Think Write Prompts

A major challenge for teachers is getting students to write freely, without getting bogged down and preoccupied with rote feedback and diffuse commentary on memorized material. Think Write prompts allow students to go deeper with their thinking by focusing on self-reflection and prior knowledge instead of on the material. A Think Write prompt is deceptively simple. It is exploratory and open-ended. It can take as long as you like, from one minute to a half hour. It can be performed during discussion or as a warmup at the beginning of class. It should never be graded, but only exist in order for the student to get an understanding of his or her own learning. It can be silent exercise, stimulus for an essay assignment, or an enhancement for group discussion. Here are a few examples of Think Write prompts:

“For the next three minutes, write the things you know, the things you think you know, that the things you’d like to learn more about cellular reproduction.”

‘When the author says, “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry,” what do you think he’s talking about?’

“I’ve had a picture of a cookbook on the wall from the very beginning of this unit on transcription and translation. Why do you think that is?”

In addition to Think Write prompts, there are also Write Right prompts, which encourage students to make a concrete judgement on what they think is correct or what they see is most important about a subject or idea. Write Right prompts are often less open-ended than Think Write prompts, but they are similar in their spontaneity and universal application to warmups, essays, and group discussions. Instead of only allowing students to reflect on their own understanding, Write Right prompts are more appropriate for teachers to use in order to gauge class understanding of materials, and they should therefore be given out as assignments to be turned in and graded. Here are some examples of Write Right prompts:

“What do you think are the three most important arguments made in this article?”

“How are transcription and translation alike? How are they different? Give four specific examples.”

“If you were giving an exam on the entire process of cellular evolution, what three questions would you put on the test?”

While Write Right prompts are bit more closed-off and focused than Think Write prompts, both techniques look to accomplish the same goal—to get students’ brains off of the material and into their own heads, in order to see what they have learned, how they have learned it, and what personal connections they have made with it.

The Seven Elements

Sometimes the most difficult part of approaching a writing assignment is figuring out who you are writing for. Without a specific audience in mind, hangups can appear in the form of levels of language (what status is my audience?), depth and breadth of focus (what does my audience want to know?), and prior knowledge (what does my audience already know?). Using the Seven Elements in a writing assignment or research project can help eliminate these hangups by allowing students to take on a specific role (with an evident status, motivation, and level of language) and write to a specific audience (with a predetermined interest and prior knowledge). These Seven Elements are:

  1. Summary. Give a brief description of the purpose, background information, and importance of this writing assignment.
  2. Role. A specific character, job, position or motivation that the student will undertake when writing this assignment.
  3. Audience. An imaginary person or group of people, complete with their own specific roles and motivations, that will be reading this assignment.
  4. Form. The format of the writing assignment, whether it be an essay, business letter, diary entry, or otherwise.
  5. Purpose. What the assignment is intended to accomplish.
  6. Focus Points. What you want them to focus on as a teacher (grammar, readings, specific research sources).
  7. Procedure. A play-by-play (or, if applicable, day-to-day) description of what exactly the students will be doing in order to research and ably tackle this writing assignment.

This type of Seven Element assignment can be used for any classroom—from AP Physics to sixth grade Creative Writing—the important thing is that the task is relevant, thoughtful, and presented as necessary (perhaps even vital) to the intended audience. I have provided an example below which could be used in conjunction with a high school biology course after a unit on bacterial and viral diseases.

