Should we be teaching our students to write for the test? Absolutely! But maybe not in the way you think. We need to teach our students to be good writers first. We need to teach them how to get ideas, how to write about things that matter to them, how to structure a piece of writing, how to stay on topic, how to craft and how to edit so their writing can be read easily. This takes time. BUT if you spend time teaching students how to do those things, they will be much better writers. Then you can show them how to use their writing skills to answer test prompts.
- Start by teaching students what realistic fiction is. They stuck with realistic fiction because students could use true stories from their lives as springboards. Also, fantasy and other types of fiction tend to spiral out of control at the hands of inexperienced writers. Teachers provided many examples of realistic fiction picture books and short stories.
- Next, teachers spent time showing students how to gather ideas. The teachers and students brainstormed ideas for realistic fiction stories (a girl who wants a friend but isn't popular, a boy who wants to make the swim team but is having trouble, a kid who finds a stray dog he wants to keep but can't, a child who gets in trouble for something he didn't do...you get the picture.) The students also went to their notebooks to look for topics they had written about previously, that could lead to fiction (a true story about a girl whose dad was the clown at her birthday party was embellished and turned into a story about a wrecked, but funny, party. A story about a girl who is desperate to go to camp became a fictional piece in which the character finally convinced her parents to let her go)
- Once students had listed several possible story ideas, they started developing characters by thinking about the age of the character and how the character looked. Mostly they thought about the character's traits--is the character funny? Smart? Shy? Greedy? How does the character behave? What does the character love to do and how does this connect to the story idea?
- Once the students had a possible story, and a good main character, they got really clear on the problem and the resolution for the story.
- Next, teachers taught students how to use a story arc to map out scenes. (Each scene is written as a bullet point on the arc.) They started with the beginning of the conflict (or the character's wanting), then mapped out a scene to show rising action (how the conflict is unfolding), then another scene to show the conflict getting worse. At the top of the arc is the climax--the character usually has to make a big decision or there's a turning point--does the character who is desperate for a friend stick with the cool kids even when they're doing the wrong thing? Does the kid who sneaks the stray dog into his room finally decide to tell his mom he's hiding the pup? Once the turning point is created, students map the resulting action and how the problem is resolved.
- Teachers taught students how to act out each scene with a partner. Students then wrote up the scenes, including dialogue, character actions and character thoughts.
- Teachers taught students how to write catchy beginnings, satisfying endings, and inviting titles.