I’ve been teaching a unit with my juniors for several years now that I call The Writer’s Sandbox. This summer, I realized that the unit was in need of a revamp. Because of slow changes in our curriculum, the unit now included too much overlap with other classes in the types of writing it prioritized, and my own desire to help students try many kinds of things slowly created kind of a sprawling unwieldy beast that even my typical embrace of chaos was beginning to lose hold of. Still, the heart of this unit was so, so good. It just needed a makeover.
So, I did a mental organization, as one does when cleaning the basement out for a garage sale. I had to sort things into toss, keep, and sell.
I needed to drop time spent teaching and practicing genres that students already had seen multiple times in their previous classes. I also decided to cut some of the excess breadth of the unit–I wanted it to have a greater sense of purpose, a more streamlined sense of momentum instead of “Try ALL the writing things!”
I absolutely needed to keep the inner philosophy of this unit–the fact that what we write at first is often exploratory and rarely usable as a final draft, but that the process of writing and writing again points us in the right direction. I am notorious among the students for saying, “Just get something on the page! It might be garbage! That’s ok!” (Anne Lamott’s chapter “School Lunches” from Bird by Bird is a critical introductory text.)
Another key idea of the unit is the examination of mentor texts in depth to understand the moves that writers make and the conventions that they adhere to, which we use as scaffolding for our own writing attempts.
In addition to that, the idea of task, purpose, and audience drives how we write. Not all good writing looks the same–we change our tone, structure, word choice, and form based on the needs of our rhetorical situation. It’s important for students to be versatile and purposeful in the way they approach writing tasks.
What did I need to sell? I needed to sell to my students the truth that words are power. The use of words in the right way at the right time can unlock opportunities and create doors of access that didn’t exist before. This crucial idea was something necessary to the unit’s rigor and authenticity that I felt had gotten lost in previous years. I wanted my students to see the immediacy and potential of these skills in their real lives, pertaining to what they truly care about.
Here’s the link to the revamped presentation I used to introduce Writer’s Sandbox 2.0, focusing on the best of the old ideas and the best of the new ones. It will give you an idea of the overall shape of the new unit.
We then moved through the unit with small writing experiments that built up to a personal piece (flash memoir or flash fiction), a professional piece (an application essay for an educational or career opportunity), and an advocacy piece (a piece where form is determined by the needs of the project, advocating for a public resource).
Adding the advocacy piece was the key to unlocking this unit’s potential. While the personal writing helped them look within, and the professional writing helped them look to the future, the public piece helped students look to their communities–local, national, or in some cases global. I urged them to think about how voices move hands. Writing is a huge part how we can shape the future right now.
Just as many of us do when we complete the hard work of cleaning out a cluttered basement, I felt a sense of relief and order. I tossed, kept, and sold all the right things, and started the year with a strong foundation that I’m continuing to see the benefits from. 🙂
Look for my next post soon, where I’ll go into depth about the advocacy piece and how I helped my students find their public voices!