  1. Summary: Bacterial and viral diseases are a significant part of life on this planet. For every living thing on Earth, there is at least one bacteria or virus looking to infect it and use its biological systems in order to propagate. Thousands of these pathogens are known to infect human beings. You are an expert on one of these pathogens. The thing is, although you are an expert, the community you live in is full of susceptible children who are not. Your job, then, is to tell the story of a specific pathogen of your choice in a way that a child (age 5-7) would understand it.
  2. Role. You are an expert pathologist recently employed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to teach a group of school children in a high-risk environment about one human pathogen of your choice (whether it be viral or bacterial). You have worked in the laboratory for decades, have spent years in the field, and have delivered countless lectures and seminars around the world. Without any question, you are the person for this job.
  3. Audience. Valner Able Elementary School is directly at the center of a community that has a high risk for catching and spreading the pathogenic disease you will be talking about. For example, if the pathogen you are an expert on needs to live in a goat’s stomach for one part of its life cycle, this particular community keeps a great deal of goats. If the pathogen you study infects the salivary glands, this particular community has the weakest salivary glands in the world. And so on. Point is, these people need your help and direction in order to not spread this disease, and, in the CDC’s opinion, the best way to do this is through the children. You will therefore be giving a short presentation to a group of 1st and 2nd grade students (age 5-7) on what exactly the pathogen is, what its life cycle is like, how it is propagated, and, most importantly, what the students can do to prevent getting it. This children have a very limited understanding of bacteria and viruses. They know what bacteria and viruses are and what they look like, but that’s about the extent of it. They also have a very basic understanding of plant and animal anatomy. You will really need to simplify things in order for them to stay safe and keep their community healthy.
  4. Form. Your presentation can take whatever form you like, as long as it is appropriate for a 1st and 2nd grade level of understanding. You can present your information in the form of picture book, a poem, a puppet show, a catchy song, or a short video. The choice is yours. But remember, these are little humans with very little attention spans. So make it simple, make it thorough, make it exciting, and most of all, make it stick.
  5. Purpose. The purpose of this presentation is to keep a community safe. Without your help, this school of germy children will naively spread a disease that could slow or even fully diminish the growth of their community. Lives are at stake here, and if you can help these children fully understand the disease and realize how to avoid spreading it, you can save them.
  6. Focus Points. Although you are presenting to 1st and 2nd graders, your presentation should still cover all aspects of the pathogen’s replication cycle: animal vectors, if it is lytic or lysogenic, how it moves and attaches, where it multiplies in the body, and how long it stays active in the human system. Explain how it is spread and how transmission can be prevented. Remember, make it simple, make it thorough, make it exciting, and make it stick.
  7. Procedure. We will spend the next two days in class researching our pathogen. Wikipedia is fine place to find the pathogen you wish to present, but it is not a definitive source. You will be responsible for using three other sources of research in addition to WikipediaUse the CDC’s website (cdc.gov) in order to conduct further research on symptoms and prevention. I will also provide a number of medical journals that can also be used for further researching your pathogen.
    I will be available for any questions during this research period. Your presentation is due on Monday, when we start presenting.

The Seven Elements have now allowed students to focus on a specific voice, motivation, and audience for an otherwise daunting subject and science project. In addition, this type of assignment lets students get creative with their scientific inquiry, opening the field to those students who don’t enjoy the rigid constructs of experimentation and report.  

Managing Texts

For the last seven weeks, I have been sitting in on and occasionally assisting with a sixth-grade science class at a public middle school here in Madison. The class is based on the FOSS Weather and Water Course, and during my time teaching we covered an introduction and the first two units. For the entirety of the course, all students read the same textbook, found here. It is an easy-to-use and well-organized textbook, and appropriate for the age and level of understanding that it targets. However, it is the only book available to the students throughout the entire course. In his essay, “Effective Teachers, Effective Instruction” in the book Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice, Richard L. Allington writes that in order to maximize student engagement with academic work, multiple texts should be available for the students to use. According to Allington, this will 1) increase the opportunity for students to find books that they can read accurately, fluently, and with comprehension, and 2) increase motivation and engagement by giving students a choice in their reading selection. So instead of just the one textbook in the classroom, it would have been ideal for the teacher to also provide a variety of magazines covering the topics of weather and water, as well as an additional textbook, and maybe even a thrilling picture book!

That said, something I did like very much was the way in which the teacher helped students make personal connections with the texts, even before a single word was read. Before reading the chapter, the teacher addressed the opening page— a large, brilliantly detailed picture of the Earth:

 

He then had students raise their hands and tell him what they saw. What did this photo mean to them? What was happening in the world in when this photo was taken? What did they think a “thin blue veil” was in reference to? This initial, casual discussion allowed students to identify with the text and make predictions about its contents before they had even read a word. Allington praises the use of making connections with the text, as it allows for stronger engagement by the students, and more effective teaching by the instructor. After seeing this introduction to weather and water, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree.

Semantic Mapping

One of my very favorite things to do is draw. I doodle just about every moment of the day, whether to illustrate a word problem, visualize an abstract concept or relationship, or simply for no reason in particular. See “Figure 1”.

Figure 1

But doodling accomplishes more than just conceptualization and procrastination. According to recent research, doodling may help memory recall by offsetting mental blockades to useful, but boring, information.

Beyond that, Semantic Mapping is a useful method for developing deeper understanding of a topic by using imagery and graphics to represent multifaceted literary or temporal events. This type of Semantic Mapping is also referred to as Graphic Organizers or  Diagrammatic Reasoning.

