“That’s it, Ms. Brinkmeyer? This is all we have to do?”
One of my proudest teaching moments happened the day I helped three students simultaneously write their own short stories. They’d been referred to me for academic support. The rest of their class was done writing, but these three still had blank pages.
This is a common issue, but it is not one I saw much of when I taught general education — I was really good at stacking layers of swiss cheese, as Angela says.
If you’ve had it with late papers, I hope you can walk away from this post with some simple practices that will bring more ease to you and your students.
1. Build background knowledge
The old adage is “write what you know,” but so often, we expect students to write without the background knowledge to succeed. They might be asked to write about something they read and feel insecure that they are enough of an expert to do so successfully. I think this is why students so often shy away from analysis in favor of saying, “It was a really good book.”
Ensuring that they students had tons of time to talk with peers and even plan essays together can help with this. While they might write the final essay independently, good writers incubate their ideas with others. This process builds background knowledge around an unfamiliar topic.
Sometimes students are asked to write about self-selected topics and stories, and they still struggle. This comes from a different type of background knowledge gap. It could be missing the academic language to write about any topic. For example, teaching the words people use when writing with analysis, research, or argument.
In other cases, when you want students to write how they would speak to a friend or family member, they may need explicit acknowledgment that their language is supposed to take center stage. Without this, they may get confused, thinking they have to write about something they love but in a “teacher’s way.”
It could also be a gap in structural background knowledge. I often hear students say they don’t know where to start, and that’s because they can’t envision how the piece could unfold. Providing some simple options for approaches can help, as the next practice suggests.
2. Make sure everyone has a roadmap
For the runners in the classroom, they can relate to the idea of visualizing a course before you run it. A roadmap in writing is the same thing. This metaphor applies across a variety of contexts for different students since humans are wired to think about something and how it might go before it happens.
To this end, we make roadmaps. They are very simple, not at all like elaborate graphic organizers which can become another hurdle for some students. In the case of my three students who needed to write three different short stories, I asked them the following questions.
- Who is your story about? What does that person want? What’s going to get in the way of that in the story? These questions established the general overview of the story.
- What’s the character doing? A lot of times people like to give details about the setting at the beginning, so where is it? What time of day is it?
- What could happen next to move the character closer to the problem?
- How does the problem happen?
- How does the character solve the problem?
- What does the character realize at the end?
For each question, the students jotted down notes on a blank Google doc. It didn’t have to be in complete sentences, just whatever they thought of for the answers. Since I was helping the three of them simultaneously, I would ask a question and then circulate to see their answers before asking the next one.
In a whole-class environment, asking a set of guided questions is a little trickier. Instead, I have students make a little drawing of their papers, so they can see the sections along with the topics.
This was an example I did for a piece on where to eat in New York City. After this process, students who are still stuck can get pulled together for direct questions.
For an argument piece, I could ask:
- What is your topic? What do you want people to know, do, think, or believe?
- Why do you think or believe that? Each reason they give could become its own paragraph.
- Why do you think it is so important for people to know, do, think, or believe that? This provides for a strong conclusion.
3. Train students with writing sprints
This roadmap process is what I used to write every paper in college and graduate school. Once I have my little list of topics, it’s time to write my way through them one by one.
A constant practice in my classroom is writing sprints. Some people call them quick writes. Basically, the idea is that you write without editing yourself or stopping. We practice this almost daily with smaller topics, like speed training for a runner, so when it comes time to write something longer, the students rely on their training.
Often, writing days in the classroom become a winnowing between the students who can keep themselves on task and those who cannot. This is a missed opportunity. Instead, I tell students that we are going to use a writing sprint to write the next thing on their topic list. I give them a word count goal and a time limit they are used to.
The students are consistently stunned by how many words they can write in a certain amount of time. They often think that writing the paper will take forever, which is similar to how I feel about cleaning the house. I used to put it off, saying I didn’t have enough time to finish, but when I actually timed myself and saw how long it took, I realized that it really didn’t take that long. This use of a timer and a word count goal will pay dividends for students who will need to learn to manage their own progress in writing (or a variety of project-based tasks) in their lives.
One issue that could come up in writing sprints for a major paper is research. Nothing has stopped my writing faster than convincing myself that I need to stop writing to find the perfect fact, quote, image, or hyperlink.
When I use this process and I know students need to have research, we write after we have gathered some research and taken some notes. Students can review the notes before the writing sprint, but once it starts, they are not allowed to use their notes. Instead, we follow the “medical medical” protocol.
