Students are developing their ideas through substantial pre-writing activities.

In Language Arts 2, the 7th and 8th graders have embraced writing as a process of reading and re-reading, questioning and re-questioning, arguing and re-arguing. They have been building their arguments slowly, allowing their ideas and even their topics to shift and change. They have done this through careful attention to the details of the text and through an eagerness to discover more, to say something more, to go deeper.

Last block we read short stories and worked on making observations, finding connections and patterns, and interpreting what we notice. We also worked on articulating our ideas clearly, especially out loud in class discussion. This block students are applying these skills to a longer text—Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle—and they are also practicing new skills: they’re each developing their initial observations into an in-depth, multi-step, original argument about the novel, written up in essay form.

With an attitude of curiosity and exploration, the students have carefully built up their ideas in a series of brainstorming assignments. For this three-page essay, they’ve written seven or more pages of pre-writing! They have identified a topic, mined the text for quotations to explore that topic, interpreted those quotations, traced patterns among their ideas, formulated questions for further exploration, gone back into the text to brainstorm answers to those questions, and re-formulated one question based on their new ideas and observations.

After even more free-writing and close-reading, students wrote up a statement of their argument, a list of smaller steps they would need to prove that argument, and finally an outline. At each stage of this process, students received feedback both from me and from a peer review partner. The act of peer review—writing down questions for their partner to consider or suggestions to explain an idea more clearly—helped them to question or clarify their own ideas.

We also practiced each of these pre-writing steps collectively as a class. At one point students worked in small groups to identify a topic within the novel, collect observations and ideas about that topic, and then formulate a question to pose to the class. Each group then led the class in discussion of that question, at the end of which we all brainstormed ways to re-formulate the question to make it more specific and nuanced. On another occasion, they practiced breaking up and organizing a larger argument into smaller steps. To do this, I gave them a complex thesis statement (an argument about a story they had read earlier this year), and each group wrote on a white board a logical and coherent series of ideas that would add up to prove that thesis. They’re now pulling all of these pre-writing steps together and writing up their essays in full!

-- Sydney Cochran