXT: Each subtitle was followed by a true-life story of a guy who successfully impressed a girl using one of those techniques.
Was there ever a time in my life when I would have fallen for such a ridiculous and obvious ploy to get me to read a mindless, useless article?
The truth was that I was falling for it at that very moment.
I didn’t even care about what teens were doing to impress other teens, but I just had to know how weird these flirting techniques were and maybe even discover something about the girls who eventually agreed to date the guys whose crazy antics were featured in this article.
I decided that if I found these magazine-selling strategies irresistible, my students definitely would – so I used the teen-and-tween magazines to (once again) try to convince them that prewriting can be their most powerful writing tool.
And guess what? This time I didn’t even have to try.
I was meeting them on their turf, and they were begging to learn more about each one of the articles I used to demonstrate my points. It simply could not have been easier.
And just when I thought the lesson couldn’t have been more successful, one student shared an observation about the school-to-workplace connection – without any formal mini-lesson to help students reach a deeper understanding of the lesson.
So I used that observation as a springboard to brainstorm the marketing strategies that were used to sell the magazines.
Here’s what the class came up with (along with my parenthetical connections):
- Capture readers’ attention with an irresistible headline (Begin with a great story title).
- Entertain people with unexpected subtitles (Create hooks).
- Make potential buyers want to read to get more details (Draft a piece).
- Sell customers the magazine (Get an A+ or get published).
Did the students understand my “seeing is believing” reference after this lesson?
You bet they did.
So here is my new and improved method for getting kids excited about the prewriting portion of the writing process:
Step #1: Have students generate Top 10 Lists, Pro Tip Sheets, and What’s Hot, What’s Not Reports for various writing genres (e.g. opinion pieces, research reports, expository essays, etc.) several weeks (or days) before assigning a formal writing piece. That way, their prewrites will already be finished!
Step #2: Tell students to circle 3 of their favorite Top 10, Pro Tip, or Hot/Not entries.
Step #3: Display the format for whatever genre is being taught or reviewed.
Step #4: Explain that 2 or 3 of the circled prewrite entries will become topic sentences for supporting paragraphs.
Step #5: Require students to begin rough drafts based on the circled entries on their prewrite sheets.
Here are some resources to get you started:
1. Download these free templates: (1) Pro Tip Sheet, (2) What’s Hot, What’s Not Report, and (3) Top 10 List HERE.
2. Have students Google Search any topic this way:
3. Check out completed Hot/Not writing samples at ProCon.org to see side by side comparative reports (e.g. Video Games and Violence), and have students generate similar reports using the What’s Hot, What’s Not Report.
4. Have each student select a topic of interest and generate a “favorites” list (e.g. Movies, Books, Music Videos, etc.), using the Top 10 Template, and ask students to “pair share” their lists.
A collection of 50 + Top 10, multi-purpose lists for Writers’ Notebooks is also available HERE.
You can find more tips on my 50 Five-Minute Teaching Tips Pinterest board at http://pinterest.com/elaseminars/
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Do you have a favorite prewriting strategy? Please share!
Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.
About the author: Janice Malone is a teacher, seminar leader and owner of ELA Seminars. For more of her story, visit her website www.ELAseminars.com, and check out the 100’s of free lessons she has posted on Pinterest http://pinterest.com/elaseminars/.