english, language arts, middle school, writing

Taking Writing to the “Next Level” in Middle School

Every quarter, my students and I will choose a writing goal that they will apply to all their assignments. Inevitably, there will be students who are relatively strong in all areas of writing, and it’s not immediately apparent what their goal needs to be. Some students have naively told me “I have nothing I can improve.”

*Record scratch.*

Well, it is true you have strong writing skills, I might say. But there is always something to improve on. Even if you were a published author, there is still always improvement to be made!

Here are some ideas for writing goals that will take them to the “next level” — goals that aren’t necessarily fixing any issues, but rather, adding depth to their writing. Sometimes I call it “grown-up” or “professional” writing. (I also use these as lessons for the whole class throughout the year.)

1. Pre-Writing

Sometimes students may have very good drafts, but their pre-writing skills need some work. We do a lot of building of background knowledge in class, but they also have to be comfortable with doing their own research thoughtfully and responsibly. 

Students may also need some strategies of how to get started more quickly or organize their thoughts. I usually recommend word association for getting started and making lists or webs for organization. They may also need help constructing a timeline of how they’re going to get their writing done.

2. Observation Skills – Part 1

An important part of being a good writer is being able to observe life around you, and recognize how your own unique perspective can be translated into something that people want to read. With that in mind, people watching is a very good skill to hone. This is a great way to get ideas for characters or to practice making inferences. Another benefit is that it helps them look at life from another person’s perspective — always a good exercise for middle schoolers.

Every year, when I first talk about characterization, I give my students an “Undercover Assignment,” where they must observe someone who is out and about, and write down different aspects of their indirect characterization — their appearance, words, actions, thoughts/feelings (must infer this), and interactions with others. Then, based on this information, they make an inference and make statements that are a direct characterization of the person.

I got this idea from a game that my husband and I sometimes play, usually when we’re going out to eat, where we infer things about the people around us and make up stories. The best are when people look like they’re on a first date. (I’ve been an avid people watcher all my life.)

I admit this assignment could be construed as being kind of odd, but applying their writing to real life, and being able to read people — or “write” people — will come in useful for many of their assignments, and brings another layer to our literature discussions, as well. Students have written from locations such as: sports practices (focusing on a coach or teammate), grocery store (fellow shoppers), front porch (neighbors cutting grass/playing outside), kitchen table (mom/dad), living room couch (siblings).

3. Observation Skills — Part 2

Another part of improving observation skills is being able to sit quietly and notice things about the environment around you, attuned to your own thoughts and reactions. Sometimes this can work in the classroom, but it’s better if the students are able to go outside or at least somewhere different, and take notice of different sensory elements.

One assignment I give for this skill is the “Hiding Assignment.” Students (and most adults, myself included) are so used to being on the go and never having true quiet time to themselves where they are just sitting with nothing but their thoughts. (I tell them “quiet time” doesn’t count if you’re on an electronic device.) When we study the Holocaust, I want my students to have a way to experience, in a very small way, what it meant for people to go into hiding and have to be very quiet, so I ask them to find a place in their house, away from all the hubbub, and just sit and “hide” for however long they can manage.

Some stipulations: Since I give this assignment while we read the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank, they are not allowed to bring anything that Anne Frank would not have had in 1942 — so no electronic devices, no processed food. Anne did do homework during the day, so if they have enough light, they could do homework if they choose. If there are other people in their house at the time, they need to tell at least their mom or dad what they’re doing so no one panics when they can’t be found. (This activity is also NOT to be used as chore avoidance.)

By their own accounts, I have had students hide anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours. Some worthwhile conclusions they have made — time goes by really slowly, they don’t know how they’d be able to do something like this for months or years, they felt really lonely. Some actually really enjoy this time. Again, I know this is an odd assignment, but it does give them an “excuse” to sit quietly with just themselves and no electronics, which is a great and underrated skill to have these days.

4. “Show, Don’t Tell”

I talk about “Show, Don’t Tell” at the beginning of the year because it sets a good tone for what kind of writing I expect throughout the year. Since students are already familiar with this technique, then, it becomes a good goal for many students who aren’t naturally descriptive in their writing. There are a few different ways to incorporate this skill into writing, in terms of goals: choosing three items to expand, and really go all out on descriptions, playing up a particular sense (such as smell) that they don’t normally pay attention to, describing things as if they were telling someone who can’t see.

5. Parallelism

I just moved this lesson closer to the beginning of the year as well. We talk about both types of parallelism — using either repeated words or repeated grammatical structures for effect. We look at three different examples: Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, “Beethoven” by Shane Koyczan, and “Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani. Each of these works have both types of parallelism. I encourage students to start taking notice of times when they feel inspired or motivated by what someone says or writes — in many cases, it will likely be because the person used parallelism.

6. Choosing an Author as a Mentor

This goal works especially well for students who are avid readers. When they choose a writer to be their mentor, we talk about what aspects they like of that author’s writing. From that discussion, they choose at least one element that they think will best enhance their assignments for that quarter. For example, this first quarter, I have a student who really likes the style of Edgar Allan Poe. For her short story, she was going to include a very intense scene, so we decided that she could use dashes and short phrases to create a sense of urgency and panic, just like what Poe does in “The Tell-Tale Heart” when the narrator is talking with the police.  Using Poe as her mentor helped inspire a very powerfully written scene that definitely channeled that same sort of intensity.

7. Word Choice

I talk frequently about how students need to use eighth-grade level vocabulary. This means staying away from words like “good,” “bad,” “great,” and “amazing,” and instead incorporating words from our vocab series Wordly Wise or reaching for the thesaurus to find possible substitutes. It is still important that word choices sound natural, but it’s useful for students to stretch their personal word banks a bit. I usually say to choose at least three ho-hum words that can be replaced by something flashier or more precise.

What are ways you challenge your student writers?