In-Class Writing Assignment Ideas For High School

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The Origins of Come to Class

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The writing lessons in Come to Class originated and have been perfected during my long career as an English teacher. Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica, California, has been a professional home for me the past 27 years. I have been surrounded by extraordinary colleagues who put students first and never stop trying to figure out how to make this a place where no one is left behind. Our efforts are not always successful, but we refuse to give up—either on kids or on ourselves. We believe teaching is an art rather than a science and each lesson a work in progress.

Come to Class grew out of a learning environment that puts students first.

Most English teachers at Santa Monica High School have between 35 and 38 students in every class and meet with 150 to 170 students every day. This is a terrifying prospect for anyone responsible for teaching writing. For the past 30 years the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has recommended that no English teacher should be responsible for more than 80 students. And that doesn't mean 80 students on Mondays and Wednesdays and another 80 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Santa Monica High School students come from a wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Over 45 languages are spoken on campus. It is common for a third of my class to speak a language other than English at home. Approximately 40 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Children of UCLA professors sit next to homeless students, teenage mothers rub shoulders with teenage actresses. We are a large school with 3,500 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. To address the needs of students who feel isolated and anonymous, a few years ago we divided the school into six houses. Unfortunately even our "small schools" include over 600 students. As a small-schools expert told me when we were planning to restructure, a school of 600 students is not a small school.

Still, we never stop trying to personalize the learning experience for our students. I begin this by giving a Language Survey to every student in my class early in the school year. I am careful to assure students that this is not intended to determine if they are "ready" for the class. They are free to ignore any questions on the survey they don't want to answer.

After evaluating the responses to the survey, I schedule individual conferences with students. The survey gives me particular questions to ask and tells me much more about my students than simply their language backgrounds. It opens the door to talking about educational background, personal interests, and attitudes toward language, the grist for all writing. The survey also smoothes the way for a conversation about what I expect from them this year. I have learned from these meetings that no two students come to us with exactly the same experiences. Teachers need to be alive to the strengths and needs, occasionally unique needs, of individuals.

Come to Class grew out of a public mandate for and personal commitment to teaching writing well.

Abraham Lincoln called writing "the great invention of the world . . . Great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, the unborn, at all distances, and great not only in its direct benefits, but its great help to all other inventions." I had never thought of writing as an "invention," but given the essential role writing has played in our exercise of the invention called popular democracy, I was struck by Lincoln's observation. Democracies depend on a literate citizenry. Teaching students how to write provides them with a critical tool for participating in a democracy. Their participation strengthens our democracy.

Everyone agrees that students should learn to write well. The rub is that almost everyone wishes someone else would teach kids how. It is easy to see why. Reading student essays is much less of a chore when ideas are clearly organized and coherently expressed. And circling spelling errors and correcting misplaced modifiers is nobody's idea of fun. At the same time, there is little chance of success in school unless students learn how to write. Students who don't write well founder when they go to college and struggle on the job, forever hiding their poor composition skills. Teaching writing is too important to leave to somebody else.

Teaching writing has traditionally been the responsibility of middle and high school English teachers. We accept this role in theory but in practice struggle to keep up with the paper load. Look at the numbers. A teacher responsible for 150 students a day who assigns a paper every three weeks and spends 10 minutes on each essay must devote over eight hours each week (an extra work day) to reading student essays. One solution is to lower class size in classes that are writing-intensive, a practice commonly followed in college composition classes. Another is to spread the responsibility for teaching writing across the curriculum.

The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges issued a report called "The Neglected R" whose critical message was that "writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many." The commission specifically recommended that:

  • The amount of time students spend writing should be at least doubled.
  • Writing should be assigned across the curriculum.
  • More out-of-school time should be used to encourage writing.
  • Standards, curriculum, and assessment must be aligned.
  • Assessments of student writing must go beyond multiple-choice items. Assessment should provide students with adequate time to write and require students to create a piece of prose.
  • Common expectations about writing should be developed across disciplines.
  • States should provide the financial resources necessary for the additional time and personnel required to make writing a centerpiece of the curriculum.

I fervently hope that these recommendations will be acted upon immediately and that legislators will find the political will to make the final bullet point a reality. I'm not holding my breath. The report was issued in 2003, and I have yet to see any reduction in my class size. But using the dearth of financial resources in the public schools as an excuse for not teaching writing will only shortchange the students who need us most. I can't wait for ideal conditions.

In 2007, the National Writing Project (NWP) conducted a survey to discover what the American public thought about the state of writing instruction in our schools. While a large majority believes that writing is an important and abiding skill, many feel that high school students do not write as well as in the past. My first reaction was defensive. How could it be otherwise in a society that parses news into sound bites? When was the last time this "large majority" corrected student papers until midnight? Once I calmed down, I began to see the results as hopeful. If the public values writing, it should be something we are willing to invest in. Judge for yourself from the results of the NWP survey:

  • A broad majority of Americans believes good writing skills are very important (74% say "greater need to write well to succeed than 20 years ago").
  • Nearly everyone agrees writing should be introduced in school before the fifth grade (96%), and one-half says writing instruction should begin in the first grade or earlier (49%).
  • More than 7 in 10 say giving all students daily writing assignments (71%) and teaching writing in all subjects (74%) are ideas that should be put into practice now.
  • More than four-fifths (84%) say students should learn to write well as a requirement for high school graduation. This puts writing below reading (94%) and math (94%) and ahead of American history (73%), algebra (56%), biology (48%), and foreign language (31%).
  • Americans fear our children are falling behind. Many (47%) say that today's high schools are producing students who do not write as well as students in the past. Just 20% believe today's students write better than those in the past.
  • Half (50%) of the public believes students are writing less frequently today than a generation ago and fewer than one in four (23%) believe today's students write more than when they were in school. When asked about the importance of writing in the workplace and higher education, the survey found that:
    • Americans tend to believe writing is key to succeeding in the jobs similar to the ones they themselves perform, regardless of what type of job that is. Writing is not just a skill needed by "the other guy." Both blue-collar workers (80%) and white-collar workers (93%) say writing is important to success in their careers.
    • Americans say students need writing skills to succeed in college (67% "essential"), expressing a belief that writing is more essential for success in college than it is for any occupation.
  • A large majority of the public (79%) understands that reading and writing go hand in hand-rejecting the view that reading skills need to come first.
  • Further, learning to write well is perceived as a key ingredient for students to acquire other skills such as effective communication (66% "essential"), grammar (63%), and critical thinking (52%). Best of all from my perspective as an English teacher, I was encouraged to see that the public understands what will be required to improve the teaching of writing.
  • By a margin of two to one, the public sees more benefit in putting resources into helping teachers teach writing than in putting those resources into testing students to see how well they are learning to write.
  • Americans want to see teacher-training programs include courses on teaching writing (79% "good idea") and professional development for current teachers (75% "good idea").

