Recently there has been quite a lot of talk in my school about how to properly teach writing in the classroom. We have all agreed and disagreed on different points- from talking about how many sentences each paragraph should have to discuss the purpose of a conclusion in a formal essay, we have talked about writing requirements in the classroom more than our students have spent time learning about it.
This is not ideal. Everyone around me wants to have a solid vertical alignment; each one of us consistently pushing our students toward being successful each year until- ultimately- they graduate and move on to whatever passion they have. (in or outside of college).
This being said, there are so many very different and yet, important ways we can teach writing. The first thing to think about is how formal are we teaching our students to write. Personally, I focus on analysis writing. I want my students to be able to answer a question objectively, using evidence, and properly explain what and why their evidence is relevant to their point. This works for both one-paragraph answers and whole essays. I would simply ask students to make a claim, or topic sentence, which would direct the rest of their answer. However, this is not entirely helpful when asked to write a speech, a narrative, or even a formal research paper. Each of these forms has a unique structure which would have to be mastered for students to be successful in writing them.
While there are many different forms of writing in the English Classroom, I like to focus on teaching students how to write a critical response question correctly. Some of you may be thinking that by the time students get to high school they should know how to do this. I might have agreed with you once upon a time, but then I realized teenagers will always be in the profession of making things simpler and easier for themselves, and therefore, will always have to be taught how to write critical response questions, for the simple reason that “they are not easy”.
I like to teach the technique called RACE. This is
Restate the prompt
Answer the question
Cite the evidence
Explain how your evidence supports your answer.
It is very basic, but really, it is more helpful than you might think. It is easy for students to remember and really does generate real quality answers out of my students. I have even had students write full essays using this formula. I’ll explain more about that a little further in the article.
There are many different forms or acronyms that you can use in an English classroom to take to teach critical response answers. I have noticed that if you don’t teach anything students are more likely to give you one-word or one-sentence answers which is not what we’re looking for when we’re looking for a critical response answer. These questions are usually compound and complex regarding a text. These are questions like, “How does the theme or Central message of this text develop throughout the story?”, or, “How did the character's actions throughout the story help us understand the development of the theme?”
When I start teaching RACE, I use simple Google Slides to explain RACE. Students record it in their notebooks where they can refer back to it for the remainder of the semester. Then I give my students a series of options that start very simple, working up to more complex questions. So the first example might be “What are 2 popular sports on television and why are they so popular?” This is such a simple question my students start questioning what's happening because it can never be that simple with me, but they answer the question- by discussing their answers, and writing down what they agree on. I make a point to remind them that this is a two-part question, which means they will have to “restate” for both parts of the question.
After they have answered their questions, I give them time to find evidence to support their answer. They can do this on their phones or from an article I have ready for them. (it depends on the class as to how open I am with allowing them to use their phones).
Once they put their quote down, we are ready for the “E” of RACE. This is the most difficult part for my students to understand. I don’t want them to tell me what the quote means- which is what they always want to write down. I want them to tell me HOW this quote supports what their answer is. How does it prove them right? I make a very big point about this, walking around and double-checking every student's “E” to the simple question before allowing them to move on. Only after they have correctly completed the “E” to the easy question can they move on to the literary example. This does not mean that I hold the whole class. At this point, students start breaking off and working at their own pace.
The literary questions will start with a simple poem (usually a Sonnet or a free verse poem). I keep the text simple because at this point in the lesson I am not assessing their reading comprehension, I am assessing how they form their writing, so I want to give them something they can answer without too much difficulty. The final step will ramp it up to that next level.
So again, I am using a simple poem here, one they may even already know. I will also ask them one of the literary questions they do well on, such as, “How does the author’s diction affect the mood of the story.” This is one of the easiest questions for them to answer because it's asking them how they felt- they don’t have to infer very much here. Again, I focus on checking that their “E” is written correctly. Once everyone has completed this second question correctly, they are ready to begin answering RACE questions as an easy exit ticket in the last 10 to 15 min of class!
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