Writing Masters: Essential Lessons For Any Classroom

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With classroom-tested tips from our Curricular Resources authors on how to improve your teaching at any grade level, each Writing Masters installment will share author insights and practical suggestions on teaching writing in the classroom that you can use the very next day. This week in the Writing Master series, Jim Burke offers five ways students can manage both school and life.

“Many students admit to struggling with their management of time, attention, and workload especially throughout the process of writing a paper. Their inability to figure out basic skills, such as planning, hinders their ability to focus on learning.”

Essential Lessons for Any Classroom

Jim Burke

If we are to become better at something, it requires a period of doing that thing poorly on the way to doing it well. This is called learning. It is difficult. It is uncomfortable. For some students this includes the essential lessons of management of time, attention and workload.

The teaching tools and techniques detailed in my Heinemann curricular resource 50 Essential Lessons came from my daily firsthand experience as a public high school teacher when I taught two classes: AP English Literature and ACCESS, which is a portmanteau of the words “Academic” and “Success.” Both classes were larger than they should have been: 35 students in the AP classes and 28 in the ACCESS class. At the time, the AP class was offered to anyone who wanted to take it, which meant that only 25% of my AP students entered with the intellectual skills and rigor expected of a typical Advanced Placement student. It was in these classes that I identified a set of “Academic Essentials” and honed the “50 Essential Lessons” that I have written about so that as teachers we can be consistently effective in our instruction and our students can learn to make the most of their time and ability in academic, vocational, and personal settings.

In 50 Essential Lessons I include five lessons on “Managing Oneself.” Why mention management skills in a blog series on writing? Many students admit to struggling with their management of time, attention, and workload especially throughout the process of writing a paper. Their inability to figure out basic skills, such as planning, hinders their ability to focus on learning. In the case of writing a paper, these students end up scrambling at the last minute to complete an assignment, producing work that is of lower quality than they are capable of and making themselves vulnerable to the time-saving temptation of plagiarizing.

Here are five lessons about how students can manage themselves—not just in school, but in life. Use them as jumping-off points for your classroom as a whole and your writing classroom in particular.

Use a Planner

As the school year begins, new students arrive and quickly realize they are not prepared to manage the demands of school. Use the beginning of the year as a compelling opportunity to directly teach and reinforce the use of planners as a means of teaching students to manage themselves and their workload.

Set Goals and Plan to Reach Them

Given all the demands on students’ time and energy, it is essential that they learn to manage themselves by setting goals and making plans to reach them. Setting goals has as much to do with achieving and maintaining balance between work and personal life as it does with succeeding in academic classes. Students need to learn how to do these things. Equally important to setting goals is developing a plan to reach the goal and monitoring progress along the way. Showing students how to use a weekly record to monitor progress as well as a personal progress report are two tools to help them see where they are in the big picture and to set goals that will specifically help them to improve in their areas of difficulty.

Study Traits of Successful People

Many students think success is something some people are born to, a gene others got and they did not, a position in society. As the ever-growing “success” section in the bookstores attests, there are secrets to success, and students can learn them and learn to use them. We need to teach students to be able to generate a list of factors that contribute to personal, vocational, and educational success; to evaluate the list to identify the factors that make the biggest difference; and to analyze how those factors lead to success and then apply them to life.

Manage Your Attention

Given the range of demands on students in academic classes, students must learn to manage their attention to ensure they learn and work well. While this is complicated to teach, students need to become aware of their mind’s different processes, identify their strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and focus on what they can do to improve them. In my classrooms I use a tool called The Concentration Cockpit, created by Dr. Mel Levine, to help students evaluate and analyze their capacity to concentrate and then identify what it feels like to “get into the zone” and consider key strategies to help them improve their performance.

Monitor Your Academic Performance

Students need to develop the habits of attention that lead to, and help to maintain, success. For those who lack such habits, it is necessary to introduce and reinforce the process of monitoring and reflecting; they need to understand how to do these actions and why they should, since struggling students often experience failure as inevitable, something no amount of effort can overcome. For these lessons I use an Academic Habits Self-Evaluation tool and work with students to clarify the habits of academic success and to help students focus on those habits that are most appropriate to their needs at the time.

Writing is hard work, no matter what. But you can give your students tools—essential lessons—to develop the habits that allow them to spend maximum time, attention, and effort on their academic success—writing included.

Click here for samples from 50 Essential Lessons

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Jim Burke is the author of numerous bestselling Heinemann titles, including The English Teacher’s Companion, Fourth Edition and What’s the Big Idea? The question he’s always tried to answer is, “How can we teach our students better?” He seeks these answers daily through his work in his own classroom at Burlingame High School in California where he still teaches after twenty years.

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In next week’s blog, Lucy Calkins asks “What is the Bill of Rights that guides your work with your students as writers?” 

Click here to see the full Writing Masters Blog Series lineup, and, using the form below, sign up for email alerts when each new blog is posted.

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