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24 Steps to a Writing-Centered Classroom
by Ron Coia


Here are twenty-four ideas gleaned from the Summer Institute that I feel will improve student writing. I chose to record both philosophical changes (Writer's Workshop) and activities (Looping). These are ideas culled from a heap of others, ones that I believe will work for me and our block schedule at Clackamas. I will post this list on my desk and review weekly.

1. Writer's Workshop Use on a regular basis, perhaps once every two weeks. Make it on a certain day, say every Tuesday (we meet every other day, so there is a Tuesday every other week). I will have specific activities some days, while allowing students to write and improve their work on others.

2. Looping exercises Find good topics that allow students to explore issues, both related to our reading and unrelated to specific school work. I will begin with the same "Seeing" looping exercise we did in OWP. I think it is an excellent way to begin the year in a literature class.

3. Magazine Photos Use with writing character descriptions and piecing a story together. Make two photo characters meet in a story.

4. Make a connection between creative writing and critical thinking Use Art Peterson's Writer's Workout Book for help with this. Read "The Ashley Syndrome" on page 47 to see that there is often no connection. I want students to write creative papers in formal essays. I will use Peterson's exercises dealing with facts. reasons, and opinions for help (ppgs. 47-67).

5. Write with Five Senses As we did in class, go beyond writing with just our hands. Use our noses, ears, feelings. I will do Christina's feel-what's-in-the-bag exercise when I teach parts of speech.

6. Read poetry aloud I want students to hear and enjoy poetry, not just the classic ones. Billy Collins has a site called Poetry 180 which gives a poem a day. These poems lend themselves to public reading. This may help students hear what good writing sounds like.

7. Read my writing aloud Share pieces that I'm working on, both the good and the excruciatingly terrible. Show them that I am trying to improve, too. Students may feel that writing is a destination one gets to someday.

8. Avoid the reading-then-assigning method Be sure students have talked through their thinking before major assignments.

9. Use portfolios frequently Students will keep completed and in-progress pieces in class. They will also have a notebook that will be a place for random thoughts and future writing ideas. Also, have an extra floppy disk in there for use. I'll put these materials on the required supplies list

10. Teach how to critique Have several practice writing groups models in front of the class in fishbowl fashion so that students know what to say and how to say it. Avoid the eviscerated "good job." Learn to write and ask questions in the margin of pieces. I'll use student work to start with. We will all have the same piece to work with for the first few times.

11. Provide open-ended prompts Effective writing prompts must fall somewhere between "Write about your thoughts on the racism of Huck Finn in modern-day society" (too closed), and "Freewrite today" (too open). Most of my writing prompts must give direction, but not stifle. There may be days in which one of these two are appropriate, but I want to give most somewhere in the middle. I learned in OWP that Peter Elbow created the idea of freewriting, an activity lazily used in classrooms today. We must remember that he used it to put order to a mass of knowledge. It was focused to some degree.

12. Write after (not before) discussion I always seemed to have more to write after a short discussion in our OWP class, and I want to bring that to students. I used to think that writing warms up the brain, but perhaps a brief idea-share is the fuel that leads to productive writing, which will then lead to a deeper discussion.

13. Write from a different perspective Write poems, letters, and thoughts from a character in a book, an actor in the news. or the student sitting across from you.

14. Have students lead a writing exercise Like we did in OWP, perhaps students can sign up for a short, thirty-minute writing exercise on one of our Writer's Workshop days. This was an effective way for me to think about writing. Teaching leads us to learn. 15. Conference with students During Writer's Workshop, meet with students individually to discuss at their work. Do so after revision from peer comments. This is going to be time-consuming, but I want to do it. 16. Find ways to include art in classroom Using art as a pre- or post-writing activity can add a greater dimension of meaning for students. I need to consider ways to do this, even though I am not naturally inclined in that direction.

17. Embed grammar lessons Use Peterson's exercises for teaching parts of speech, commas, and sentence combining.

18. Use books that have excellent exercises Copy and review John Gardner's The Art of Fiction exercise, especially 3, 4a, 4b, 4d, 8 on pages 203-4. Use Art Peterson's The Writer's Workout Book.

19. Have a school-wide 55 Fiction writing contest. This is something that I wanted to do for two years now, but did not fit it in. I'll be teaching only two subjects, so I'll have time. I think students will enjoy this. I'll go to Powell's and Barnes & Noble for prizes. My target is for January.

20. Collect and post writing quotations Have students on the lookout for them, too.

21. Find more ways to publish student writing. Post examples on the web page. Collect good excerpts (sentences and paragraphs) and put in a section online called "Student Writing of the Moment." I started it last year, but I'll be better prepared for it this year.

22. Consider publishing a literary magazine. This is perhaps too much work for me, but I may combine efforts with another teaching in the school.

23. Use OWP website to refresh my mind on the lessons I did this summer That is, if people in the class actually send me the lessons.

24. Write for myself. This is going to the best way to teach writing in a fresh, passionate way. I must continue to find time, even 15-30 minutes a day, to write for my own enjoyment. I'm fearful of being the hypocrite that I was before: not writing, but telling my students the joy and importance of writing. This includes meeting with a writing group so that I may constantly be the learner.