Today my students, with every student in our school, participated in a mock proficiency writing exam. Writing is a big focus for us this year, and we are attacking from many sides--from the creative to the serious. Proficiency exams, which figure into our AYP, is of course, the super serious!
I spent quite a bit of time for each class modeling how to brainstorm and plan an essay as we went through the process of the exam. I used the generic topic I gave them, which asked the students to write about a person they remember--you know that basic special person character sketch here. I used a different example each class period so the students could see how much of a struggle it can be even for me to come up with things to say. (The thrill of impromptu in the classroom!) I encouraged them to come up with concrete examples (aka nitty gritty details) and not just vague labels. I pointed out weak areas in my own thinking, suggesting places where I needed to do a little more thinking before actually writing.
Why would I bother to take the time for brainstorming at this point in the year? I've noticed in my students' writing notebooks that their brainstorms are a few bubbles with words--enough to pacify me, I'd imagine. I don't even care how students brainstorm, I just want them to do it, but they obviously do not understand the power and necessity of it. Many of them have mastered the art of writing nothing interesting for several pages. They can do so much better!
After brainstorming for ideas, I tried to make the point that those splatterings of ideas didn't just automatically form themselves into an essay. So, kiddos, you have ideas, but where are you going to put them in your essays? What do the magic bubbles tell you? They followed me while I shaped a working thesis and built the body of my essay based on my bubbles. In some classes, students helped me cross out things I shouldn't include in my essay or helped me reshape my thesis to fit the actual information I had. By the time we were finished, in most cases I still needed to do a little more thinking to firm up my ideas, but I had a pretty solid plan of where my essay was going.
Guess how long each of my planning sessions lasted? A whopping 10 minutes! I know, it seems like a terrible waste of 10 minutes to do all this thinking, doesn't it?
My board was a terrible mess of words, crosses, lines, and bubbles. A stranger would not have been able to decipher my mess, but luckily that mess was for ME to plan my writing. Some of my stubborn students were still irritated that I was "making" them take so much time to plan their essays. These are the wise children who know more than I do. Afterall, they are teenagers and I am over 30. On the other hand, I saw quite a few light bulbs go off today on why brainstorming is important and HOW it actually helps one plan an essay.
I'm crossing my fingers that today is the beginning of some deeper writing and thinking for my students. They've been writing on the surface with vague details lately, so I'm hoping that if they take time to think and plan before draft that revision won't seem so daunting either.