Imagine the painter. What must be done in order to complete the masterpiece? Long before the Mona Lisa was heralded as an iconic masterpiece, Leonardo da Vinci painstakingly selected the perfect canvas. He considered the lighting he wanted the subject to be bathed in. He contemplated the subject herself, not to mention how da Vinci carefully prepared the palette. Visualize the careful concentration of da Vinci as he mixed blends of colors that would ultimately make the Mona Lisa recognizable by nearly all of us regardless of the fact that the painting is over 500 years old.
While we are aware that masterpieces are not produced without preparation and practice, many of us expect a student to put pen to paper and produce a written masterpiece without any prior engagement in the topic. Let’s be honest, there is nothing quite as intimidating as a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor on our computer screen. Students, like the canvas, must be prepped and primed so that they can untangle their ideas or even realize that they have worthy ideas!
Step 1: Prep and Prime
Artists prime their canvas so it is prepared for the careful brush strokes to come. Without this essential step, many artists believe that the final product will not look professional. This is never more true than in the need to prime our students for the writing to come. Sandra Cisneros, the popular author of the novel The House on Mango Street, describes the process of writing in this manner: “Writing is like sewing together what I call these ‘buttons,’ these bits and pieces” (n.d.). As educators, we must provide our students with these buttons. We need to braid together opportunities for students to read and to think in order to produce skilled writing reflective of critical thinking at work. We must provide engaging topics that peaks student’s interest and allows them to grapple with complex issues. Students require layers of opportunity to interact with a topic prior to writing. May I suggest a pattern of activities that promotes a balance of individual thinking paired with strategic peer collaboration to result in student writing that is compelling, or at the very least, contains evidence of real thinking?
I suggest the topic of study is introduced in a visual way; thus, engaging our audience of digital natives. Perhaps a YouTube video, a painting, a political cartoon, or even a chart can be utilized as a means to initially interest students in the topic. When studying the Dust Bowl, my students watched a short clip from a documentary. Additionally, they viewed famous photographs from this time period. During another unit, my students were introduced to the book Fast Food Nation with a short video showing the progression of decomposition of a hamburger as well as a chart displaying the average minutes of commercials young children view advertising fast food. Not only does this strategy hook students into the upcoming text, it builds much needed prior knowledge for our class.
Next, we need to allow students to deconstruct what they’ve learned so far via peer interactions. As far back as Dewey (1963), educators recognized the importance of social interaction to the process of learning. This can be done with as simple of a strategy as a quick write followed by a pair share. These opportunities for social engagement allow the new information to become “sticky” and to be retained longer within the working memories of our students.
An ensuing and critical step in prepping the student for writing is to have them read engaging articles or books. My 8th grade students loved reading excerpts of Malala’s book I Am Malala. They also were fascinated by Chew on This. These rich reading encounters helped my students to formulate opinions and sort through evidence conveyed in the text.
At this point, I always wanted my students to dig in to the text more. Often, I posed a controversial question to them. For example, fast food should not be permitted to advertise prior to 9 pm in order to avoid potential influence on young children. Students worked alone to create a t-chart to find evidence in support of my statement and against my statement. They then formed groups based on the stance they choose. As a group, they created a poster listing their reasons for their opinion supported by evidence from the texts we had read in class. Once these posters were displayed around the room, I conducted a Gallery Walk; however, I called it A Permission to Cheat Walk. Students rotated to each poster with a clipboard in their hand. Their task was to steal great ideas on the posters to help them have the best reasons gathered as they began the writing process.
Ultimately, these series of activities act to prime and prep the student for the task of writing. With activities such as these, we allow students the opportunity to prepare their writing canvas for the important work ahead.
Step 2: Arrange Your Subject
H. Stanely Judd is credited with saying, “A good plan is like a road map: it shows the final destination and usually the best way to get there” (n.d.). Just as a painter must arrange their subject in a manner to produce an aesthetic outcome, so must the student create an outline or other organizational device to showcase their ideas in the most logical manner. Students need a guide to be successful writers; from there they can fill in the details!
Step 3: The Color Block In
An artist takes time to evaluate the colors they are utilizing, considering how the different shades complement one another to create a memorable and cohesive design. Just as the artist takes time for this essential step, so must the writer. With an outline created, students can identify the key evidence needed to construct their argument. Once that evidence is identified, students must weave in the commentary to create a discussion that will engage the audience in the topic of the paper.
Step 4: Adjusting the Color and Value
In the same way that an artist must review their work and adjust the color and values of their initial work, so must the writer engage in final reflection of their writing. This step should demonstrate both self-review and peer editing.
Step 5: Finishing the Painting
For every great masterpiece, the time comes to frame the portrait and to display the art work for the enjoyment of others. The same is true for our student writers. Eventually, the polishing and revision must end and their work must be submitted.
My experience teaching both junior high and high school students has demonstrated to me that step one is the most essential of all of the steps for our students. Many students truly believe they have nothing to say about a given topic. Educators must fill their bucket to overflowing with ideas and allow students to dialogue with their peers. Without these needed steps, I think it is foolish for us to expect writing that demonstrates complexity of thought. Writing is difficult, but the task is worthy. We must take the time to prepare our students to communicate clearly in writing. Teachers, pick up your paintbrushes. Paint a masterpiece in your lesson design. Allow your artistry to come through as you prime and prep your students!
Pause with me for a minute. Imagine the student. What must be done to complete the masterpiece? Their tools are prepped. They have notes, graphic organizers, ideas exchanged from peers, and manuscripts that are marked up. Imagine the concentration on their face as they draft their thesis. See the determination in their eyes as they click away on their keyboards utilizing evidence to support their arguments. Consider too the shift in confidence of students as they write feeling fully prepared for the task at hand. Hope need not be lost.
Cisneros, S. Sandra Cisneros Quotes. Retrieved October 31, 2017 from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/sandracisn589111.html
Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Collier.
Judd, H. (n.d.). Famous Quotes about Planning. Retrieved October 31, 2017 from http://www.famous-quotes.com/topic.php?tid=903.