Last year, I celebrated my 30th year in education. Yes, it was 1987 when I first set foot in a classroom, doing my first round of “student teaching.” I can say that education in general has definitely evolved over the course of three decades, and I admit that I also changed, as well. From my initial work as a public-school teacher, I have progressed through a variety of roles, including my being a public-school reading and writing specialist, a homeschooling mother, a homeschooling teacher, and (most recently) an owner and director of an online homeschooling consortium. WOW! Talk about tremendous changes!
Over the last 30 years, I have taught all ages from kindergarten to college level. I have instructed public school students, private school students, and homeschooling students. I have taught rich students, and I have taught students who weren’t sure if there would be dinner on their table that night. I have taught ESL students and students whose first language is English.
With that said, I have always found middle school students to be my “favorite”. Yes, I know you aren’t supposed to have favorites, so maybe that is a poor choice of words. Maybe I should say I love the challenge that middle school students bring to the classroom. There is just something about the ‘tude and lack of caring that some of these unique creatures possess during these years. I can hear them “roll their eyes” without seeing their faces. Oh – I love these kids!
And when it comes to teaching middle schoolers writing – oh yes – there is something extraordinary about that! Maybe, it’s the tension existing between childhood and adulthood and their ability to articulate – anything. Maybe it’s their fully intact imaginations and natural inclination to creatively express themselves verbally – but to put it in writing – yeah – sometimes that simply doesn’t happen. Whatever it is, they’re capable of surprising us each and every time we sit down with them.
What I’ve learned to be true about teaching writing to middle schoolers is rooted in the importance of both coaching them on the conventions of writing in English and giving them room to be who they are. Here are some of the things I have learned the “hard way”, that I am hoping will benefit you in being a homeschooling parent!
- Limited Choice. When students are given choices about topics to choose from, it is more likely that their writing will be better. If they are given the freedom to follow their interests and curiosities, their writing will be more compelling. With this said, freedom to choose ANY TOPIC WITHOUT a LIST to choose from can be devastating. If students are given freedom to pick anything, they often write about topics that do not match the type of paper they need to write, or their writing will not lead to anywhere. Middle Schoolers NEED limited choice. Give them a list of ten ideas to pick from and often, they will succeed!
- Clichés. Middle school students often use clichés thinking it will make their writing better. Often, they use WAY too many clichés. A great idea is to create a “cliché graveyard.” Yes, a graveyard. If they are overusing a cliché or using it in the incorrect way – put it in the graveyard.
- Banned Words. This concept is as simple as this – these are overused, boring words. Remove them from your writing and you (and your paper) will be better off!
- Checklists (or Rubrics). This allows the student to know what you are looking for in their writing. The checklist (or rubric) should grow as the class grows. I have found the students who use checklists religiously become amazing writers. Unfortunately, the students who ignore this amazing device, do not grow as quickly as those who do. Insist that your children use checklists (or rubrics) when writing.
- Brainstorming and Editing. I always tell my students this is the MOST important part of writing is BRAINSTORMING as well as EDITING. I tell them to BRAINSTORM long, write fast, EDIT carefully. Writing is the shortest part of the process. Yes, I am aware that sounds backwards; however, if a student TRULY brainstorms, writing should be a piece of cake!
- Read your paper out loud. When editing, each and every sentence should be read out loud and independently. Yes, I am aware that middle schoolers think this is the most ridiculous thing! Yes, I get eye rolls when I suggest it; however, I do know that students need to “train their ear” to hear their mistakes. If students take the time while in middle school to learn this skill, they will be so much better off when in high school and college.
- Giving kudos as well as constructive criticism. It is probably most important to give KUDOS to anything the child does well in their writing. They need to see that they are getting it – in some way. If they need to be congratulated. If they do not see this – they will not be able to take the criticism and then, honestly, you did all that work for nothing. Kudos to criticism should be 3 to 1. Yes, 3 kudos to every 1 piece of criticism.
- Limit your corrections. Do not red pen everything. REALLY. Choose three or four (maybe five) aspects you want them to improve upon based on what you taught them during the lesson. If the focus was dramatic openings and writing a thesis, then, that is what you should focus on with a few other “minor” things that they were taught in elementary school. If you correct everything, the middle school student WILL shut down. Writers get better by writing. If you give too much constructive criticism or correction too much, your child will not write.
- Teach something twice and then move on. The beauty about writing is that there are a handful of types of essays. Focus on one (let’s say Expository Essays) for two papers and then move on until next year. Every year, you should come back to the same type of essays; however, the student will be a year old and hopefully their writing will mature! Think of writing as a spiral curriculum. Come back to it.
- Make sure to celebrate. Every piece of writing has something you can celebrate. Share with the family. Have them read their paper at dinner. Create a book of their favorite pieces of writing and gift the grandparents with this for the holidays. Celebrate. Show off. Congratulate the writer. Even if they say they are “embarrassed” – don’t listen. Secretly, they love it. This will encourage the middle schooler to write more! If the student is writing more, they will improve!
Eva Goldstein-Meola, is not only co-founder of Open Tent Academy, but an instructor as well as a former homeschooling mother. She has lived in New Jersey, Florida, Western Massachusetts, Northern Virginia and now resides just outside of Jerusalem. Eva holds a Master’s Degree as a Consulting Teacher of Reading and Writing, IEW certification and a Bachelor’s Degree as an Elementary Teacher. She has also been involved in education since 1986 as a Private Tutor, Teacher, Reading Specialist, Homeschooling Mother, Homeschooling Teacher and Business Owner of an Online Education Consortium. In addition to teaching, Eva enjoys cooking, baking, playing Settlers of Catan, traveling with her husband Jonathan, Broadway Musicals and reading. Eva teaches a variety of literature and IEW writing courses for Open Tent Academy.