Find persuasive topics kids care about
A teacher approached me in the hall one day to talk about her frustration. Her fifth-graders simply did not care about writing these persuasive essays. Upon questioning her, I discovered that she was assigning prompts like, “Pick your favorite season and explain why it’s your favorite.”
I shared the success I’d had by asking students to generate their own topic lists like they had when writing narrative stories. I explained that it’s much easier to teach students to write in a new genre when they don’t have to worry about content at the same time. For example, I really don’t have a favorite season and so I would struggle with writing about it. However, if you asked me to convince a reader how well daybooks work for me, I’d not only know enough to write about that topic, I’d also be excited to write. To put it another way, I could write one sentence about Nascar even though I live a couple miles from the track, but look at the writing I’ve done to fill this website!
The trick was to find out what they wanted to write about and what they knew enough about to pull facts and evidence from their heads with ease. Again, they needed an audience besides the teacher. If sincere about changing the world in some way, they would even do some research to fill in the gaps. I asked her if I could demonstrate. All I needed was an overhead projector and a Vis-à-vis pen.
After 45 minutes the students didn’t want me to leave the room. Here’s the rest of the story:
She was right. At first the students tried to put their heads on the desks and have side conversations as I did my teaching dance. But then I shared real stories with them and they began to sit up and pay attention. “In the legislature – right now – there is a bill that affects your future. It calls for raising the driving age to 18 years old. By show of hands, how many of you think you should wait that long?” The class immediately erupted into debate and no one’s hand was in the air.
I started making a list: Students should (should not) be allowed to get a permit to drive at 15. I explained that for every topic we discovered, we’d list it in the positive and the negative because invariably writers will take different sides. We continued for 45 minutes. As I listed the topics, I invited the students to record the ideas they cared about – not the whole list.
Like I said, as I tried to leave the room they continued to call after me, “I just thought of another idea that I want you to write down.” I told them to continue to think about the list and add those ideas to their daybook page as they read, talked with others, and watched television, so that their lists would be unique.
The students ended up writing very personal essays. Some students sent them to people who might be able to change the problems they’d written about. We combined all the pieces into a book and distributed it throughout the school. A copy sat prominently on the table where visitors waited in the office. Parents commented on seeing their children’s essays in the book. I know we changed the vision of what’s possible through this writing unit.
For those who worry about tests, remember that when students learn the genre in this way, they construct an understanding of it. (See theory page.) They do transfer their learning to addressing prompts successfully. I show them how in a test-writing unit if tests are required.
NEXT: Informational writing