In Semantic Mapping, a portion of text is broken down into a list of facts, a layout of temporal sequences, or a dichotomy of causes and effects in order to be graphically represented in diagram form. This can aid student in approaching expository writing by revealing patterns, trends, and narratives in bland, inaccessible blocks of information. For example, take the following paragraph from  Scientific American‘s article on a new type of drug-resistant bacteria, ST398:

Complicated stuff. But if we break the paragraph down into a series of temporal events, and represent it in diagram form in a style similar to this

we get this:

Not exactly pretty, sure, but it is a fair representation of the text through images and symbols. What was originally an unapproachable block of text is now a tangible, simple, and—I think—more fun semantic map of information. This exercise is easy and enjoyable, because it allows students to get a better idea about how they make connections, and then further allows them to get a bit messy (or, in this case, very messy) with the ways in which the represent those connections.

Creative Rankings

Creative Ranking allows students to meet and interact with the major themes of a story or lesson before they have even seen a piece of writing or have heard a single lecture. Students are given a list of items (individual plot points, data, concepts, historic events, occupations of characters, ect.) and a set of criteria by which to rank them (personal connection, preference, by timeline, ect.). Each student should complete their ranking individually, without fear of being graded, and should share their decisions with a classmate, peer group, or with the class. The teacher can record the top rankings of the class and keep track of them as the lesson progresses.

I have used Creative Rankings in a high school Environmental Science class in order to introduce students to the evolution of insects. I gave each student a list of 8 groups of insects and asked them to rank each group, 1 to 8, from the earliest to emerge to the most recent:

Dragonflies

Beetles

Ants

Bees

Cockroaches

Cicadas

Flies

Butterflies/Moths

I admit that this was not exactly the most creative application of Creative Rankings, but it was an effective means of getting students to recognize major groups of insects while freely using their own logic and reasoning to place them on an evolutionary timeline. If this exercise succeeded only in getting the students to understand that insects did evolve on a timeline as all other animals on the planet–and did not simply appear all at once in a writhing mass of chitin–then both the students and I are better off for having used it.

My favorite part of Creative Rankings is that it allows students to put information into a personal context before they are formally introduced to it. This personal context serves two purposes. It allows students to identify with the material and become intrinsically engaged with it (a necessity for effective eduction), and it lets the teacher understand the students’ prior knowledge of the topic before the lesson even begins.

Proposition/Support Outlines

Proposition/Support Outlines work in a variety of writing contexts, but are especially effective for position papers—essays that clearly present, support, call attention to a specific opinion, viewpoint, or idea. Position papers are widely used examples of persuasive writing, and commonly appear on final exams and standardized tests where students are directed to respond to a scientific hypothesis or literary prompt. To begin, start with a statement of fact. For example, “The amount of fish in the ocean is being depleted.” A fact can be proven or disproven, while an opinion (“I believe that…”) cannot. Now, make this statement of fact into a proposition by introducing an opinion or follow-up statement that requires argument supported by facts. Our proposition is now “The amount of fish in the ocean is being depleted because current fishing methods are unsustainable.” The outline below illustrates five methods of support for this proposition—facts, statistics, examples, expert authority, and logic/reasoning. An example of each is provided using information from Overfishing.org:

Like Dialogical Writing/Reading, this exercise can be done in reverse by having students deconstruct a piece of writing to identify the author’s point of view and the methods used for supporting it.

I like Proposition/Support Outlines because it forces students to think critically about how they approach reading and writing. This exercise should encourage questioning like “What is the author trying to say?” “How well-founded are the author’s arguments?” “Does the reasoning match the facts?” and “What are whole in the logic of the arguments?” This sort of critical examination of pieces of writing will allow students to better state and defend their own opinions, while discerning the supported from the unfounded in the over-abundance of propositions made in the Information Age.

Rate Your Words

Rate Your Words is a handout (shown below) that can be used for introducing students to complicated or unfamiliar vocabulary within a reading before the students even get their hands on that reading. Under the left-hand column “words,” vocabulary words are listed, and then students can, privately, judge for themselves their understanding of those words.


This activity was helpful because it allowed me to see words out of context so that I was familiar with them, then when words I was originally unfamiliar with appeared in the context of the article, I was able to better piece together their meaning and significance because I was not taken aback or blinded by their novelty.