Writing Assignments for High School: Getting Started

Making the most of those first writing assignments with a new class.

What writing assignments for high school students will you introduce to a new class? They can shape the learning environment you want and provide important data.

The back to school rush will end. Routines, established. New shoes, broken in. Fresh notebooks, scribbled on. First writing assignments, assigned.

Students will write a paragraph, a paper, a reflection of some sort. Diving into teaching writing can be a slow process, or with older students, it can begin those first days of class. Here is what I know from teaching over a dozen years: those first writing assignments with a new class, matter.

Students likely won’t produce papers at the start of the year with polished elements, meeting the standards for that particular class. (Of course.) Older students will have an idea of your expectations, of the work a paper requires. Still, it is important to establish expectations so students understand your goals with them. It is only fair that students understand the standards.

Today, I’m talking about those first writing assignments. Dependent upon your community and classes, these ideas will look different for most teachers.

For the sake of this blog post, we’ll imagine a regular class. A class that doesn’t immediately produce near-perfection, and a class that has an overall idea of how to create a paper. I think the majority of classes fall into this segment. Some students enjoy writing; some don’t. Some want to be better writers; some don’t.

How do you determine which writing element to address first? How do I start writing assignments for high school students?

This is my process for those first writing assignments for high school students in a new class.

English teachers: how do you develop those first writing assignments with a new class? Set the tone and begin writing activities with meaning. #WritingLessons #HighSchoolELA

Gather data

Students appreciate knowing that their teachers are on their side and that teachers will help them. As I first learn about my students as writers, I explain that I want to see where they are. Older students appreciate teachers not reteaching, which they rightfully see as boring.I’ve found that the writing prompt doesn’t matter much. As I read their writing, I’m gathering data.

The data that I gather is a starting point. I want:

  • To know areas where students are proficient or excelling.
  • To know areas where students need help.
  • To understand my students as writers.

I’ve established data in many ways. Typically, I ask students to write a paragraph. (You can download my first day writing activities for free.) I also use that opportunity to respond to students’ ideas. Doing that builds relationships.

After that initial writing exercise, I move to a larger assignment, our first writing assignment. Before assigning that, we work together to create expectations.

Outline expectations and rules

As a teacher, I worry that I don’t present information that I believe I have presented. I never want my error to cause a student to stumble.

I have an extremely long presentation that I break up into weeks because showing it all in one or two days would put students to sleep. No one would pay attention, and I can’t blame them. This presentation is always modified is always built together with students.

And yes, I want students to add their ideas to our collaborative presentation. However, I want to establish common terms and expectations. For instance, I use the terms “topic sentence” and “thesis statement.” I know other teachers who use “claim.” I don’t want students confused! We discuss the ideas together, and practice writing them together. We take notes and discuss ideas together. Instead of making the process boring, I work to build relationships with students through this process.

Next, we collaborate and add details together as a class to this presentation. Our brainstorming methods, inside jokes, and collaborations sit in this presentation for anyone to access.

Then, if I need to review throughout the year, all of our ideas are in one location. I typically share mine on Google Classroom. As we continue with this first writing assignment, I am sure to reference the presentation that we were building together. One piece of our master presentation is prewriting methods.

Establish prewriting habits

Students think you’re giving them extra work with prewriting, so stress that you’re not: you’re saving them time. Writing assignments for high school students should allow for brainstorming, thinking, and prewriting.

Overwhelmed students give up on their papers, or become increasingly frustrated, less willing to work. Prewriting provides a concrete reference point. It gets all the ideas out in the open. It gives students a direction. It provides you with an opportunity to restructure a paper and provide feedback before students devote tons of time.

Concerning prewriting, a key aspect I acknowledge is the amount of strong ideas from students. This is true! Teens have interesting perspectives; getting those ideas on paper in a sensible fashion becomes the obstacle. Lots of modeling on my part builds strong prewriting habits for students. I am also honest with them: every prewriting method is different for every person.

Any format (web, outline, list) works, and I allow students to choose which format works best for them. (This is a bonus for teaching older students!) If you’re assigning points for prewriting, clarify that effort is the goal. Prewriting needn’t be neat or perfect.

I ask students to list what each body paragraph’s focus will be. Then I read over those ideas with the students. We decide if ideas are too similar, out of focus with the topic, or are illogical. With the first writing assignment, I conference early. Not only do these conferences allow for the prewriting and organizing of a paper, but they also allow me to focus on difficult areas.

Put out fires

What are the most egregious errors? In some high school classes, I’ve had to review confusing words along with possessives. That’s rare, but most often I cover sentence problems such as fragments, run-ons, and comma splices at the start of the year. As we work through those first papers, I target where students struggle.

The assignments to help students identify and correct these errors vary. I’ve never used the same exact material in the exact order from year to year. Each class has unique needs and learning styles. Some classes will never need to cover misplaced modifiers; others will need grammar sorts and direct instruction to understand the problem of punctuation, parallelism, and on.

Address those reoccurring problems that multiple students face. This not only will provide direction for grammar and language instruction, but will also show students they are capable of improving their writing in small ways.

Strengthen the core

The core of papers, the nuts and bolts, the thesis, introduction, conclusion, and such will probably need strengthened. Older students know these terms, but they might not realize the expectations yet. As they mature and their writing develops, those elements should mature too. A thesis written in fifth grade should differ from one written in tenth grade.

With the first writing assignment, students might benefit from samples and mentor texts. Writing alongside students helps too.

Introductions and conclusions should relate and wrap a paper together. Write with students, and model the struggles you face. Provide varying ways to develop these elements. If I don’t use graphic organizers, I will create anchor charts. Then, we as a class have developed expectations and can reference that chart.

Encourage

Writing is difficult. Some students will never care for writing. Encouragement can begin immediately with a new class. I begin building relationships immediately, and I am intentional in incorporating encouragement into conversations.

I assign writing assignments for high school students right away. I actually assign one the first or second day of class so that I can gauge where students are. Students get full credit for this paper as long as they produce a paper, normally a paragraph. I also keep this paper so that as class progresses, I can return it to students on a particularly rough day. You know: the days when multiple students confide that they can’t do it, that they are terrible writers, that grammar is the devil’s spawn.

Show them that they are good writers, that they have grown, and that their writing assignments have improved. The process will come together for you and them.

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