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10 Tips for Creating an English Classroom Where Great Writing Will Happen

Creating Stronger Student Writers - 10 Tips by StageofLife.comby Rebecca Thiegs Co-Founder

In my first year of teaching, I stumbled upon Susan Woolridge Goldsmith’s book Poemcrazy.  I read the entire book and took copious notes on how to get the poetry out of my students while my husband and I journeyed to our friend’s cabin in Northern Minnesota.  During that trip, I saw the Northern Lights for the first time, and because I had just read Goldsmith’s Poemcrazy, I wrote four different poems about the beauty of the night sky. Goldsmith’s books gave me the tools to not only get the poetry out of my students, but to get it out of myself.

That experience opened a rift inside of me.  I realized that I wanted to  create a classroom atmosphere where amazing writing was bound to happen.  If I could provide my students with the best situations and suggestions possible to write well, good writing was bound to happen. In my mind, I cleared out the workbooks, the violent obsession some teachers possess about the 5 paragraph essay format, and I Creating Great Writers - Classroom Tipsdecided that I wanted my students to be able to write about experiences like witnessing the Northern Lights without the constraints and rules of the typical high school Language Arts curriculum. 

For me the ideology went beyond JUST poetry, but transferred to how I taught all the time. 

In my 15 years as an English teacher, my biggest pride comes from creating a writer-centric landscape where great writing occurred all the time.  

Here are my top 10 tips to create an English classroom where great writing is bound to happen...

1) Make Journals an Integral Part of Your Classroom

Classroom Tip: Using JournalsI know what you are thinking: "Wow, that’s really an amazing tip, groundbreaking, almost . . . I’ve been requiring a journal and students HATE it."  But wait.  Take a look at the way you utilize journals and journaling in your classroom.  Is it a place for students to really work on writing?  Do they have freedom to create in their journal?  How often do you collect the journals? What is your purpose for having a journal?

There are many schools of thought when it comes to journals in the English classroom. 

For me, I really wanted the journals to remain the space of my students - a place to experiment, to be honest, to be messy, to be creative and to practice writing.  Many teachers put so many requirements on journals in order to grade them that they become an extra for the students and just another assignment to grade for the teacher. Maybe it’s time to rethink HOW you utilize journals in the classroom.  

For my 10th grade Honors students, I required that before they came into class on the first day, they needed to turn in their summer "Readers Writers Notebook" or RWNB (a fancy term for their journal which is based on Linda Reif’s use of journals in her classroom in her books Seeking Diversity and Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook).  I required a certain amount of entries, and I wanted to see how students played with their writer’s voice during the summer.  I asked my students to mark 5 passages that they believed really exemplified their voice in writing.  After reading the RWNBs, I felt like I knew my students as writers BEFORE the first day of class, and I understood where I could take them with writing during the school year. 

Through the RWNBs, I also created a habit for writing ALMOST EVERY DAY. 

Many of the students were reluctant to hand in their RWNBs a week before school because the journals became a friend in their lives.  I can’t even tell you how many students over the years thanked me for the assignment, saying things like “This is the most worthwhile homework I have ever been given” or “I haven’t kept a journal since I was in 7th grade, so thank you for assigning this because now I can’t imagine my life without a journal.”  It helped to get them into a journaling routine while they were their more relaxed summer selves.  Once school begins the pace for many of them becomes hectic and writing from panic or fear of a grade changes the way students interact with writing.

The trick is to continue the RWNB throughout the year.  Allowing students a safe place to play with language is an essential part of creating a writer’s environment in your classroom.

For great resources on how to incorporate journals into your classroom try:
  • Notebook Know How by Aimee Buckner
  • Seeking Diversity by Linda Reif
  • Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook by Linda Reif
  • Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher

2) Use Daily Quickwrites

Classroom Tip: Using QuickwritesOnce you have your journals established and you decide how you want to integrate them into your classroom, one way to utilize student journals that doesn’t take too much time, but can really expand the writer world of the students is to do a daily quickwrite.  If you don’t know what a quickwrite is, it’s basically what the name implies:  It is quick writing about a passage or poem. 

This is different from a think/pair/share or just a journal daily topic because you write based on the writing of someone else.

How to incorporate quickwrites:
Give students a passage or poem (you can project this, hand out copies, have students share copies, or maybe even use a passage in a book you are studying).  Explain to students that for a quickwrite you will read the passage or poem twice.  The first time, students should just listen.  The second time they should listen closer for understanding, nuances, wording, structure - basically, the 2nd time through they are learning.  

After the second time, students will have 2-3 minutes to write in their journal. 