Writing to Explain

Expository writing is one of the most versatile yet least understood types of writing. Its principal task is to explain. Yet this simple task poses a challenge for teachers, for expository writing can take many forms at its finest and is anything but formulaic. These lessons illustrate methods I use for teaching my students how to write engaging, focused, and, most important, clear expository essays. An explanation that lacks clarity fails to meet its communicative purpose.

There is urgency to this work. Students must produce expository essays for many state and national writing assessments as well as for almost every college course they will take. University instructors often fault high school English teachers for failing to prepare students for the expository writing demands that are so commonplace in college assignments. Rather than back away from this challenge, I embrace it; and I find that some of my most reluctant writers prefer to explain what they know and have learned rather than write about literature.

Presented here as consecutive days of instruction, the unit can also be spread over several weeks according to your school calendar or the length of your teaching period. I offer these lessons as an intense writing workshop to help you see the interdependent nature of the unit as a whole and how the teaching builds on what has gone before.

About Writing to Explain
Expository writing can be divided into many subcategories: how-to essays, comparison and contrast, extended definition, cause and effect, problem and solution, the reporting of information. In these lessons I do not attempt to cover each of these approaches but rather offer students guidance for writing to explain their own chosen topics. Once a student has mastered the basic moves for writing exposition, writing to the particular demands of an assignment will come more easily.

I find that by ninth grade, most students are sick of the how-to essay. They have been writing a version of "how to bake chocolate chip cookies" or "how to hit a curve ball" since fourth grade. (Most teachers I know are also sick of reading such papers.) It is important to teach students how to construct logical, step-by-step instructions; however, my students are more engaged when I raise the bar and challenge them to write an expository essay- not about what they already know, but about something they would like to know more about. Of course, this means they will need to conduct research.

One reason student expository essays are often so dull is that teenagers don't know enough about the subject to make the paper engaging. It is concrete detail that captures a reader's attention. Exemplary expository writing requires extensive expository reading and research.

According to the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, the writing of term papers has become an educational curiosity. I understand why few teachers assign research essays. The project devours too much curricular time, and it requires an enormous investment of additional teacher time to grade papers. But what if, instead of investing 6 to 8 weeks on a term paper, you assign a three-page paper that includes a research dimension? Such an assignment will meet the research requirements in your state standards as well as enrich your students' expository writing skills.

Writing to Persuade

Different types of writing place different demands on students. These lessons focus on persuasive writing and demonstrate how I teach my students to craft effective essays. Presented as seven sequential days of instruction, the lessons could also be spread over two weeks or longer according to your school calendar or the length of your teaching period.

You may also wish to intersperse your writing curriculum with literature lessons. I have presented the lessons as an intensive writing workshop to help you see how the entire unit fits together and how the teaching builds on what has gone before. As always, you will want to take your cue from your students and not ask for more than they can deliver.

That said, I believe that we often spread out due dates over such a long period of time that we build in too much time for procrastination. For me, focused work on improving students' writing skills has always seemed best.

Why Teach Persuasive Writing?
Most young people are masters at the art of persuasion. The teenagers I work with have been convincing parents and friends to behave as they would like since they first could talk, some with remarkable finesse. This collection of lessons will help you build upon that innate skill as you develop your students' facility for crafting a written argument that can persuade others to think as they do.

Some writing instructors argue that all writing is fundamentally persuasive. Others view persuasive writing as the construction of a pro or con argument that must conclude with a call to action. I believe persuasive writing is more defined than the first view but less constricting and more interesting than the second. Writing to persuade is a subtle dance between reader and writer during which the writer makes his way of thinking so attractive to the reader that, as night follows day, the reader completes the essay fully convinced by the writer's argument. Nothing else would seem to make sense.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress Writing Framework, "Human beings communicate as a means of accomplishing goals or meeting needs. Writing, then, can be thought of as a relationship or negotiation between the writer and reader to satisfy the aims of both parties. In a complex society with a plurality of perspectives and opinions, students need to be capable of expressing their viewpoints clearly and logically in many forms, such as essays, editorials, or position papers. Therefore, one purpose of the 2011 NAEP writing assessment will be to assess the ability to persuade in order to change the reader's point of view or affect the reader's action" (2007).

Most ninth- and tenth-grade students have already been exposed to persuasive writing in middle school. Although I recognize the need for reteaching the fundamentals of writing to persuade (thesis, counterarguments, supporting evidence, conclusion), I let my students know that they are ready to write about more complex issues than the arguments for and against the school dress code or a longer school year. It is time to tackle the issue of influencing how other people think.

Writing About Literature

Most children receive more instruction in writing about literature than in any other genre of composition. English teachers-myself among them- have argued for many years that if students can write about Hamlet, they can write about anything. As this collection of writing lessons demonstrates, I have changed my mind. While the best and brightest may be able to make the transition from writing about literature to writing persuasive, expository, reflective, and narrative texts, most students benefit from instruction that helps them meet the specific demands of each writing type. It is wishful thinking to assume that students will be able to intuit the particular characteristics of each type and then apply them.

That said, writing about literature continues to be an essential part of every English class and for good reason. Writing about what they read helps students probe for meaning and challenges them to look deeply into themselves for understandings. It invites them to construct personal interpretations supported with evidence from the text. Most important, writing about literature forces students to pause and think hard.

Presented as sequential days of instruction, this unit also could be spread over a longer period of time. I offer these lessons as an intense writing workshop to demonstrate how the entire unit fits together and how each day's instruction builds on what has gone before.

