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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Transforming your Students' Writing from Blah to Bling! Part One

                                         By Bill MacDonald/The Write Prescription          
Do you feel like you are reading the same story/essay over and over in your classroom as you are grading student compositions?  Perhaps you find yourself falling asleep out of boredom!?  That's what happened to me that caused me to come up with my Blah to Bling activity. 
See if you can relate: 
     I had the opportunity to score a set of papers for an entire campus several years ago, and the prompt the students were given was to write a composition about a surprise.  Now, I want to be clear --  I am not exaggerating when I write that out of 95 papers, 65 were about a surprise birthday party.  Let's pause a moment to let that sink in - That is 68% of the students! 
     Another campus I helped in this way had asked  their students to write about a moment when they were proud.  Well, two days before that prompt, these students had taken benchmark tests in Reading and in Math. Guess what about half of the students were proud about... Passing their tests!  Here's  a summary of what most of the essays looked like:
Have you ever been proud? I have.  This week our class had to take some tests in Reading and Math.  I was nervous.....but my teacher told me, "YOU CAN DO IT!"  So I said...."Okay, I'll do it!"  So I studied and did my strategies, and tried my best....and I was proud.....I hope you liked my paper, and I hope you give me a good grade.  NO, I DIDN'T, AND NO, I WON'T! 
     On both prompts, the responses that were based on writing about a birthday party or passing of some tests were almost always carbon copies of each other.  I felt like I was reading the same paper over and over...... the games, the cake, the presents, the piƱata, the pizza, etc., etc., etc. 
     Here's one last example.  I was hired by my own district to score about 400 papers two different times one year. The first prompt was: Write a composition about finding something special.  On over 100 papers, the special thing they found was treasure, after which they immediately went to the mall to buy just what you would expect them to buy. This drove me crazy as a grader!  I began to realize that teaching kids the importance of brainstorming and planning BEFORE a rough draft or final copy is allowed to be written.
      If you have experienced anything like I have written above, try this very simple activity below   with your students. It will open their eyes and minds at the same time!
 1.  Ask your students to think about the first restaurant that comes to their mind when you  mention a certain type of food. The first item you will shout is, "Hamburgers!" 
They have just one second to respond ORALLY and must say the first place that comes to their heads.  The answers are usually split between McDonalds and Burger King, with a few people picking other popular hamburger based restaurants. 
2.  The second item you will say aloud is, "Pizza!"   Once again, they must respond ORALLY within one second.  The most popular restaurants mentioned will be Pizza Hut with adults, and child friendly places like Peter Piper Pizza with kids.  Rarely does anyone pick something else when only given one second to respond.  I have probably done this activity over a hundred times in presentations to teachers and in student trainings.  The one exception is a popular pizza or burger restaurant exclusive to your local city. 
   The reason this seems to happen is that, unless trained to unlearn this trait, children will almost always exclusively write about the first thing that comes to their mind after hearing or reading a prompt.  That's how their brain is triggered to work! It's kind of like the popular saying that water takes the path of least resistance.  Why rack my brain if there is an easy idea to write about concerning the topic on the tip of my tongue!   The MAJOR problem with that is that whatever came to THEIR minds is the same exact thing that almost everyone else thought of when responding to the prompt!  That’s a lot of repetition of ideas if we’re talking about your students turning their essays in to be read by a committee in an entire district, region, or state!
3.  This last part of the activity will help your students begin to think outside the box.  You will ask them to think about a specific drink, but before anyone can answer, they have to think about what all the others in the room might say or write for at least one minute, then come up with an original idea. When someone responds with water or coke, you will know they didn't put much thought into the topic. Tell your kids that if they are going to mention a Kool-Aid, they have to think of a specific flavor.  For sodas, maybe one can be mentioned that is not in every soda machine in America!  A tea has to have a special name. Energy drinks have to have a particular brand or type.  The trick here is to think outside the box. If you give them until the next day to come up with their answers, they can go down the drink section of their local grocery store, and write down a few drinks they think people don't drink everyday.  Maybe there is a restaurant or store that is the only place in the world that serves that drink. Think about a snow cone stand that serves unique liquid or somewhat frozen beverages.....I learned about a special drink called a Strawberry Trolleybus (Spanish term) that is absolutely delectable!  It is a mixture of blended ice, fresh strawberries, and some sort of cream.  My favorite normal drinks to share are a Grape Slush Frosty from our local Stars/Sonic Restaurant, and a venti-Mocha Frappuccino from Starbucks!  Anyway, once your kids feel they have come up with one or two original/unique ideas for drinks, have them write them down on a piece of paper without letting anyone else see.  When everyone is ready, have them take turns sharing their best idea with the class.  If someone else says their first choice, they can share their backup idea.  You will notice that there are a lot more variety of drinks that are shared compared to the numbers of burger or pizza restaurants.
       Just a caution here:  Some of your kids have parents or older siblings who openly drink alcoholic beverages at home, so you may get some strange answers using names of beer or hard liquor.  To prevent this, you might need to mention that these types of drinks are off limits for the assigned task!   
       I have never had more than two or three people in an entire room come up with the same exact drink, and at times I have had close to a hundred people participating! By the way, I’ve discovered that there are quite a few drinks out there with very original names!
     In part two of Transforming your writing from Blah to Bling, I will explain how to apply this concept to actual ideas and experiences.   Bill
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