For these 2-3 minutes students can:
  1. Focus on what they thought of the passage / poem.  Did they like it?  Not like it?  Why?
  2. Focus on what they relate to in the passage / poem.  Maybe they can make a connection to their lives, other literature, or even a song.  
  3. Lift a line and write from that line - this could be the first line, last line or any line.  I am always impressed when students do this and write their own poems.  They usually turn out amazing.  
  4. Focus on what stuck with them - an image? a phrase? the style? a detail? a description? a word?
  5. Focus on the overall meaning.

Great places to find quickwrites or to learn more about them:

3) Give Writing Choices

Classroom Tip: Give Writing ChoicesAlthough there are curriculum requirements, sometimes it is really nice for students to have choices for their writing assignments.  Do all the students have to write the same kind of research paper?  Do they all need to write about the same topic on a prompt? Can you give them types of writing choices - poetry, reflection, essay, narrative? Can some students be working on college application essays and others working on writing a letter of gratitude to someone?  How much choice do you give your students?  If you allow students to write in different styles for each assignment, they will be happier and you will too when you grade the assignments (it won’t feel so monotonous).  It will require more rubric creation, but overall it will be more satisfying for everyone.  

4) Give Students Real World Writing Opportunities

Creating Great Writers: Give Real World Writing OpportunitiesStudents need to feel like their writing matters.  Try to give them opportunities to write for real audiences for a real purpose.  If all of their writing is ONLY being seen by you and they are ONLY completing the assignments for you to grade, sometimes writing seems pointless.  Give them a reason to write - a legitimate writing competition, letters to the editor, persuasive letters to a politician or influential author, personal narratives for a class anthology, books to write for an elementary student, poetry to write for a loved one, an essay for a college application, or research to write for a specific audience.  If students have a REAL audience, their writing changes.  The stakes are higher and they care more about their writing.

Great places to submit real world writing:

5) Teach students to “mine their own writing.”

Creating Great Writers: Mine Your WritingHighlighters were an integral part of my writing work with students.  Whenever students brought a first draft or first attempt at writing, we’d get out the highlighters. I always asked students to search for their “best lines” or “best passages”. Then, I would ask them to get more critical and find places where they needed work.  When students become more aware of how they are writing, what works for them and what doesn’t, it helps them to write deeper, to fix their own mistakes and to write in different directions.  It also gets rid of the “I wrote it, now you fix it” notion that many students have.  As Barry Lane says, “All writing is revision” so teach students to mine, revise, revisit, fix, elaborate and then hand in papers.  

6) Mentor texts

Creating Great Writers: Use Mentor TextsA few years ago many writing workshops stressed using picture books as mentor texts for high school classrooms.  Mentor texts come in all shapes and sizes, though, and even the books that you are required to read for the curriculum are great for this.  If you are required to read The House on Mango Street, study Cisneros’s style.  How does she use fragments?  Can students write a vignette or two (mine write 5) to illustrate a story in their lives? Use The Catcher in the Rye as a mentor text for stream of consciousness writing. Use The Great Gatsby’s chapter 7 to teach subtext and dialogue.  Use To Kill a Mockingbird as a mentor text to teach Barry Lane’s concepts of exploding a moment or shrinking a century.  

I also use picture books to get students started on personal narratives.  My favorite is Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains.  At first students giggle at the elementary school feel of me reading a picture book aloud, but when I give them the extended quickwrite “Start with the phrase ‘When I was young in . . . ‘ and see what comes up, I am always amazed at how students will write for 10 minutes without stopping and produce BEAUTIFUL work that often becomes a piece of their longer personal narratives.

Great resources for utilizing mentor texts in high school English classes:

7) Teach students to give better peer feedback

Creating Great Writers: Using Peer FeedbackLet’s face it.  We can’t grade every piece of writing students do.  If you are trying to do that, you are going to drive yourself crazy and give yourself life long neck problems from bending over stacks of papers.  No one has enough time to give feedback on every paper, essay or story - not to mention the tests that we grade and journals (if you are collecting them).  There isn’t enough time in a year for that.  A great tool to use to help students become better writers and to hold each other accountable is to teach students how to give proper peer feedback.  

For each writing assignment, I teach students a new approach to peer feedback.  Some of them are assignment specific and require students to look for certain things we learned in class.  For example, when we write personal narratives, I want students to use vivid details to help the reader visualize the experience.  I ask for the peer feedback partners to locate places where the vivid details rock and other places where they are needed.  Some peer feedback sessions are just to work on grammar or sentence structure.  Others are designed for students to answer the questions or concerns of the writer, or to look only at endings or beginnings.  If you have a class that can give awesome peer feedback, students become more self sufficient and see different styles of writing.