Writing About Literature
Students rarely have a deep understanding of the literature that they attempt to write about. In a familiar scenario, the teacher develops a series of lessons coaxing students through challenging literature like To Kill a Mockingbird or Romeo and Juliet. Once the final page has been turned, the teacher assigns a paper, usually focusing on an aspect of the text that has been thoroughly presented and discussed. Why, then, are we surprised when all the essays sound alike?

This is not to say that we should stop teaching difficult literature. Anyone who knows my work, With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students (2000) and Classics in the Classroom: Designing Accessible Literature Lessons (2004), knows that I am an advocate for teaching challenging literature to all students. However, I invite you to reconsider the wisdom of expecting students to construct coherent essays on such books. And aren't you tired of reading papers about the symbolism of the mockingbird or characterization in Lord of the Flies?

I teach students how to write about literature, drawing on their reading outside class. Together the class reads a text that is well and truly inside what Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)—a range between work students can do independently and work they can accomplish, but only with help. Most students would not be able to read this literature on their own. At the same time, students choose a book from a cluster of literature circle titles to read and discuss with peers.

We have all heard the argument that assigning students to write an essay based upon a book read for pleasure ruins the reading experience; I fundamentally disagree. Knowing that they will be writing about their literature circle book often lends urgency to students' discussion. It also helps me solve the problem of assessing their conversations. Most important, students write more coherently about these books because they understand them more easily.

Narrative Writing

Once students leave elementary school, they are rarely required to write stories. Instead, the essay assumes a dominant position in their writing classes; writing stories is for children, and in high school they are taught to put away childish things. Consequently, the narrative genre tends to be overlooked in ninth-grade and tenth-grade classrooms. This is a shame for several reasons. First, students love writing stories. By ignoring the genre that brings teenagers the most pleasure in writing, we reconfirm students' expectations that schoolwork must be joyless, difficult, dull work.

Narrative writing, moreover, plays an important role in virtually every other type of writing: persuasive, reflective, expository, and even writing about literature. Most literary analysis requires some form of succinct plot description. Anecdotes can be powerful supporting evidence in an argument and can make for compelling introductions. Knowing how to craft a story will serve students well every time they sit down to compose.

This unit on narrative writing could be spread over several weeks. I present it here as consecutive days to show how the lessons are interdependent. Setting aside a block of days to write stories makes particularly good sense. For a short, intense period of time, students can inhabit the fictional worlds they are creating and as a result produce richer, better crafted, and more readable work.

Why Teach Narrative Writing?
Narrative intelligence is the ability to perceive, know, feel, and explain one's experience and thus to re-create a reality through the use of stories. While the world does not necessarily need more short-story writers, it most certainly needs more people who can tell a good story. Journalists often speak of finding the narrative thread in the events they report. To diagnose, doctors listen to their patients' complaints and then organize the pieces into a coherent story of an illness. Police detectives compile evidence and clues to shape a case. The best historians and history teachers recount the past as a well-told tale. Corporations invest in expensive advertising campaigns to tell the story a company wants the public to hear about its products. Narrative skills are truly life skills.

The challenges involved in teaching narrative writing are not, however, inconsiderable. Student stories tend to go on for much longer than student essays, creating a tremendous reading burden for teachers. Carrying home a set of short stories, no matter how well written, means dedicating a daunting number of hours to grading papers.

And then there is the problem of student stories that scare us. What are we to do with the tales of horror and mayhem? It takes the wisdom of Solomon to steer writers toward fictional subjects within the range of what is acceptable for a school audience. It's no wonder that many teachers prefer to focus on essays.

I am forthright with students about my legal responsibility to discuss troubling work with the school nurse. I explain how some young writers use fictional stories as a call for help, and I emphasize that I could never forgive myself if I ignored the possibility that an account of abuse or self-abuse may be such a call.

Even given these constraints, the benefits of narrative writing far outweigh the difficulties. I predict you will have little trouble motivating your students to write stories or to share them with one another. The call of stories is primal and abiding. Take advantage of this call as you teach students to write.

Reflective Writing

Reflection adds an intellectual dimension to experience. It is a positive mental action that students need to practice systematically to make sense of the world around them as well as of the things that happen to them. Though reflective writing may contain descriptive elements, it should amount to more than simple description. It may include concessions to how others perceive an experience, but it is not primarily persuasive. Though it explains, it is not at heart an explanation or report.

Through reflective writing, students take an experience, hold it up to the light for examination, consider it from various angles, and in the course of writing, learn from it. Reflection can teach students to make connections between current experience and what has gone before. Ideally, it will help them make decisions about their futures.

Although this unit on reflective writing could be spread over several weeks, I present it here as consecutive days of instruction. My goal is to help you see how each day builds upon what has gone before. I organize my own curriculum in this manner partially to maintain my sanity. It seems easier to stay organized when I concentrate on teaching a writing unit over a short period of time. My students, many of whom are organizationally challenged, also seem to be more productive when we focus on a single aim with an intense burst of energy.

Writing with Reflection
For many students, what happens in the classroom is peripheral to what they perceive as their "real lives." I tried for many years to build a bridge between students' lives and their education. I had some successes; students always liked that I was making an effort; but often the lessons didn't result in much learning. The problem was that I was a middle aged, middle-class woman and they weren't. How could I possibly know what mattered most? One frustrating day—I had just executed an extraordinarily complicated lesson on olfactory sensory imagery, soaking hundreds of cotton balls with various smells to stimulate student writing-the light dawned. The reason why my Herculean efforts to engage students wasn't resulting in good student writing was that the bridge was always mine. I needed to get out of the bridge—building business and start teaching students how to create their own.

Reflective writing helps students build bridges for themselves. A simple event does not ensure empirical learning or bring greater wisdom. Without reflection, the moment may quickly be forgotten and its potential for teaching more may be lost. We begin with an experience from the past and reflect upon its significance. When students reflect on an event, they acquire a certain objectivity, which in turn allows them to describe more accurately the significance, if any, of that event. It would be naive to expect a cry of "Eureka!" from each such reflection, but the intellectual process is at once salutary and creative.

