Teaching writing is HARD. If you’ve been in the classroom for even a little while, you already know this. I’m not going to spend much time discussing why it’s hard. You’ve probably already realized that you are tasked with breaking down a process that probably comes naturally to you. You’re an English teacher, so you likely enjoy writing and have been writing in various forms for years and years. Instead of talking about the why of the struggle, I’m going to jump right into something far more meaningful: what it means to write well, and how to get your students there.
This was going to be a doozy of a blog post, so instead of cramming it all into one blog post, I’m breaking it down into a blog series. Be sure to continue reading the rest of the posts in the series because I'll be breaking down the writing process into 5 pillars. I'll break down each pillar and then point you in the direction of resources you can use for each pillar. Pillar one: critical thinking.
What does it mean to write well?
Writing well is not just putting pen to paper and creating masterful prose. There’s a lot, and I mean a LOT we have to think about as writing teachers.
Try not to be overwhelmed by the fact that a lot is involved in the writing process. Coming alongside your students as they create meaningful writing is one of the best things you can do for them. If you can give your students the tools they need to become successful writers, you are opening doors for them for the rest of their lives. It is so worth the work involved.
Pillar 1 of Writing: Critical Thinking
The first pillar of powerful writing is being a strong thinker. Before students write anything about anything, they must be thinking. Critical thinking is happening “when the brain is active, making connections to the material and applying original thought to the concept. It’s the difference between struggling to remember (“ugh!”) and struggling to solve (“yeah!”).” (Wolpert-Gawron). A recent NY Times article suggests that in this era of misinformation, teaching critical thinking in schools is now more important than ever. You can read that article here: Teaching Critical Thinking in an Age of Misinformation.
The foundation for critical thinking defines critical thinking as "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action." So, there's a lot involved in critical thinking, and depending on the subject you're teaching, it can look differently. Here, I'm mainly focusing on the act of thinking critically as it applies to the high school English classroom.
Critical thinking (asking questions, making connections, discussing, and debating) is vital to the writing process. Students must have a lot to say about the subject before they can be expected to write anything meaningful.
Langston Hughes said, “The prerequisite for writing is having something to say,” which may seem obvious, but it deserves mentioning because in the traditional school setting students are sometimes (perhaps oftentimes) asked to write about things about which they haven’t fully thought.
How Do You Teach Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking can be complex to teach. That's why I like to think of critical thinking in the classroom as more of something that is modeled in a space that allows for critical thinking to happen, and when critical thinking does happen, it's rewarded. In a sense, you don’t teach critical thinking as much as you allow your classroom to be a place where critical thinking is welcomed. You give students lots of opportunities to wrestle with big ideas without fearing that they will be "wrong."
With that said, However, you can certainly guide critically thinking practices and allow that environment to be ripe for critical thinking to develop with appropriate challenges. The brain tends to think critically on its own, especially when the environment allows it to do so. So how do you help students become critical thinkers? Here are a few ways to start:
- Provide students with thought-provoking texts in traditional and nontraditional forms
- Encourage questions in formal and informal ways
- Challenge students to make connections (text-to-text, text-to-world, and text-to-self)
- Give students opportunities to pursue their own interests in terms of reading and writing
It’s my belief that people are naturally critical thinkers. When we are interested in something we will ask questions, research, make connections, and argue for or against it. It’s just how people work.
I’ve never seen this more clearly than when my own children became school aged. They naturally thought critically about fast cars and big cats in kindergarten because this is what interested them. They asked questions, debated, looked into these topics more fully, and even created their own unique fast cars and big cats (via Legos or whatever was nearby). They compared and contrasted different informational sources and even evaluated whether different videos were fake or true. I'm not joking. They were six-year-olds. They were thinking critically because that’s what our minds want to do when we are interested.
Obviously, students in school don’t always do this. Perhaps it's largely because they are not interested in the subject matter at hand. When they don't see the relevance, their minds wander to other things more compelling to them, but wherever their minds wanders, I can bet that they are asking questions, making plans, making connections, and thinking critically.
As teachers, we must provide students with a feast on which their minds can engage. Sure, sometimes you have a prescribed curriculum from the powers that be, and that curriculum is dry. That means a lot more is required of you to make it meaningful by providing supplemental texts, poems, articles, Ted Talks, songs, podcasts, and so on that ARE relevant to your students’ lives so that they will think critically about the anchor texts and all the texts you bring in.
If your students have thought about a subject in its various forms, they will have something to say about it when it comes to writing. However, if you have simply instructed students to read Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby and have not brought in other relevant texts, they will go straight to the internet to copy the thoughts of others, forming no real thoughts of their own.
Podcasts As A Way To Promote Critical Thinking
I love using podcasts in the classroom to make connections between what we are reading and to develop critical thinking. Podcasts are now so ubiquitous that you can probably find one that relates to nearly any novel or anchor text you are teaching. The thing that’s great about podcasts is that most are conversational and engaging. They want to hook and keep the listener, and the good ones do this well.
If you’d like to see how you can start doing this, check out my blog post on podcasts that work great in the secondary classroom.
I’ve also created two no-prep units that you can use in your classroom where the anchor text is a podcast. It walks you through how to guide your students toward critical thinking and culminated in a writing project. Both of these could also be paired with the more traditional texts you are using in your classroom as they have themes that often emerge in texts from the cannon and all literature (overcoming obstacles, tragedy, love and lost love, and more).
Encourage Critical Thinking To Develop Strong Writers
In short, pillar one of good writing starts before students every actually write anything. They must think, question, debate, wrestle with, and wonder about a topic before they every write something formal about it. Now, certainly, some of the critical thinking can be done via informal writing, and it absolutely should. But let’s remember that thinking crucially is a HUGE piece of writing well.