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Classroom Management: Creating Writers for a Lifetime

Jordan Catapano

By the time students graduate from high school, they have composed countless papers. With devotion and hard work, and your dedicated classroom management skills, they will have mastered the concepts essential to composing a high-quality academic essay—the keyword being “academic.”

We do a very good job instructing our children how to communicate well for school, but how far do we go to ensure that our students can communicate effectively in life beyond it?

Instead of just teaching my students how to write well for my class, I hold it equally important to make sure they can take these concepts and adapt to them to any communicative scenario they might find themselves. In doing so, I constructed the following classroom management rules – with lots of help from colleagues – to teach students the necessary guidelines for ensuring their writing stays effective beyond the classroom.

Rule #1: “Make a Mess”

Bruce Ballenger’s article “The Importance of Writing Badly” tells us that teachers all too often are more interested correct structure, grammar or formula rather than what students actually have to say. This inevitably gets students to believe that they must compose with flawless precision or else their writing will be worthless. No wonder why they stare fearfully into blank monitors and procrastinate until hours before their work is due. “Make a Mess” encourages students to stop worrying about the grammar, the formula, the “dos” and “don’ts” of writing, and focuses on getting their ideas to the page, however awkwardly they come out. Just write and write, then go back later to make it sound prettier.

Rule #2: “Don’t Be Boring”

I ask students “Would you rather read something boring or interesting?” They unanimously answer with the latter, and then I follow up with, “Then you need to make sure that you write interestingly, too!” When the same kids are encouraged to not be boring, it gives them permission to insert their voice, their humor and their heart into what they have to say. It’s more interesting for them to write, and much more engaging for others to read!

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Rule #3: Write for a Purpose, Not for a Teacher

Students write in school because it is an assignment from their instructor. Therefore, their purpose is to meet the teacher’s requirements, which includes content, format, structure, and ultimately a grade. But when students realize that they have a genuine idea (and this concept has value beyond the scale of A-F) then it gives them power and encouragement to write for a true purpose.

Rule #4: Write for an Audience, Not for a Teacher

What students need to be encouraged to do is to imagine that there is a real person – not just a teacher – at the receiving end of their message. When they imagine this person, then their writing takes on a very real and tangible purpose. The next level is to proactively identify those “real audiences” to students and help them get their voice heard.

Rule #5: Follow the Process

Often students’ process of writing for school goes like this: “Procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate, panic, write something down quickly, hand it in, sigh of relief.” That’s not what real writers do. A real writer commits to the writing process that looks more like this:

  • Generate an Idea
  • Brainstorm and Outline How to Communicate the Idea
  • Create the Messy Draft (see Rule #1)
  • Edit, Edit, Edit the Draft until it Creates the Desired Effect on the Audience

When students see that there’s a reliable process to follow, their writing transforms from a painful endeavor to a meaningful experience. Students can take time to create and outline their idea, then let it come to life organically on paper—regardless of how messy that becomes. Finally, the editing (which is often overlooked in classes) allows students to process their composition and reshape it to fit their purpose. No more turning in worthless, rushed rubbish.

Rule #6: Know What You’re Talking About

Students are young. Although we’d like to give them credit for a lot, the truth is that they don’t know very much yet. This is a two-way battle—young minds should commit themselves to understanding proper research and ethos while teachers should encourage them to express themselves via topics that they do know well. The right information makes powerful content, but the wrong information can immediately evaporate a writer’s credibility.

Writing is more than just for a teacher, for a grade. It is a powerful, dynamic way of asserting one’s perspective into the world. Although there are dozens of strategies, techniques, and approaches to teaching writing, the aforementioned rules represent some of the best ways to get young minds to focus on what really matters when it comes to writing beyond the classroom.

What kinds of techniques or approaches do you use to help make student writing more than just an academic subject? We’d love for you to share with us in your comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com