My most goal-oriented students see a clear path from today's assignment to a good grade in the class to graduation to college acceptance to a good job and a comfortable life. Other students have never seen this series of steps in action. It hasn't worked for anyone they know, so why should it work for them? Reflective writing can help students see how what they do today will affect them in the future. Adrienne Rich described master teacher Mina Shaughnessy as someone who knew "that education was not only a means of access to power, but a form of power in itself: the power of expression, of language." I want to help all my students acquire that power.

30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

Summary: Few sources available today offer writing teachers such succinct, practice-based help—which is one reason why 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing was the winner of the Association of Education Publishers 2005 Distinguished Achievement Award for Instructional Materials.


The National Writing Project's 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing offers successful strategies contributed by experienced Writing Project teachers. Since NWP does not promote a single approach to teaching writing, readers will benefit from a variety of eclectic, classroom-tested techniques.

These ideas originated as full-length articles in NWP publications (a link to the full article accompanies each idea below).

Table of Contents: 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing

  1. Use the shared events of students' lives to inspire writing.
  2. Establish an email dialogue between students from different schools who are reading the same book.
  3. Use writing to improve relations among students.
  4. Help student writers draw rich chunks of writing from endless sprawl.
  5. Work with words relevant to students' lives to help them build vocabulary.
  6. Help students analyze text by asking them to imagine dialogue between authors.
  7. Spotlight language and use group brainstorming to help students create poetry.
  8. Ask students to reflect on and write about their writing.
  9. Ease into writing workshops by presenting yourself as a model.
  10. Get students to focus on their writing by holding off on grading.
  11. Use casual talk about students' lives to generate writing.
  12. Give students a chance to write to an audience for real purpose.
  13. Practice and play with revision techniques.
  14. Pair students with adult reading/writing buddies.
  15. Teach "tension" to move students beyond fluency.
  16. Encourage descriptive writing by focusing on the sounds of words.
  17. Require written response to peers' writing.
  18. Make writing reflection tangible.
  19. Make grammar instruction dynamic.
  20. Ask students to experiment with sentence length.
  21. Help students ask questions about their writing.
  22. Challenge students to find active verbs.
  23. Require students to make a persuasive written argument in support of a final grade.
  24. Ground writing in social issues important to students.
  25. Encourage the "framing device" as an aid to cohesion in writing.
  26. Use real world examples to reinforce writing conventions.
  27. Think like a football coach.
  28. Allow classroom writing to take a page from yearbook writing.
  29. Use home language on the road to Standard English.
  30. Introduce multi-genre writing in the context of community service.
1. Use the shared events of students' lives to inspire writing.

Debbie Rotkow, a co-director of the Coastal Georgia Writing Project, makes use of the real-life circumstances of her first grade students to help them compose writing that, in Frank Smith's words, is "natural and purposeful."

When a child comes to school with a fresh haircut or a tattered book bag, these events can inspire a poem. When Michael rode his bike without training wheels for the first time, this occasion provided a worthwhile topic to write about. A new baby in a family, a lost tooth, and the death of one student's father were the playful or serious inspirations for student writing.

Says Rotkow: "Our classroom reverberated with the stories of our lives as we wrote, talked, and reflected about who we were, what we did, what we thought, and how we thought about it. We became a community."

ROTKOW, DEBBIE. 2003. "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure About Helping Students Write the Stories of Their Lives," The Quarterly (25) 4.

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2. Establish an email dialogue between students from different schools who are reading the same book.

When high school teacher Karen Murar and college instructor Elaine Ware, teacher-consultants with the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, discovered students were scheduled to read the August Wilson play Fences at the same time, they set up email communication between students to allow some "teacherless talk" about the text.

Rather than typical teacher-led discussion, the project fostered independent conversation between students. Formal classroom discussion of the play did not occur until students had completed all email correspondence. Though teachers were not involved in student online dialogues, the conversations evidenced the same reading strategies promoted in teacher-led discussion, including predication, clarification, interpretation, and others.

MURAR, KAREN, and ELAINE WARE. 1998. "Teacherless Talk: Impressions from Electronic Literacy Conversations." The Quarterly (20) 3.

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3. Use writing to improve relations among students.

Diane Waff, co-director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, taught in an urban school where boys outnumbered girls four to one in her classroom. The situation left girls feeling overwhelmed, according to Waff, and their "voices faded into the background, overpowered by more aggressive male voices."

Determined not to ignore this unhealthy situation, Waff urged students to face the problem head-on, asking them to write about gender-based problems in their journals. She then introduced literature that considered relationships between the sexes, focusing on themes of romance, love, and marriage. Students wrote in response to works as diverse as de Maupassant's "The Necklace" and Dean Myers's Motown and DiDi.

In the beginning there was a great dissonance between male and female responses. According to Waff, "Girls focused on feelings; boys focused on sex, money, and the fleeting nature of romantic attachment." But as the students continued to write about and discuss their honest feelings, they began to notice that they had similar ideas on many issues. "By confronting these gender-based problems directly," says Waff, "the effect was to improve the lives of individual students and the social well-being of the wider school community."

WAFF, DIANE. 1995. "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power." The Quarterly (17) 2.

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4. Help student writers draw rich chunks of writing from endless sprawl.

Jan Matsuoka, a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project (California), describes a revision conference she held with a third grade English language learner named Sandee, who had written about a recent trip to Los Angeles.

"I told her I wanted her story to have more focus," writes Matsuoka. "I could tell she was confused so I made rough sketches representing the events of her trip. I made a small frame out of a piece of paper and placed it down on one of her drawings — a sketch she had made of a visit with her grandmother."

"Focus, I told her, means writing about the memorable details of the visit with your grandmother, not everything else you did on the trip."

"'Oh, I get it,' Sandee smiled, 'like just one cartoon, not a whole bunch.'"

Sandee's next draft was more deep than broad.

MATSUOKA, JAN. 1998. "Revising Revision: How My Students Transformed Writers' Workshop." The Quarterly (20) 1.

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5. Work with words relevant to students' lives to help them build vocabulary.

Eileen Simmons, a teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma State University Writing Project, knows that the more relevant new words are to students' lives, the more likely they are to take hold.

In her high school classroom, she uses a form of the children's ABC book as a community-building project. For each letter of the alphabet, the students find an appropriately descriptive word for themselves. Students elaborate on the word by writing sentences and creating an illustration. In the process, they make extensive use of the dictionary and thesaurus.

