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Ideas and Content: The First Three Weeks
When you start out writing a paper, the first step is coming up with ideas. There is a wide variety of graphic organizers available to you to help your students give their thoughts some organizational structure. One of the most basic, of course, is the Venn diagram for topics requiring a comparison and/or contrast. There are other thinking maps that you can give your students, depending on the best way to organize a particular topic.
Here are some questions you can have your students ask themselves as they begin to look over their brainstorming results:
What message am I trying to get across? Is it focused?
Are my opinions supported by details?
Have I taught the reader anything new?
Can people easily read my paper? Is it interesting?
You don't have to have your students do as much longer writing as you might expect during this phase. If you carefully monitor brainstorming lists and graphic organizers, you can get an idea of how your students will organize essays, without having them actually write (and you grade!) the essays.
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Organization: The Next Three Weeks
One common problem for middle school writers involves the fact that your students all know what they are trying to say, in one way or another. Because they know what they're trying to say, they think their audience will too -- and that their audience should know. Sound organization will help your students communicate effectively to their audience.
These are the weeks to start building longer responses to writing prompts. When you move to the editing phrase, make sure that peer-editors have these questions in mind:
Is there a strong hook in the beginning?
Did I select the proper way to organize my writing (chronological, cause/effect, and so on)?
Do all of my minor ideas relate back to my main idea?
Does my ending summarize my story effectively?
Make small cards with these questions for your students to use while peer-editing papers.
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Voice: Halfway There
In middle school, most standardized testing involving writing hasn't started to focus on analysis yet. Instead, the focus is on having students demonstrate an ability to show personality in their essays. This is called "voice." In personal reflection papers, voice appears in the use of humor, in varied diction, and in the inclusion of dialogue, among other strategies. During this three-week phase of the semester, your students will want to consider the following when editing peer essays:
Does the speaker in the paper sound like me?
Do my readers feel the way I want them to feel after reading this?
Is there enough suspense to lure my readers all the way through?
Do I come across as interested in my topic?
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Sentence Fluency: Weeks Ten Through Twelve
Once your students are expressing themselves, with an organizational pattern that matches their writing purpose, it's important to back up a bit and make sure that their sentences work well. This sort of peer editing can be frustrating for students and teachers, because it requires text analysis on a closer level than in the first three units.
Here are some questions you will want your students to consider as they edit each other:
Do all of my sentences begin the same way?
Have I varied the length of my sentences?
When I read my paper out loud, is it choppy, or is it fluid?
Are my sentences easy for others to read?
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Word Choice: Weeks Thirteen Through Fifteen
Think about it: there is almost no limit on the synonyms for the word "said." Each synonym has a different emotional association. So, why would you use the word "said"? Unless, of course, you're describing the most mundane of situations.
Give these questions to your students to help them edit each other's work:
Are there some vivid phrases and powerful verbs to hook the reader?
Am I precise in my word choice?
Are any of my words unique or interesting?
Have I used the same ordinary words too many times?
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Bring it Home with Conventions
This is the basic stuff now. Spelling, capitalization, grammar, and punctuation. These are the conventions that your students might consider a waste of time, but that make your students' writing readable. Now, take your students through the basics of copy editing for usage -- and you'll have a complete unit. Use your teaching moments in this unit to help your students understand the importance of all of the "minor" rules of grammar.