Make Writing Easier for Your Students: Disguise It

The bell just rang.

“Today we’re going to do some writing,” you announce. You use your excited tone - as if the excitement could be contagious.

You pass around some lined papers. Someone sighs. A side conversation begins. Nobody’s doing anything; you switch your tactic:

“We’re going to do lots of writing today! Get out your pencils before the timer rings!”

Finally, a couple of kids get out their pencils, ready to begin.

You smile, satisfied.

But then you notice that Johnny’s seat is empty.

Your heart sinks as you glance over to the corner. Johnny has huddled up in the fetal position; he’s ripping up the paper you just gave him.

Your eyes flick to the calendar on the wall. It’s only Monday.

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You’re going to have to switch your mindset if you want Johnny to write. Because he’s not suddenly going to switch his mindset.

The “rewards” or “reinforcements” you might give Johnny for writing for 2 minutes are not going to solve the problem. Johnny will likely still hate writing, even with the rewards in place. It’s true that he might like the rewards enough to discard his hatred for a quick moment, but the difficulty of these irrelevant assignments will become overwhelming again, and Johnny will stop writing, once again.

But there are things that Johnny likes to do, right? Johnny doesn’t hate everything! There are some things that he loves- things he;s really good at, even.

He might even have a favorite topic that he talks about. All. The. Time. (Is it trains? Dinosaurs? WWII? Computers? Minecraft?) You’re so tired of that topic. But Johnny will never be tired of it. He can talk about this topic all day, in fact - if you allowed him to.

And you are going to allow Johnny to talk about this topic from now...in the form of the written word.

You’re not going to start doing this today, though. Because today, Johnny still thinks he has another writing assignment on lined paper to do, and the para is trying to get him to come out of the corner.

You’ve lost Johnny for the time being. The rest of today is about damage control.

You’ll start this tomorrow.

Tomorrow you’re going to tell Johnny that you want him to do something.

“What - writing?!?”

He’s inevitably going to yell, you know it.

He’ll stomp out of the room, and his para will run after him.

Okay - let’s try again. Rewind!

Johnny is going to walk into the room, and this time you’re going to tell him that he’s going to make his own website.

Or his own script for a stop-motion animation video.

Or his own magazine.

Or his own text for a computer game.

You are not going to tell him that he is going to do an assignment. Instead, you will be disguising the writing.

Sneaky you!

But this is the good kind of sneaky. I promise.

You’re going to toss aside the standard curriculum until you get Johnny to not hate writing. You’re just going to get Johnny to be engaged in his work, by doing what he loves.

Today, you’re going to take his lead.

Johnny is going to write his website, if you allow him to do that. If Johnny cannot type well, you will have him speak into a “Google Doc” via the microphone on his laptop. Johnny will watch his words appear on the document. He will begin to create his website, or his newsletter, or his magazine, or whatever format you allow him to choose.

He will edit this work - much, much later.

For now you will allow him free reign to create.

You are going to toss aside your lesson plan and watch as Johnny sits down at his seat and begins work.

It won’t be perfect, because he still associates you with writing, which is the thing he hates more than anything else.

But it’s going to get better. Johnny will work on his project. Just let him work on it. After some time goes by, tell him: “You did great writing today!” But don’t use that word writing until he’s been at his project for at least 3 days, or even a week.

You don’t want Johnny to run away from the work. You want him to create positive associations with the writing. He will learn, as he completes his project in the area of his choice, that this thing that feels good to him, and that it’s called writing.

Eventually, you’re going to teach Johnny to edit - and even revise - his work. But you’re going to do this incredibly slowly, and you’re only going to focus on one aspect at a time.

You might choose to start with the basic: a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence. You’re going to give positive praise every time you see the correct usage of a capital letter. (You might choose to ignore the incorrect capital letters, for now.)

You’re going to keep your comments to Johnny at least 90 - 95% positive. Find all of the correct things that Johnny is doing in his writing. Ask him questions about the content of his writing to encourage him to write more.

“Tell me more about this, Johnny!”

No, you’re not babying Johnny. You’re helping Johnny to discover and express what he loves.

And that is the goal.

You want writing to work in service of Johnny. The old way didn’t work for him; Johnny would not work in service of writing.

Remember, you are not just teaching Johnny now. You are changing Johnny’s life. You’re giving him a voice and telling him, no matter what struggles he has, that he matters, and that he has something important to share with the world.

Johnny might not magically learn to love writing. That might never happen. But your goal is to teach him how to use the written word to express himself, and your instruction needs to flow outward from that goal.