One student describes her personality as sometimes "caustic," illustrating the word with a photograph of a burning car in a war zone. Her caption explains that she understands the hurt her "burning" sarcastic remarks can generate.

SIMMONS, EILEEN. 2002. "Visualizing Vocabulary." The Quarterly (24) 3.

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6. Help students analyze text by asking them to imagine dialogue between authors.

John Levine, a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project (California), helps his college freshmen integrate the ideas of several writers into a single analytical essay by asking them to create a dialogue among those writers.

He tells his students, for instance, "imagine you are the moderator of a panel discussion on the topic these writers are discussing. Consider the three writers and construct a dialogue among the four 'voices' (the three essayists plus you)."

Levine tells students to format the dialogue as though it were a script. The essay follows from this preparation.

LEVINE, JOHN. 2002. "Talking Texts: Writing Dialogue in the College Composition Classroom." The Quarterly (24) 2.

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7. Spotlight language and use group brainstorming to help students create poetry.

The following is a group poem created by second grade students of Michelle Fleer, a teacher-consultant with the Dakota Writing Project (South Dakota).

Crabs crawl patiently along the ocean floor
searching for prey.
Fish soundlessly weave their way through
slippery seaweed
Whales whisper to others as they slide
through the salty water.
And silent waves wash into a dark cave
where an octopus is sleeping.

Fleer helped her students get started by finding a familiar topic. (In this case her students had been studying sea life.) She asked them to brainstorm language related to the sea, allowing them time to list appropriate nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The students then used these words to create phrases and used the phrases to produce the poem itself.

As a group, students put together words in ways Fleer didn't believe many of them could have done if they were working on their own, and after creating several group poems, some students felt confident enough to work alone.

FLEER, MICHELLE. 2002. "Beyond 'Pink is a Rose.'" The Quarterly (24) 4.

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8. Ask students to reflect on and write about their writing.

Douglas James Joyce, a teacher-consultant with the Denver Writing Project, makes use of what he calls "metawriting" in his college writing classes. He sees metawriting (writing about writing) as a way to help students reduce errors in their academic prose.

Joyce explains one metawriting strategy: After reading each essay, he selects one error that occurs frequently in a student's work and points out each instance in which the error is made. He instructs the student to write a one page essay, comparing and contrasting three sources that provide guidance on the established use of that particular convention, making sure a variety of sources are available.

"I want the student to dig into the topic as deeply as necessary, to come away with a thorough understanding of the how and why of the usage, and to understand any debate that may surround the particular usage."

JOYCE, DOUGLAS JAMES. 2002. "On the Use of Metawriting to Learn Grammar and Mechanics." The Quarterly (24) 4.

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9. Ease into writing workshops by presenting yourself as a model.

Glorianne Bradshaw, a teacher-consultant with the Red River Valley Writing Project (North Dakota), decided to make use of experiences from her own life when teaching her first-graders how to write.

For example, on an overhead transparency she shows a sketch of herself stirring cookie batter while on vacation. She writes the phrase "made cookies" under the sketch. Then she asks students to help her write a sentence about this. She writes the words who, where, and when. Using these words as prompts, she and the students construct the sentence, "I made cookies in the kitchen in the morning."

Next, each student returns to the sketch he or she has made of a summer vacation activity and, with her help, answers the same questions answered for Bradshaw's drawing. Then she asks them, "Tell me more. Do the cookies have chocolate chips? Does the pizza have pepperoni?" These facts lead to other sentences.

Rather than taking away creativity, Bradshaw believes this kind of structure gives students a helpful format for creativity.

BRADSHAW, GLORIANNE. 2001. "Back to Square One: What to do When Writing Workshop Just Doesn't Work." The Quarterly (23) 1.

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10. Get students to focus on their writing by holding off on grading.

Stephanie Wilder found that the grades she gave her high school students were getting in the way of their progress. The weaker students stopped trying. Other students relied on grades as the only standard by which they judged their own work.

"I decided to postpone my grading until the portfolios, which contained a selection of student work, were complete," Wilder says. She continued to comment on papers, encourage revision, and urge students to meet with her for conferences. But she waited to grade the papers.

It took a while for students to stop leafing to the ends of their papers in search of a grade, and there was some grumbling from students who had always received excellent grades. But she believes that because she was less quick to judge their work, students were better able to evaluate their efforts themselves.

WILDER, STEPHANIE. 1997. "Pruning Too Early: The Thorny Issue of Grading Student Writing." The Quarterly (19) 4.

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11. Use casual talk about students' lives to generate writing.

Erin (Pirnot) Ciccone, teacher-consultant with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, found a way to make more productive the "Monday morning gab fest" she used as a warm-up with her fifth grade students. She conceived of "Headline News." As students entered the classroom on Monday mornings, they wrote personal headlines about their weekends and posted them on the bulletin board. A headline might read "Fifth-Grader Stranded at Movie Theatre" or "Girl Takes on Responsibility as Mother's Helper."

After the headlines had been posted, students had a chance to guess the stories behind them. The writers then told the stories behind their headlines. As each student had only three minutes to talk, they needed to make decisions about what was important and to clarify details as they proceeded. They began to rely on suspense and "purposeful ambiguity" to hold listeners' interest.

On Tuesday, students committed their stories to writing. Because of the "Headline News" experience, Ciccone's students have been able to generate writing that is focused, detailed, and well ordered.

CICCONE, ERIN (PIRNOT). 2001. "A Place for Talk in Writers' Workshop." The Quarterly (23) 4.

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12. Give students a chance to write to an audience for real purpose.

Patricia A. Slagle, high school teacher and teacher-consultant with the Louisville Writing Project(Kentucky), understands the difference between writing for a hypothetical purpose and writing to an audience for real purpose. She illustrates the difference by contrasting two assignments.

She began with: "Imagine you are the drama critic for your local newspaper. Write a review of an imaginary production of the play we have just finished studying in class." This prompt asks students to assume the contrived role of a professional writer and drama critic. They must adapt to a voice that is not theirs and pretend to have knowledge they do not have.

Slagle developed a more effective alternative: "Write a letter to the director of your local theater company in which you present arguments for producing the play that we have just finished studying in class." This prompt, Slagle says, allows the writer her own voice, building into her argument concrete references to personal experience. "Of course," adds Slagle, "this prompt would constitute authentic writing only for those students who, in fact, would like to see the play produced."

