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Sharpen Your Students’ Writing Saws

By Alan Sitomer
 | May 11, 2017

Sharpen Students' Writing SawsGood news: After reading this article, you’ll know the number one mistake teachers of writing make when it comes to elevating student performance, and you’ll be able to easily and swiftly correct your instructional practice.

Bad news: The number two mistake teachers of writing make is thinking there is one single mistake that, once easily and swiftly remedied, is going to turn all your students into Rumi.

Look, there are no mistakes. Mistake is too harsh a word. Teaching is tough; teaching writing can break pedagogical backs. Everything exists on a continuum of growth. The student owns a certain modicum of skills, the teacher owns a certain modicum of teaching skills, and these two modicums collide live and without a net in real time as sugar races through the blood of technology-addicted, early-lifecycle humans. What could go wrong, right?

So, what can be done? Stop over-assigning. The foremost error we’re making as teachers of writing is defying common sense. Everyone understands a child must first learn to walk before he or she can run. However, in classroom after classroom, students are being assigned multiparagraph, evidence-based, complexity-driven long-form responses when the teacher already knows that 80% of the kids can’t compose one single, crisp, clear, evidence-based paragraph demonstrating proper grammar, decent spelling, and a nice line of cogent thinking.

Thus, we’re setting our students up to fail.

Put me in a rocket ship and ask me to enter Earth’s orbit, and I am gonna crash. And it won’t be for a lack of trying; it will be because I’d need to start with learning how to operate a crop duster first. Why we jump so quickly past making sure students have mastered short response and insist they leap straight to composing nuanced, long responses oozing with critical thinking and sophisticated textual analysis baffles me.

Slow down. Meet kids where they are. Multiparagraph essays are built one paragraph at a time, single paragraph responses are built one sentence at a time, and sentences are composed one word at a time. Trust me, I know. As the author of 20 books, I promise you that every page I’ve ever published was iterated exactly in this manner.

In fact, it might be one of the few things Rumi and I, and your students, have in common as writers.

To be successful in teaching evidence-based writing, students must own three skills they can demonstrate in one simple, clear, concise paragraph. Young writers need to be able to make a claim, be able to cite evidence that directly supports their claim, and be able to finalize and cement their paragraph with a conclusion that directly connects the evidence to the claim through logical reasoning.

Fewer sentences, greater quality.

As Lincoln once said, “If I only had seven hours to fell a tree, I’d spend the first six hours sharpening the saw.”

Alan SitomerAlan Sitomer is a California Teacher of the Year, founder of The Writer’s Success Academy, and a keynote speaker who specializes in engaging disengaged, underperforming students. He is also the author of 20 books. His latest is Mastering Short-Response Writing: Claim It! Cite It! Cement It! (Scholastic).

Alan Sitomer will present a session titled “Mastering Short Response, Evidence-Based Writing” at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, held in Orlando, FL, July 15–17.

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