I read somewhere once that when people write medical dramas like Gray’s Anatomy, the scriptwriters write the script like this: “Quick! We need to MEDICAL MEDICAL before she MEDICAL MEDICAL.” Later on, the doctors on staff fill in the script with accurate terms and information.
In class, this looks like students writing, “According to ****, ******.” They go back to their notes after the sprint is over to plug in the information. Not only does this process keep their momentum up, it helps them write with research rather than over-relying on research.
4. Keep the cursor moving
While students are completing their writing sprints, I am constantly walking around. This is not the time for me to catch up on grading or planning. This is the time for me to prevent anyone from ending up in a late work situation. My entire focus is to keep their cursors moving, to eliminate the blank page so they can see that they have so much to say.
I only talk to students whose cursors aren’t moving. I say, “You stopped. What are you thinking about?” This question helps me solve the present dilemma to get the student feeling momentum again. I only get a couple of answers to this question.
One is that they don’t know how to spell a word or want a piece of information. I tell them to spell it the best they can or put in asterisks for the research and come back to it later.
The other is that they don’t know what to write about. I ask them what the next thing is on their roadmap. They tell me, and I tell them to write about that. Yes, I know how ridiculously simple that sounds, but often the student is starting to think about the writing as a whole. When someone asked Stephen King how he writes so much, he famously said, “One word at a time.” My job is to just help them find the next word.
5. Make it social
One of the strange things about an extended writing project is that it becomes a time of silence and individualism in the classroom. Group work, discussion, games, and chatter are shut down so everyone can “focus.” This sudden change does not benefit all (most?) kids.
After a writing sprint ends, I make time for students to talk. Maybe we do a word count contest and celebrate the top three word counts. Maybe students turn and talk about what went well and what didn’t. No matter the prompt, I want to remind students that while they may be doing parts of this alone, we are actually alone together. This alone togetherness normalizes the struggle everyone is experiencing as writers. We celebrate how much fun it is to do hard things together.
6. Accept “unfinished” work
Most of this list is aimed at getting a first draft from everyone. Ideally, after each writing sprint, students would have time to “reread it and make it better” through revision. Eventually, they could share with classmates and me to keep revising. Yes, I want as much of that to happen as possible. However, when it’s the due date, time is up.
I have students write on Google Docs that I own, so I am always able to access their work. I grade it on the due date, no matter if it isn’t done. No writing is ever really done; it’s just due. From here, I allow students to revise and resubmit for a higher grade (again, on my deadline). Some students need this grade feedback before they’ll take revisions seriously. That pragmatism is okay with me.
If I’ve employed all the other practices successfully, the only students who won’t have anything at all to turn in are the students who have been absent for the life of the project. I have those students too — several of them. I am done being surprised that this is a thing, so for every unit, I have a backup plan.
I know it doesn’t seem fair for a student to skip out on steps (and they are definitely not learning as much), but a chronically absent student often has a mental dilemma going on. Their work has to be perfect before it can be done but they don’t have the time to get to perfect.
I love teaching students how to accept reality and commit to the idea that done is better than perfect (see Angela’s post What Could Be Possible If You Aimed For B+ Work?). For a chronically absent student, my goal at the high school level is to be a reason that student believes they can come back to school, not another reason they feel they don’t belong at school.
Here are some ways I have students make up writing in a hurry:
- Give them research notes to write from. I am always modeling with my own example, so I just give them my notes. They don’t get full credit for doing the research, but at least they can write something.
- Give them a topic they can complete in one writing sprint. If I don’t know when a student will be in school again, I capture what I can on the day they are present. This could be the story of a moment as opposed to an extended story or an argument paragraph rather than an entire essay.
Of course, how this is graded is up to you. My guiding light has been this interview with Cornelius Minor (“Antiracist” Grading Starts With You). My approach feels very in line with 5 Grading Practices Teachers Can Use To Promote Equity Now. For another approach, check out Ending the Late Work Debate: Try Issuing Students a “Credit Score.”
Staying in the Present
Dragging ourselves and our students back through late work keeps us all stuck in the past. It can become a cycle of guilt for our struggling students, and a never-ending slog of paper-chasing for us. We are only ever truly alive in the present. Let’s stay there with our students as much as possible. These practices will help you and your students enjoy the present and accomplish more at the same time.
For more ideas on how I help students write on a deadline, check out Spend More Time on These Three Techniques of Teaching Writing. These underutilized practices also support my students in completing their writing on time.
7th-12th Grade ELA
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