Teaching and Assessing Writing with the Six Traits
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Ideas and Content
Lecture: Ideas About Ideas
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Vapor lock. Stuck. I don't have anything to write about! You hear them say it. You see the anxious look, the uncertain shrug. You can help!

Students may feel impoverished when it comes to writing Ideas, but they have a treasure chest full of memories, insights, and knowledge. We must help them find the buried treasure of experience and spill it out for all to see. There are a number of methods to help students find Ideas for writing.

When writing in the subject areas be sure your students have a 'knowledge bank' stuffed with experiments, readings, lectures, research, and discussions before you ask for that that first draft. When working with creative narrative help your students discover and appreciate their memory gems. You can do this by taking the time to demonstrate how brainstorming or idea generation works.

Providing adequate time for brainstorming will help your students "pick their own lock." (You can scale back after training them to find their own ideas, but first you must show them how to unlock their thinking!) Brainstorming is like doodling your way to thinking. There are many approaches, such as quick clusters of ideas around a central topic, free-associating, listing, drawing symbols, typing furiously without revising. Any technique that produces a rapid unfiltered flow of ideas will work. Idea generation and free writes can liberate students from the misconception that all writing must be formal and correct from the very beginning.

Consider holding a combination class discussion and group brainstorming session as you prepare them for free writing.

  • Use an overhead projector to capture ideas about a topic (or to generate topics to begin with).
  • Get them thinking and moving -- give students several post-it notes and let them build a cluster on the wall.
  • Pass out idea maps--silently brainstorm, then have students share their most unique idea.
  • Appeal to the kinesthetic learner with "sense prompts" while building descriptive word banks. Pass out a foil wrapped Hershey's Kiss. Pull out a pizza box and discuss the aroma of cold cheese. Have them close their eyes and run their fingertips over sandpaper. Take them outside to contemplate their surroundings. Play sound effects or weird music. Anything that jars the senses and releases memory is worth trying and will help to generate Ideas.

Idea Generating Software

New software tools for Idea generation can be particularly effective because they encourage students to play with their ideas and make the task of capturing thoughts into a visual game rather than a writing task. If you have access to a computer lab and the software, train them and turn 'em loose! (See this week's Reading list for Idea generation software resources.) Trust that the time you devote to Ideas will show in the final quality of the writing.

Still you do not need a lab to use idea software. In the one computer classroom, project the idea map to a monitor and collaboratively extend it. Have an able student type in the ideas while you draw out the thinking. I love to create large-scale diagrams and colorful notes on the white board, now a clever gadget called Mimio can scan your whiteboard and quickly digitalize the collaborative brain's best ideas. (Again, pass the pen around to get them out of their seats.)

The novelty of working with technology provides fuel for the Idea fires and is one of many effective ways to generate Ideas. There is no one 'best' way to teach this subject. Indeed, we must recognize the diversity of learning styles and continue to seek a wide variety of innovative methods so that every learner has choices and improved chances to find their own "Ideas about Ideas".

Writing Fluency

Once you establish Idea fluency, it is easier to build Writing fluency. I have had great success using the techniques found in Natalie Goldberg's inspirational book, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. Here are just a few of her techniques for writing fluency:

  • Keep your hand moving: don't stop to think about what you are writing.
  • Be specific: don't say "car," say "Cadillac."
  • Do not worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar: you can change these things later.
  • You are free to write the worst junk in America: don't worry about the quality of your work. Be true to your own inspiration.

Goldberg's ideas help free my students to write. Fluency exercises help to deliver a flow of ideas to paper. With a regular, established routine, writers begin to build a bank of experiences on paper that can be revisited for story ideas.

Students ignorant of the writing process will be skeptical. Even with Goldberg's Rules posted on the wall, clusters and lists hanging from the ceiling, and ideas popping up on the computer some students will still say, "What do I write about? How many pages? Does this count?"

Just keep their hands moving! A stopwatch and a regular routine can be your best tools. Establish a base line early in the year. "How much can you write in 5 minutes?" Gradually increase the time. Randomly grade pieces on a simple length = point basis. Soon students will be able to write 1 - 2 pages of first draft material in 5 -10 minutes. The blank page stigma will be overcome and the writer's cramp reaction to timed proficiency testing will be dealt with. Your students will begin to see that good ideas lead to effortless writing.

Apply a few organizational techniques (which we will discuss in the next module) and you, and your class will be ready for more formal writing or revision. One last thought-as teachers, try to model the best practice. Take the time to write with your students. This demonstrates the value of writing --- it's so important even the teacher does it!

For more resources and lesson plans for teaching Ideas, see this week's Readings!

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