Are you looking to develop a writing unit for high school students? You can make a meaningful high school writing unit that meets standards and engages students.
Teaching writing in high school confidently takes years! It took me years to feel as though I had a solid approach for writing instruction. Sometimes, I was frustrated and overwhelmed—both bad feelings to convey to students. When I started blogging and writing for other sources, I gained some confidence in the writing unit for high school students that I crafted.
The more I experimented and the more I worked with students, the better my methods became which translated into my students becoming more confident.
Still, I rearrange my ideas and methods every year. I have found that I will use all of these teaching methods, but the order depends on what my students need. The core of all teaching high school writers? Modeling. I model writing with my students.
Previously, I’d used some of these practices with seventh and eighth graders, and I have used some with juniors and seniors. Like so much with teaching… it depends on the class. High school writing requires flexibility.
Because freshmen and sophomores are similar, I use the same approaches in the writing unit for high school. Both age groups require judgement calls; for example, I might complete fewer paragraphs with sophomores than I do with freshmen. The same can be said of practice with transitions and thesis statements; numerous variables exist.
I promised myself that I wanted a concrete plan to hit the important points and all standards for my students this year, so I might as well make another teacher’s life easier and put it up here. Teaching writing in high school is never the same process from year to year! Below, I have outlined what works when I teach high school writing. Take what methods will work for you; leave the rest.
Please note: I cover plagiarism during the first week of school as part of my procedures and rules. My school has material for consistency across all courses, and I use that. I reiterate that information before we begin research papers. Decide what works best for your situation.
Start with writing and developing strong paragraphs. For the first assignment (normally the first week of school), I am super honest with students and tell them that I need a starting point—I need to know them. I remind students about basics: topic sentences, complete sentences, and a guiding thought. Then? I let them write and give them a completion grade. I keep these paragraphs to show them later for reflection.
As I read those paragraphs, I keep a running list of strengths and weaknesses. I’ve found it helpful to give positive feedback where appropriate so that students don’t get discouraged with writing.
Especially with freshmen, I need to see how students from numerous feeder schools write a paragraph. With sophomores, I often make the first assignment two paragraphs and stress they should create a strong sentence transition between them.
If I feel that students might need a complete “back to basics” approach with language, I will give them a grammar pretest, purely for my own background. For instance if students have tons of incomplete thoughts, I will be sure they can identify a sentence’s subject and verb.
Tell students your expectations. If I could return to my earlier years of teaching, this tops the list of what I would change. Writing expectations differ for every individual circumstance, and that situation is probably best. Students must adjust their tone, language, message, and everything dependent upon their teachers/bosses/audience and situations. Since I began explaining what I expect (more than simply covering the rubric), students are less fearful to write. I think they feel empowered because they know what I expect.
After I give that presentation (it is editable and yes, I edit it every year), I highlight basics and problem areas. Then, I post the presentation on Google Classroom and tell students to consult it. This saves me time, and parents like having the expectations too. Plus, having all of my ideas in one spot helps when I have had co-teachers, when students consult our writing lab, or when professionals need information for a 504 or IEP.
This presentation also provides common language. For instance, I use the terms “topic sentence” and “thesis statement.” I know some teachers reference “claim” and “sub-claim.” I want students to understand my terminology, and that is why I left the presentation editable.
Years ago, I wanted students to brainstorm together, help each other, and build off each other’s writing. I set up peer editing and revising stations, but students were pretty quiet. Finally, I understood: be sure that you have built a community of writers.
Students and I work on organization with a fun cookie activity. Not only do students enjoy writing about cookies (we eat them too!), but we also build community through the activity. Students realize they are capable of organizing and narrowing down a topic. Since we complete that activity early in the year, we reference it continually, thus building our community more. Everyone understands how to organize a paper that covers cookies (I have samples included in this activity), and students enjoy sharing all that they know about a favorite food.
At this point for high school writing, students and I have established expectations and terms as well as completed a community building activity.
If possible, I break the students into groups (of about four) for different topics to study from what I’ve seen in those first paragraphs. We cover ways to improve student writing. (Note: we don’t stop writing. Typically at the start of the school year, we write with the short stories that we read. This helps me establish relationships with students and allows me to provide them with quick feedback. Doing this keeps us writing and reading and growing.)
