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While most of the ways I’ve implemented project-based learning into my classroom have involved a writing aspect of some sort, creating projects to teach writing itself became a challenge. This was especially disheartening for me because my students, like millions of high school students in the country, dislike writing in general, and I thought that if there was only some way to incorporate project-based learning into my writing class, my students’ attitudes toward writing would turn around.
This year, I started looking back at the tenets of project-based learning, and one word stuck out to me: relevancy. Educators are great at teaching what they think should be relevant, but how often do we have the opportunity to engage students with what is truly relevant to them? With this in mind, I attacked my first unit in my writing class again—this time, with a little help from my students themselves. I wanted to stress each step of the writing process so my students would get into a good habit before we tackled our essays for the semester, but I needed to make sure it really stuck.
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
- Practice prewriting, drafting, editing and revising, and publishing a paragraph
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I begin by surveying my students: “How many of you are familiar with the writing process?" A few of them nod; most stare back at me blankly. After throwing a few key words out at them (outlining, proofreading), most of them begin to show signs of recognition. I will then go over a simple definition or overview of each part of the writing process, sometimes having them take a few notes, sometimes having them follow along.
I then tell students how important it is to practice the writing process because it leads to much more successful writing than if they were to wait until the night before an essay is due to attempt to pour something out.
This is where the relevancy part of the lesson comes in, and you can approach this in a number of ways. I tell my students we’ll be practicing the writing process using an old strategy: writing a paragraph based on a photograph. The twist is that they get to pick a picture from the internet rather than me passing around a book of nature photographs or something equally boring. You could have your students hop onto computers or their own personal electronic devices to search. Or, the night before the lesson, you could assign students to come to class with the most interesting pictures (school-appropriate and cited, of course) for that day’s lesson. Personally, I choose to take my students to the website Awkwardfamilyphotos.com. This site is a treasure trove of unusual and interesting pictures.
After browsing and giggling for a few minutes, I have each student pick a photograph. First, we practice prewriting. On a separate sheet of paper, students select one prewriting strategy: listing, free-writing, outlining, or mind-mapping. I instruct them to write as many words and phrases about the chosen photos as possible in three minutes. When I set a timer, they get to work eagerly.
After prewriting, I then have students draft a paragraph using the words and phrases they came up with. If they need a little guidance, you could give them a few prompts to go from: write a simple paragraph describing the picture, write a paragraph from the point of view of the photographer, or pretend you are someone in the picture and write a paragraph about the day the photo was taken. Most of my students opt for the latter two options in an effort to outdo one another in humor, and that is exactly what I hope for. As they write, they often forget that they are learning something along the way.
When the paragraphs are written, we move on to the editing stage. My students mostly partake in peer editing in my classroom, so I have students exchange their paragraphs with a partner and edit using the Six Plus One Traits of Writing. However, if you’d like your students to try self-editing, that works just as well. You could provide them with a rubric or a checklist for guidance.
Students then rewrite their paragraphs making the revisions from the editing stage. During this time, I encourage them to add any list-minute ideas they had about their photographs or take their classmates’ suggestions into consideration.
For the publishing stage of this lesson, I simply have my students present their paragraphs to the class. We display each picture on my Smart Board as they read their work aloud.
To assess this lesson, I monitor my students’ progress by circling through my room as they go through each stage. When I collect their paragraphs, I search for honest and proper revisions from the first paragraph to the second. To truly assess the purpose of this lesson, I watch my students throughout the duration of their time with me. For every essay, I look for them to complete each step in the writing process.
While this lesson is not a complete and utter reinvention of the wheel, I was pleasantly surprised by how one small tweak became so overwhelmingly effective. Whenever I see my students during their downtime, they are constantly on the internet, looking for funny memes and interesting gifs. By allowing them to use these very memes and gifs, they lost themselves in the lesson, practicing the writing process independently and without complaint. Relevancy really does work.
Project Based Learning: High School English
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