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Write in the Middle: A Workshop for Middle School Teachers

Making Writing Meaningful

When teachers introduce subjects that matter to middle school students or allow them more freedom to choose and develop topics, the task of writing gains new meaning and purpose. In this session, participants examine how five middle-level teachers help their students connect to writing and understand its capacity to transform their own lives and the world around them.

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Workshop 2 Overview

Workshop 2 demonstrates how teachers use authentic sources and topics to prompt students to write about things that matter to them, subjects that relate to their lives, relationships, and communities. The topic may be the students themselves—their feelings, emotions, reactions—or it may involve outside forces that have an impact on their lives.

Six teachers appear in the video: Jenny Beasley, a sixth-grade teacher from Somerset, Kentucky; Vivian Johnson, an eighth-grade teacher from Elizabethton, Tennessee; Mary Cathryn Ricker, a seventh-grade teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota; and three California educators: seventh-grade teacher Allen Teng and eighth-grade teacher Gloria Hamilton, both from Los Angeles, and Damond Moodie, who teaches seventh grade in Oakland.

The teachers use a variety of subjects and approaches to help their students connect to writing: current events, popular music, literature, community issues, social interactions, self-exploration. In addition to classroom segments that explore these approaches, the video also features teacher discussions about student engagement and excerpts from an interview with Linda Rief, the author of Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents.

Key Practices To Observe in Workshop 2

In this workshop, you will see a number of effective teaching practices intended to make writing meaningful for students. They include the following:

  • Teachers strive to create a community of writers, a positive environment (social, emotional, physical) for writing, learning, and thinking in the classroom. Teachers model respect for students and respect for diversity in culture, voices, and ideas. Students are encouraged to have a voice and position in the classroom, and they work together, helping each other develop as writers.
  • Students are positive about writing because they are encouraged to write about matters that are relevant and important to their lives and because they can draw on their experiences and knowledge. Teachers do not just present an assignment; they spend ample time establishing a foundation for the writing, making it meaningful to students.
  • Teachers use the media, song lyrics, and reading materials to help students think and communicate about important and challenging issues, events, dilemmas, and conditions in their community/culture.
  • Student ownership is revealed as a very important component in making writing meaningful. Students choose what they write about and make decisions about their writing. Though the teachers clearly have goals (for example, helping students write a persuasive letter or editorial), they establish a framework in which students can reach the goals in different ways.
  • Teachers use a variety of techniques to engage students and convey the importance of writing; for example, reading and talking about samples, modeling writing, using choral responses, enabling students to write to advocate changes they find important, asking stimulating questions, listening carefully, and joining in the applause that celebrates a student writer.
  • Students engage in writing-to-learn practices (for example, the “Dear Know-It-All” quick write) that stimulate their thinking about realistic issues, events, and problems and that enable students to express themselves openly about matters relevant to their lives.
  • Student inquiry plays an important role in making writing meaningful. Students are encouraged to read and think critically about ideas presented in popular song lyrics, music videos, poetry, and other materials. They are led to inquire into their own experience and into issues and needs in their communities. Teachers clearly strive to promote students’ curiosity and critical thinking—important strategies for making writing meaningful. Students experience that writing is an act of creativity and discovery.

Related Reading

For more information and resources, visit the NCTE Web site at:

Gloria Hamilton's Lesson

Gloria Hamilton’s eighth-graders write a response to a question in the style of an advice columnist.

Veteran teacher Gloria Hamilton was inspired by Dear Abby and some of her students’ “I’ve got all the answers” bravado to develop an engaging, month-long activity that gets her eighth-grade students writing every day. It’s called “Dear Know-It-All.”

There’s a box in Gloria’s room where students leave anonymous questions for “Dear Know-It-All.” Each morning, Gloria pulls a question from the box and writes it on the board, and all day, each class responds to the question in the form of a letter. Gloria gives the class between five and eight minutes to respond to the question, and then two or three students volunteer to share their advice. Gloria records those solutions on the board, and very often the class discussion of the solutions leads into the day’s lesson.

Gloria finds the “Dear Know-It-All” activity is effective on many levels—it’s engaging because it taps into the social nature of teenagers and involves issues important to them; it challenges her students to think of mature solutions to problems facing their peers and offers them a chance to help a classmate; and it gives them a chance to write, first thing, every day, in a non-threatening, informal style.

Damond Moodie's Lesson

Damond Moodie prepares his class to write letters to the editor.

Damond Moodie encourages his seventh-grade students to use multiple media avenues—television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet—to access current events, develop opinions about them, and then express and support those opinions in writing.