I don’t have established groups; I switch group members so that students can learn from different peers. Plus, students so rarely have the same struggles! I use pieces from that writing activity set: some students work on overall word use, others improve their verbs, and still others buff out common errors (an abundance of qualifiers, assumptions, weak transitions, etc.).
If we are facing solid grammatical errors, I step back with students and practice correcting common writing errors. These problems are normally: run-on sentences, comma splices, fragments, wordiness, comma placement with introductory elements, misplaced modifiers, and dangling modifiers.
I begin working with small improvements with paragraph writing and continue it all year. These activities are sometimes done alone, in a conference with me, or in stations. Since different students have different needs with different papers, I try to rotate the methods of delivery.
By weaving small high school writing assignments into class work, I can continue gathering data, helping individual students, and building community.
Model the Writing Process
The biggest realization that positively changed my writing instruction is that I tell students that all people write differently—very differently. Students think there is one approach, and that is untrue.
Sometimes, students also think that writers sit and write and publish! They don’t want to edit and revise because they believe famous authors don’t. When I explain the writing process of famous authors, students feel better. I created a writing process chart that reflects this: it flows. That chart (I hang it in my room and give a copy to students) doesn’t have numbers. That chart accounts for the idea that students write in varying ways. I want them to find the way that works for them.
Considering all of that, I provide students with varying ways to pre-write/brainstorm. I require students to brainstorm, but I encourage them to find what works for them: a web, bulleted list, puzzle chart, and on.
As we move into larger papers, I do teach students how to outline. We brainstorm and outline a sample together. This is part of how I model writing with my students. I write with my students, but it has cut down on stress with writing. I’m not sure if modeling writing provides emotional support or helps students understand the process. Either way, modeling my writing has improved student writing.
An outline provides structure for larger papers. As we continue together, I encourage students to develop their own writing style and methods and yes, that might mean not writing an outline. If papers stray with organization, we return to the outline.
As I continue modeling high school writing, students trust me to move to larger assignments.
Move to Student Essays
Eventually, you must move onto larger writing assignments. I typically do this after the short story unit—around the seventh week of school. Since I allow some time for writing smaller chunks, students have confidence with larger assignments. I encourage student choice, and this is a free list of writing prompts for high school students.
I do relate researched writing to nonfiction and literature from class, and other times students choose a topic independent of class content. Both ways have worked for me; I normally let student interests lead the way.
No matter the topic, I provide students with a rubric and cover plagiarism, again. (Both concepts are in that activity set.) As we work, I circle back to that original presentation that covers expectations. I encourage students to look at those expectations and the rubric. Part of high school writing is taking the initiative with independent work.
At this point, students are familiar with the writing process, my expectations, and group work for improving their writing. All of that work at the start of the year with paragraph writing pays off now because while students are focused on writing large papers, they are familiar with our processes. (Yay!!)
Focus on Improvement
As we write, I encourage students to find their writing style that helps them. We complete editing and revising activities as students finish papers. With older students, I ask for input with whom students work. Students must trust the person who reads their writing, and I allow student voice in editing and revising.
Next, I target specific areas for improvement to encourage even stronger writing. For instance, I stress the importance of verb choice by showing students how to eliminate linking verbs. (Some linking verbs? Great! Is every verb a linking verb? Not so great.) By providing encouragement, building community, and allowing student choice, students are receptive to specific and targeted improvement strategies.
Finally, I stress to students that all writing needs to be improved. Famous authors? Yep. Their teacher? Yes. Everyone? Yes! Students should understand that all writing requires circling back through the writing process.
The year continues, and I develop a relationship with students and understand their needs. I may circle back to the writing expectations as needed, or we might practice some of the pieces to improve student writing. Each class is different. All of those tools in the writing unit for high school are used throughout the year for station work, conferencing, and group work.
My complete writing unit for high school helps me because I start small, establish expectations, and am willing to work individually and with groups of students. Overall, these processes have improved my writing instruction, and I hope they inspire you while teaching writing in high school.
Are you interested in more ideas for teaching writing in high school? My Pinterest board contains ideas from around the web.