Prewriting: Why Should Students Go It Alone?

When asked, “What is the most challenging part of writing an essay?” Most of my students agree, “It’s just getting started that’s hard.” I remember feeling this same way as a student. The blank page was daunting. So, I decided to try a new strategy.

The first stage of our formal essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello, was a prewriting activity designed to tap into the collective potential of the class. I wanted students working together to generate ideas and collect textual evidence.

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I pushed desks together and laid down a long sheet of yellow butcher paper. The essay prompt was written on the board:

Prompt: Identify and analyze three factors that led to the tragedy in William Shakespeare’s play, Othello.

I explained that I wanted them to work together to brainstorm and collect textual evidence in preparation for their essay. That was where my involvement ended. The rest of the activity was student directed.

One student wrote the word tragedy in the center of the paper. Then they had an interesting conversation about what the actual tragedy was. Was it Desdemona’s death? Was it Othello and Desdemona’s lost love? Was it the inherent lack of trust in human nature?

Then students brainstormed factors they believed led to the tragedy. They had conversations as they captured their ideas on the paper. They wrote words and phrases like lack of communication, Iago’s greed, Othello’s “otherness” and status as an outsider.

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Once they identified a dozen different factors, they began searching for textual evidence (with citations!) to support those factors. The energy in the room was palpable. Students were flipping through pages, referencing devices, writing on the paper, and discussing their ideas. It was so different from the individual prewriting sessions of the past.

After their prewriting was done, I took pictures of the paper and posted them to our class website for my students to reference. When they wrote their first body paragraph in class, I laid out their prewriting paper. As they wrote, students would pause, come to the paper and reference the factors and quotes generated the previous class.

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This strategy was fairly low tech since my classroom doesn’t have any actual technology save the devices my students bring into the room. If everyone had access to a device, I could have done this same activity using a web tool, like Padlet, to facilitate real time collaboration and capture their ideas.

The success of this activity was evident as I began to edit their drafts in progress. The quality of their ideas, strength of their quotes, and the depth of their analysis improved dramatically.

Too often the collective intelligence in a classroom is ignored. It’s so important that we give students more opportunities to learn from one another.

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15 Responses to Prewriting: Why Should Students Go It Alone?

  1. Megan says:

    LOVE THIS! When we read “The Giver” this year, we had an ongoing brainstorming session like this – as students read, they collected textual evidence on post-it notes of the positive and negative aspects of Jonas’s society and put them up on the board. Then, when they started pre-writing their essay (on whether or not Jonas made the right decision to leave based on their impression of his world), they had tons of evidence right there on the wall to reference. It was a great scaffold for our first literary analysis of the year!

    • That’s a great idea, Megan! I’ve never done that for an entire unit, but I can imagine it would be a very helpful resource for students.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.


      • Megan says:

        For my younger students in particular, I think they felt really confident going INTO the essay knowing that they had been preparing for it all along. They knew, throughout the entire book, that they had a purpose for their reading that would help them with the final assessment.

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  7. beyhan says:

    Thank you so much. Today was different for me and my class. Thanks a lot.

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  12. Aimee says:

    Hi Caitlyn,

    I am a new High School teacher this year and taking all of your ideas in like a sponge. My question or concern is, what do you do when students come to class unprepared? For example, they haven’t read the material the night before. How do you impress upon them that they need to come to class ready to contribute? Does simply saying, “Come to class prepped and ready” take care of that?
    I would appreciate any advice on this situation.

    Aimee 🙂

    • Hi Aimee,

      How exciting that you will be teaching for the first time this year! I’m thrilled you are finding my blog useful.

      There are always a handful of students who do not come to class prepared. There isn’t a magic cure for that. I think the key is making class engaging and interesting, so there is an incentive to come prepared. My students know that I absolutely expect them to come to class ready to ENGAGE! Even if they didn’t do the reading, they have to contribute to what is happening in class.

      For those students who consistently drop the ball on reading or homework, I am quick to communicate with parents. Often these parents report that their child told them they “don’t have any homework.” Providing parents with a class website where they can check out what has been assigned for homework is also key.

      Good luck!

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