SLAGLE, PATRICIA A. 1997. "Getting Real: Authenticity in Writing Prompts." The Quarterly (19) 3.

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13. Practice and play with revision techniques.

Mark Farrington, college instructor and teacher-consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project, believes teaching revision sometimes means practicing techniques of revision. An exercise like "find a place other than the first sentence where this essay might begin" is valuable because it shows student writers the possibilities that exist in writing.

For Farrington's students, practice can sometime turn to play with directions to:

  • add five colors
  • add four action verbs
  • add one metaphor
  • add five sensory details.

In his college fiction writing class, Farrington asks students to choose a spot in the story where the main character does something that is crucial to the rest of the story. At that moment, Farrington says, they must make the character do the exact opposite.

"Playing at revision can lead to insightful surprises," Farrington says. "When they come, revision doesn't seem such hard work anymore."

FARRINGTON, MARK. 1999. "Four Principles Toward Teaching the Craft of Revision." The Quarterly (21) 2.

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14. Pair students with adult reading/writing buddies.

Bernadette Lambert, teacher-consultant with the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project (Georgia), wondered what would happen if she had her sixth-grade students pair with an adult family member to read a book. She asked the students about the kinds of books they wanted to read (mysteries, adventure, ghost stories) and the adults about the kinds of books they wanted to read with the young people (character-building values, multiculturalism, no ghost stories). Using these suggestions for direction, Lambert developed a list of 30 books. From this list, each student-adult pair chose one. They committed themselves to read and discuss the book and write separate reviews.

Most of the students, says Lambert, were proud to share a piece of writing done by their adult reading buddy. Several admitted that they had never before had this level of intellectual conversation with an adult family member.

LAMBERT, BERNADETTE. 1999. "You and Me and a Book Makes Three." The Quarterly (21) 3.

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15. Teach "tension" to move students beyond fluency.

Suzanne Linebarger, a co-director of the Northern California Writing Project, recognized that one element lacking from many of her students' stories was tension. One day, in front of the class, she demonstrated tension with a rubber band. Looped over her finger, the rubber band merely dangled. "However," she told the students, "when I stretch it out and point it (not at a student), the rubber band suddenly becomes more interesting. It's the tension, the potential energy, that rivets your attention. It's the same in writing."

Linebarger revised a generic writing prompt to add an element of tension. The initial prompt read, "Think of a friend who is special to you. Write about something your friend has done for you, you have done for your friend, or you have done together."

Linebarger didn't want responses that settled for "my best friend was really good to me," so "during the rewrite session we talked about how hard it is to stay friends when met with a challenge. Students talked about times they had let their friends down or times their friends had let them down, and how they had managed to stay friends in spite of their problems. In other words, we talked about some tense situations that found their way into their writing."

LINEBARGER, SUZANNE. 2001. "Tensing Up: Moving From Fluency to Flair." The Quarterly (23) 3.

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16. Encourage descriptive writing by focusing on the sounds of words.

Ray Skjelbred, middle school teacher at Marin Country Day School, wants his seventh grade students to listen to language. He wants to begin to train their ears by asking them to make lists of wonderful sounding words. "This is strictly a listening game," says Skjelbred. "They shouldn't write lunch just because they're hungry." When the collective list is assembled, Skjelbred asks students to make sentences from some of the words they've collected. They may use their own words, borrow from other contributors, add other words as necessary, and change word forms.

Among the words on one student's list: tumble, detergent, sift, bubble, syllable, creep, erupt, and volcano. The student writes:

  • A man loads his laundry into the tumbling washer, the detergent sifting through the bubbling water.
  • The syllables creep through her teeth.
  • The fog erupts like a volcano in the dust.

"Unexpected words can go together, creating amazing images," says Skjelbred.

SKJELBRED, RAY. 1997. "Sound and Sense: Grammar, Poetry, and Creative Language." The Quarterly (19) 4.

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17. Require written response to peers' writing.

Kathleen O'Shaughnessy, co-director of the National Writing Project of Acadiana (Louisiana), asks her middle school students to respond to each others' writing on Post-it Notes. Students attach their comments to a piece of writing under consideration.

"I've found that when I require a written response on a Post-it instead of merely allowing students to respond verbally, the responders take their duties more seriously and, with practice, the quality of their remarks improves."

One student wrote:

While I was reading your piece, I felt like I was riding a roller coaster. It started out kinda slow, but you could tell there was something exciting coming up. But then it moved real fast and stopped all of a sudden. I almost needed to read it again the way you ride a roller coaster over again because it goes too fast.

Says O'Shaughnessy, "This response is certainly more useful to the writer than the usual 'I think you could, like, add some more details, you know?' that I often overheard in response meetings."

O'SHAUGHNESSY, KATHLEEN. 2001. "Everything I Know About Teaching Language Arts, I Learned at the Office Supply Store." The Quarterly (23) 2.

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18. Make writing reflection tangible.

Anna Collins Trest, director of the South Mississippi Writing Project, finds she can lead upper elementary school students to better understand the concept of "reflection" if she anchors the discussion in the concrete and helps students establish categories for their reflective responses.

She decided to use mirrors to teach the reflective process. Each student had one. As the students gazed at their own reflections, she asked this question: "What can you think about while looking in the mirror at your own reflection?" As they answered, she categorized each response:

I think I'm a queen - pretending/imagining
I look at my cavities
- examining/observing
I think I'm having a bad hair day
- forming opinions
What will I look like when I am old?
- questioning
My hair is parted in the middle
- describing
I'm thinking about when I broke my nose
- remembering
I think I look better than my brother
- comparing
Everything on my face looks sad today
- expressing emotion.

Trest talked with students about the categories and invited them to give personal examples of each. Then she asked them to look in the mirrors again, reflect on their images, and write.

"Elementary students are literal in their thinking," Trest says, "but that doesn't mean they can't be creative."

TREST, ANNA COLLINS. 1999. "I was a Journal Topic Junkie." The Quarterly (21) 4.

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19. Make grammar instruction dynamic.

