Teaching writing from the first day of school can be a treasure trove for a teacher who knows how to use it. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t see the value in the first piece of writing the students turn in. They haven’t answered the question of why you need to start teaching writing on the first day of school.
Teachers typically have a fun writing activity, some getting-to-know-you games, book read-alouds, and fun things to help everyone feel welcome in the classroom. Many teachers at all grade levels leave a back-to-school packet on each student’s desk. Teachers often use this as a desk activity while they’re busy taking photos or attending to other first day duties. After that, they review it and forget it.
First Day Writing as an Informal Assessment
This first day writing is a perfect baseline informal assessment. The students typically want to do their best and impress their teachers. Your writing activities should not be simply something to fill the time, but should be an actual assignment that you retain in a student file. The level you determine for each student will inform your teaching and guide you to the best lessons to begin your instruction.
Find Student Writing Levels
It’s important to find out what levels your students are at in academic areas as soon as possible. If you don’t know what they don’t know, you might make the classic mistake of beginning to teach writing from the first directed assignment in your English Language Arts curriculum.
Don’t be tempted to do that!
Some students may be writing at a higher level than what’s expected. In that case, you’ve just sent them a message that your assignments will be BORING and they may put minimum effort into the assignment just to complete it quickly.
For the students who are at a lower writing level, all the assignment will do is cause them frustration. They may feel intimidated or embarrassed to write, and having an assignment that’s too hard will only exacerbate the problem.
Instead, choose an engaging writing activity that can be repeated at mid-year and end of year. If you have a student join your class after the first day, make sure to give him or her the same writing assignment. You’re going to be using it later in the year.
Save the Students’ Writing
This is key. Many teachers look over the writing and then place it in a portfolio for back-to-school night. Or perhaps they put a stamp, sticker, or note on it and send it home. But one huge motivation for students is to see how much they’ve improved over time. In addition, when you have evidence of student improvement, it goes a long way toward giving you the motivation you need.
Keep their writing.
Later in the year, at the mid-year point and again at the end of the year, give the exact same writing prompt again. Do tell the students you want them to write well, using all the things they’ve learned during the year. Do tell them they are going to be comparing their writing to the same piece they wrote on the first day of school.
Once they’ve completed the writing and you’ve assessed it, have a conference with each student individually. Be over-the-top excited to show them how much better their writing is now. Your enthusiasm will make them feel proud, and they’ll be eager to work even harder on the next assignment.
Every year it’s such a pleasure to see the students’ eyes light up when they see the difference in their writing. It’s also fabulous to include the side-by-side comparison for the parents.
Goal Setting Activities for Teaching Writing
What kinds of writing activities work well for informal assessment, mid-year informal assessment, and end of year comparisons?
You might not like my answer. It’s this: only you know. You are the one who knows your grade level and your students best. You’ll find plenty of ideas online when you do a search.
For Kindergarten and first grade, it could be as simple as writing their name and drawing a picture of something they want to do in school.
By second grade, they should be able to write at least a sentence or two about what they want to learn, do, or master in school.
By third, fourth, and fifth grade, they should be writing with elaborations, explanations, or examples. You’ll also be looking for proper sentence structure. Third grade students will need more scaffolding than the older students.
When I taught 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, I used a goal setting writing activity. I asked the students what they wanted to learn, do, and master during the school year. In January when they come back after break it’s a good time to set new goals. Everyone is creating New Year’s Resolutions, so rewriting their goals is a natural for mid-year. At the end of the year, they might have goals for summer. Do they want to play on a sports team, learn to swim, go camping? All of those can be written about in the same format of learn, do, and master.
Here’s a quick video preview of the pages included.
By the time you do the third writing assignment, if you’ve been following a systematic method of teaching writing, and conferencing weekly with students, you should see a tremendous amount of progress.
Sit down and give yourself a pat on the back. You earned it!
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