Great Resources for Peer Feedback:
  • From - this article gives practical strategies about peer review sessions:
  • From The Teaching Center - this article gives important information on how to make peer review sessions work

8) Use Student Conferencing

Creating Great Writers: Using Student ConferencingHow often do you interact with students BEFORE they turn in their papers? 

Do you collect drafts and mark them all up, hand them back and ask students to hand in a final draft without talking to students about the comments on their papers? Do you just assign a paper or essay and only collect the final draft?  If you haven’t tried conferencing with students during their writing process, it’s worth a shot to get better writing BEFORE a final draft.  

It took me a long time to incorporate conferencing into my daily classes.  I used lack of time for an excuse.  Because my classes were only 45 minutes, when would I find time to talk to each student individually about their writing?  I usually found time to add teacher conferences into my research paper unit, but other than that, any writing I assigned I expected  students to do their own thing until the hand in day.  When I added in teacher writing conferences, I noticed a HUGE difference in the quality of final drafts for EVERY writing assignment.  Yes, it takes time, but it is time that is very well spent.  

If your ultimate goal is to help students become better writers, a writing conference with each writing assignment will accelerate the process.  It holds students accountable, and it gives you insight into writing difficulties for each student - maybe things that you need to workshop.  These conferences don’t need to be elaborate or long.  Maybe you can set a timer - each student only gets one minute.  In that minute they can share something they like, something they are stuck on, ask a question, or schedule a longer conference if they need it.  

For a few of my assignments I hold a “grade” conference where students and I talk about what grade they think the paper deserves and I tell them what grade I think it deserves.  Then, we compromise on a final grade.  I have never regretted conferencing with my students.

Many teachers worry about what to do with the rest of the class during a writing conference day.  Be creative.  Find time to conference with just a few students each day.  Have quiet reading time at the beginning of a period and hold conferences with some of the students. What I have found is that if I can engage students in the writing process, I can expect that all students will work on their writing while I conference with the others about their writing pieces.  It takes time and practice, but again, the writing of all the students will improve.

Resources to help you with student conferencing:

9) Teach Revision

Creating Great Writers: Teach RevisionRevision is not a dirty word (even if students loathe it), and it is an important aspect of the writing process.  Because students are using computers more and more for writing, it is easier to revise, but it is also the step that students most often skip.  All writing is essentially a form of revision, but students hesitate to do this step because it makes them feel like their task of writing is NEVER over.  Good writers know that revision is essential to help with clarity, meaning, details, development, editing, and overall EVERYTHING in writing.  Because students hesitate with revision so much, I like to employ fun ways to look at revising their work.  

I LOVE Kelly Gallagher’s book Teaching Adolescent Writers because it provides easy to use strategies that are fun. I always used his STAR revision strategies with students (and in my own writing) and his examples in Pimp My Write.  Teach students to S= substitute, T= take things out, A= add, R= rearrange and to ultimately “Pimp their write”.  Kelly’s step by step narration on STAR revision and Pimp My Write can be found on pages 58-61.  He goes on to explain the difference between surface and deep revision. All of his revision strategies are user friendly and work with students.

I also LOVE Barry Lane’s book After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision.  I especially appreciate Chapter 5: Explode a Moment and Shrink A Century if you are working on narratives or story writing.  Chapter 3: Snapshots and Thoughtshots is also very helpful to give students an awareness of their details vs. internal thoughts ratio.  

Help students to help themselves in the revision process. It’s great to have peer revision or teacher conferences about the writing, but it’s even better when students have strategies to use to get to better writing on their own.  

Great Sources for Revision Tips:
  • Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher
  • After the End by Barry Lane
  • Revisers Toolkit by Barry Lane

10) Write with your students

Creating Great Writers: Write with your studentsIf you don’t write, only write papers for your grad classes, or only write when you have to, you are missing out on really helping your students to write better.  Why?  If you don’t understand the struggles of writers, how can you help your students to become better? If you are afraid to share your own writing, how can you ever expect your students to share theirs?

Write with your students.  Show them your process - your joys and mistakes, your stories and essays, your poetry and prose.  You’ll be shocked at how much your students respect you for opening up your writing world to them, and how much more writing you will get from them.  When you are open and okay making mistakes in front of your students, they will take more writing risks and be more open to writing.   

A great place to learn more about writing with your students:
  • Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle
  • Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher
  • Another way to write with your students: Challenge yourself and enter the monthly writing contest here at along with your students.  We always offer the same monthly contest topics to the adult stages.  As your students go through the process of creating a account and drafting their essays, you can work through all the steps with them.  You might win a great prize, too from one of our national education sponsors.
  • If you want even more great tips for creating a literary and writing-friendly classroom, explore the The National Writing Project's 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

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