Philip Ireland, teacher-consultant with the San Marcos Writing Project (California), believes in active learning. One of his strategies has been to take his seventh-graders on a "preposition walk" around the school campus. Walking in pairs, they tell each other what they are doing:

I'm stepping off the grass.
I'm talking to my friend.

"Students soon discover that everything they do contains prepositional phrases. I walk among my students prompting answers," Ireland explains.

"I'm crawling under the tennis net," Amanda proclaims from her hands and knees. "The prepositional phrase is under the net."

"The preposition?" I ask.


IRELAND, PHILIP. 2003. "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time." The Quarterly (25) 3.

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20. Ask students to experiment with sentence length.

Kim Stafford, director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College, wants his students to discard old notions that sentences should be a certain length. He explains to his students that a writer's command of long and short sentences makes for a "more pliable" writing repertoire. He describes the exercise he uses to help students experiment with sentence length.

"I invite writers to compose a sentence that goes on for at least a page — and no fair cheating with a semicolon. Just use 'and' when you have to, or a dash, or make a list, and keep it going." After years of being told not to, they take pleasure in writing the greatest run-on sentences they can.

"Then we shake out our writing hands, take a blank page, and write from the upper left to the lower right corner again, but this time letting no sentence be longer than four words, but every sentence must have a subject and a verb."

Stafford compares the first style of sentence construction to a river and the second to a drum. "Writers need both," he says. "Rivers have long rhythms. Drums roll."

STAFFORD, KIM. 2003. "Sentence as River and as Drum." The Quarterly (25) 3.

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21. Help students ask questions about their writing.

Joni Chancer, teacher-consultant of the South Coast Writing Project (California), has paid a lot of attention to the type of questions she wants her upper elementary students to consider as they re-examine their writing, reflecting on pieces they may make part of their portfolios. Here are some of the questions:

Why did I write this piece? Where did I get my ideas?
Who is the audience and how did it affect this piece?
What skills did I work on in this piece?
Was this piece easy or difficult to write? Why?
What parts did I rework? What were my revisions?
Did I try something new?
What skills did I work on in this piece?
What elements of writer's craft enhanced my story?
What might I change?
Did something I read influence my writing?
What did I learn or what did I expect the reader to learn?
Where will I go from here? Will I publish it? Share it?
Expand it? Toss it? File it?

Chancer cautions that these questions should not be considered a "reflection checklist," rather they are questions that seem to be addressed frequently when writers tell the story of a particular piece.

CHANCER, JONI. 2001. "The Teacher's Role in Portfolio Assessment." In The Whole Story: Teachers Talk About Portfolios, edited by Mary Ann Smith and Jane Juska. Berkeley, California: National Writing Project.

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22. Challenge students to find active verbs.

Nancy Lilly, co-director of the Greater New Orleans Writing Project, wanted her fourth and fifth grade students to breathe life into their nonfiction writing. She thought the student who wrote this paragraph could do better:

The jaguar is the biggest and strongest cat in the rainforest. The jaguar's jaw is strong enough to crush a turtle's shell. Jaguars also have very powerful legs for leaping from branch to branch to chase prey.

Building on an idea from Stephanie Harvey (Nonfiction Matters, Stenhouse, 1998) Lilly introduced the concept of "nouns as stuff" and verbs as "what stuff does."

In a brainstorming session related to the students' study of the rain forest, the class supplied the following assistance to the writer:

Stuff/Nouns : What Stuff Does/Verbs
jaguar : leaps, pounces
jaguar's : legs pump
jaguar's : teeth crush
jaguar's : mouth devours

This was just the help the writer needed to create the following revised paragraph:

As the sun disappears from the heart of the forest, the jaguar leaps through the underbrush, pumping its powerful legs. It spies a gharial gliding down the river. The jungle cat pounces, crushing the turtle with his teeth, devouring the reptile with pleasure.

LILLY, NANCY. "Dead or Alive: How will Students' Nonfiction Writing Arrive?"  The Quarterly (25) 4.

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23. Require students to make a persuasive written argument in support of a final grade.

For a final exam, Sarah Lorenz, a teacher-consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project, asks her high school students to make a written argument for the grade they think they should receive. Drawing on work they have done over the semester, students make a case for how much they have learned in the writing class.

"The key to convincing me," says Lorenz, "is the use of detail. They can't simply say they have improved as writers — they have to give examples and even quote their own writing . . . They can't just say something was helpful — they have to tell me why they thought it was important, how their thinking changed, or how they applied this learning to everyday life."

LORENZ, SARAH. 2001. "Beyond Rhetoric: A Reflective Persuasive Final Exam for the Writing Classroom." The Quarterly (23) 4.

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24. Ground writing in social issues important to students.

Jean Hicks, director, and Tim Johnson, a co-director, both of the Louisville Writing Project (Kentucky), have developed a way to help high school students create brief, effective dramas about issues in their lives. The class, working in groups, decides on a theme such as jealousy, sibling rivalry, competition, or teen drinking. Each group develops a scene illustrating an aspect of this chosen theme.

Considering the theme of sibling rivalry, for instance, students identify possible scenes with topics such as "I Had It First" (competing for family resources) and "Calling in the Troops" (tattling). Students then set up the circumstances and characters.

Hicks and Johnson give each of the "characters" a different color packet of Post-it Notes. Each student develops and posts dialogue for his or her character. As the scene emerges, Post-its can be added, moved, and deleted. They remind students of the conventions of drama such as conflict and resolution. Scenes, when acted out, are limited to 10 minutes.

"It's not so much about the genre or the product as it is about creating a culture that supports the thinking and learning of writers," write Hicks and Johnson.

HICKS, JEAN and TIM JOHNSON. 2000. "Staging Learning: The Play's the Thing." The Quarterly (22) 3.

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25. Encourage the "framing device" as an aid to cohesion in writing.

Romana Hillebrand, a teacher-consultant with the Northwest Inland Writing Project (Idaho), asks her university students to find a literary or historical reference or a personal narrative that can provide a fresh way into and out of their writing, surrounding it much like a window frame surrounds a glass pane.

Hillebrand provides this example:

A student in her research class wrote a paper on the relationship between humans and plants, beginning with a reference to the nursery rhyme, "Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies . . . ." She explained the rhymes as originating with the practice of masking the stench of death with flowers during the Black Plague. The student finished the paper with the sentence, "Without plants, life on Earth would cease to exist as we know it; ashes, ashes we all fall down."