In Damond’s current events lesson, students bring in written summaries of news stories they’ve found and share them with the class. The class selects three of the stories to research further, and students ultimately write letters to the editor on topics that originated from these news stories.

Current Events Lesson Plan (pdf)

Materials for Damond Moodie's Lesson

Damond Moodie's Reflections

On the importance of student connection:
“I think it’s important for students to find connection with the things that they write about.”

On connecting students to the world around them:
“One of the main types of writing that I do is current event.”

On teacher- vs. student-generated topics:
“I do journals with my students, you know, a couple times a week.”

Damond Moodie’s reflections transcript.

Samples of Student Work

Editor’s note: The sample student papers have been reproduced exactly as the students wrote them, including mechanical and grammatical errors.

Allen Teng's Lesson

Allen Teng’s students participate in a movement activity during prewriting.

Allen Teng‘s use of popular media, particularly rap music, resonates with his students and engages them in thinking and writing about critical issues. In this lesson on persuasive writing, Allen peppers the class with images from rap music and from the larger world as a way to help them develop and articulate their opinions into persuasive writing pieces.

Allen spends the first day and a half on a number of pre-writing exercises, many of which involve class discussion and movement—particularly effective for active middle-level learners. Students analyze the audience and purpose of a variety of videos and rap songs. They’re also studying larger world issues and beginning to take stands and articulate their positions. By the end of the second day, they start to write persuasive pieces on topics of their own choosing.

Persuasive Writing Lesson Plan (pdf)

Allen Teng's Reflections

On tapping into students’ interests:
“I think as a teacher you’re trying to tap into something that’s a part of them.”


Is writing meaningful to students?:
“You know, sometimes I think it’s good for me to take a step back and say, well, would I want to do this assignment?”


On knowing your students’ interests:
“I think as educators we need to let them educate us.”


On rappers as writers:
“Maybe just my students in particular, but it’s like a universal thing… .”


More about engaging students:
“It takes more energy to be in line with their interests.”


On building on what students already know:
“I don’t think our job is an entertainer… .”


Allen Teng’s reflections transcript.

Additional Resources

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Burkhardt, Ross M. and John H. Lounsbury. Writing for Real: Strategies for Engaging Adolescent Writers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2003. ISBN: 1571103589.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century. NY: Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989.
ISBN: 0962315419.

Carnignan-Belleville, Lynne. “Jason’s Story: Motivating the Reluctant Student To Write.” English Journal 78.3 (March 1989): 57-60.

Cynthia, Kay. “Real Classroom Writing.” Teaching Pre K-8 (April 1995): 30.

Dean, Deborah. “Going Public: Letters to the World.” Voices From the Middle 8.1 (September 2000): 42-47.

Duke, Charles R. and Rebecca Sanchez. “Giving Students Control Over Writing Assignments.” English Journal 83.4 (April 1994): 47-53.

Dyson, A. H. and Sarah Freedman. On Teaching Writing: A Review of the Literature. Berkeley: Center for the Study of Writing, 1990.

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Hansbarger, Julian Clark. “Making Constellations: Teaching Students To Write About Films.” English Journal 79.6 (November 1990): 47-52.

Harvey, Stephanie. “Nonfiction Inquiry: Using Real Reading and Writing To Explore the World.” Language Arts 80.1 (September 2002): 12-22.

Heath, Shirley Brice and Leslie Mangiola. Children of Promise: Literate Activity in Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Classrooms. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1991. ISBN: 0810618443.

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Johannessen, Larry R. “Teaching Writing: Motivating Inquiry.” English Journal 78.2 (February 1989): 64-67.

Johnson, Holly and Lauren Freedman. “Using Adolescents’ Oral and Written Narrative To Create Classroom Communities.” Middle School Journal 32.5 (May 2001): 35-44.

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Passis, Paige. “Turning Ripples Into Waves: Convincing Kids They Can Make a Difference.” Voices From the Middle 6.4 (May 1999): 11-18.

Rief, Linda. Seeking Diversity: Language Arts With Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1992. ISBN: 0435085980.

Rief, Linda. “Writing for Life: Language Arts in the Middle.” Language Arts 71 (February 1994): 92-94.

Rief, Linda and Maureen Barbieri, eds. All That Matters: What We Value in School and Beyond. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995. ISBN: 0435088483.

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Romano, Tom. Writing With Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1995. ISBN: 0867093625.

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Van Horn, Leigh. Creating Literacy Communities in the Middle School. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon, 2001. ISBN: 1929024428.

Wormeli, Rick. Meet Me in the Middle: Becoming an Accomplished Middle-Level Teacher. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2001. ISBN: 1571103287.