Hillebrand concludes that linking the introduction and the conclusion helps unify a paper and satisfy the reader.

HILLEBRAND, ROMANA. 2001. "It's a Frame Up: Helping Students Devise Beginning and Endings."The Quarterly (23) 1.

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26. Use real world examples to reinforce writing conventions.

Suzanne Cherry, director of the Swamp Fox Writing Project (South Carolina), has her own way of dramatizing the comma splice error. She brings to class two pieces of wire, the last inch of each exposed. She tells her college students, "We need to join these pieces of wire together right now if we are to be able to watch our favorite TV show. What can we do? We could use some tape, but that would probably be a mistake as the puppy could easily eat through the connection. By splicing the wires in this way, we are creating a fire hazard."

A better connection, the students usually suggest, would be to use one of those electrical connectors that look like pen caps.

"Now," Cherry says (often to the accompaniment of multiple groans), "let's turn these wires into sentences. If we simply splice them together with a comma, the equivalent of a piece of tape, we create a weak connection, or a comma splice error. What then would be the grammatical equivalent of the electrical connector? Think conjunction - and, but, or. Or try a semicolon. All of these show relationships between sentences in a way that the comma, a device for taping clauses together in a slapdash manner, does not."

"I've been teaching writing for many years," Cherry says. "And I now realize the more able we are to relate the concepts of writing to 'real world' experience, the more successful we will be."

CHERRY, SUZANNE. "Keeping the Comma Splice Queen Happy," The Voice (9) 1.

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27. Think like a football coach.

In addition to his work as a high school teacher of writing, Dan Holt, a co-director with the Third Coast Writing Project (Michigan), spent 20 years coaching football. While doing the latter, he learned quite a bit about doing the former. Here is some of what he found out:

The writing teacher can't stay on the sidelines. "When I modeled for my players, they knew what I wanted them to do." The same involvement, he says, is required to successfully teach writing.

Like the coach, the writing teacher should praise strong performance rather than focus on the negative. Statements such as "Wow, that was a killer block," or "That paragraph was tight" will turn "butterball" ninth-grade boys into varsity linemen and insecure adolescents into aspiring poets.

The writing teacher should apply the KISS theory: Keep it simple stupid. Holt explains for a freshman quarterback, audibles (on-field commands) are best used with care until a player has reached a higher skill level. In writing class, a student who has never written a poem needs to start with small verse forms such as a chinquapin or haiku.

Practice and routine are important both for football players and for writing students, but football players and writers also need the "adrenaline rush" of the big game and the final draft.

HOLT, DAN. 1999. "What Coaching Football Taught Me about Teaching Writing." The Voice (4) 3.

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28. Allow classroom writing to take a page from yearbook writing.

High school teacher Jon Appleby noticed that when yearbooks fell into students' hands "my curriculum got dropped in a heartbeat for spirited words scribbled over photos." Appleby wondered, "How can I make my classroom as fascinating and consuming as the yearbook?"

Here are some ideas that yearbook writing inspired:

Take pictures, put them on the bulletin boards, and have students write captions for them. Then design small descriptive writing assignments using the photographs of events such as the prom and homecoming. Afterwards, ask students to choose quotes from things they have read that represent what they feel and think and put them on the walls.

Check in about students' lives. Recognize achievements and individuals the way that yearbook writers direct attention to each other. Ask students to write down memories and simply, joyfully share them. As yearbook writing usually does, insist on a sense of tomorrow.

APPLEBY, JON. 2001. "The School Yearbook: A Guide to Writing and Teaching." The Voice (6) 3.

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29. Use home language on the road to Standard English.

Eileen Kennedy, special education teacher at Medger Evers College, works with native speakers of Caribbean Creole who are preparing to teach in New York City. Sometimes she encourages these students to draft writing in their native Creole. The additional challenge becomes to re-draft this writing, rendered in patois, into Standard English.

She finds that narratives involving immigrant Caribbean natives in unfamiliar situations — buying a refrigerator, for instance — lead to inspired writing. In addition, some students expressed their thoughts more proficiently in Standard English after drafting in their vernaculars.

KENNEDY, EILEEN. 2003. "Writing in Home Dialects: Choosing a Written Discourse in a Teacher Education Class." The Quarterly (25) 2.

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30. Introduce multi-genre writing in the context of community service.

Jim Wilcox, teacher-consultant with the Oklahoma Writing Project, requires his college students to volunteer at a local facility that serves the community, any place from the Special Olympics to a burn unit. Over the course of their tenure with the organization, students write in a number of genres: an objective report that describes the appearance and activity of the facility, a personal interview/profile, an evaluation essay that requires students to set up criteria by which to assess this kind of organization, an investigative report that includes information from a second source, and a letter to the editor of a campus newspaper or other publication.

Wilcox says, "Besides improving their researching skills, students learn that their community is indeed full of problems and frustrations. They also learn that their own talents and time are valuable assets in solving some of the world's problems — one life at a time."

WILCOX, JIM. 2003. "The Spirit of Volunteerism in English Composition." The Quarterly (25) 2.

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© 2003 by the National Writing Project
All rights reserved

Compiled and edited by Art Peterson.
Designed by Karen Karten.

3: "Romance in the Classroom: Inviting Discourse on Gender and Power" by Diane Waff is reprinted from The Voice of the Philadelphia Writing Project (3) 1. Copyright © Winter 1994.

11: "A Place for Talk in Writers' Workshop" by Erin (Pirnot) Ciccone is reprinted from The Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project Newsletter (21) 2. Copyright © 2000.

12: A version of "Getting Real: Can a Writing Prompt Be Authentic?" by Patricia Slagle first appeared in The Louisville Writing Project Network News.

20: "Sentence as River and as Drum" by Kim Stafford is reprinted from The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft. University of Georgia Press: Athens, Georgia. Copyright © 2003 by Kim Stafford. All rights reserved.

30: "The Spirit of Volunteerism in English Composition" by Jim Wilcox is reprinted from Write Angles III: Still More Strategies for Teaching Composition. Copyright © 2002 by the Oklahoma Department of Education.

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