I always begin the year with a diagnostic narrative writing sample from my students, in order to assess their strengths and weaknesses as writers. With this information, then, I can plan mini-grammar or writing conventions lessons as necessary, to hopefully work the most stubborn errors out of their writing as the year progresses, as well as determine what work we have to do with development and organization.
I have chosen this particular prompt because it meets several of the aims I have for the first trimester, including:
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This lesson begins with a round of council. Council is very much a part of the philosophy of my school, particularly in the Advisory/Homeroom class. At a recent training I attended, however, I realized how helpful the procedure could be in generating ideas for a writing prompt in ELA, especially for students who have difficulty getting started. The concept is simple: students are arranged in a circle in order to share stories. A talking piece is passed around--I use an elephant Webkins that a former student donated--with the understanding that only the individual with the talking piece is allowed to speak at that moment (for a more thorough explanation of council, visit website here). I introduce the topic, "Tell about the world you come from," and then I begin with the talking piece, providing my students with a glimpse into my world so that they can choose to model their contribution after mine if they need to. I try keep it brief but creative and colorful.
My class size is 25 and my class meets for 70 minutes, so each student is allowed to share for roughly one minute. If your class size is larger, or time is a consideration, set the parameters from the start on sharing-time limitations.
FINAL NOTE: One last perk that this prompt and the council approach provide is perhaps a fresh solution to what might be a tired bag of beginning-of-year icebreaker activities.
Once council has concluded, I move my students into drafting their written responses. I explain to them that the writing prompt is very much the same as the council prompt, with the added connection of how the world they come from has shaped their dreams and aspirations. The actual UC prompt is as follows:
Describe the world you come from--for example, your family, community, or school--and tell how that world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
I reveal the prompt, which I have written on the whiteboard and have kept covered throughout council. The only instructions I give my students are to make sure that their work represents the best they are capable of creating at this point in their writing careers and under timed conditions. I remind them that it is important to remember why I am asking them to write, which is to serve as a diagnostic of their strengths and weaknesses as new, eighth-grade writers. I am available to help them get started if necessary, but I am hoping that the round of council has alleviated any so-called writer's block. Beyond that, I remind my students to do the best they can without my assistance, so that their writing can serve as a true diagnostic for me:
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My students will write until the end of the period and turn in their drafts before they leave. With council occupying the first half of our class, I do not anticipate that many, if any, will finish early. If any students do, however, I will instruct them to proofread their drafts as best they can and/or work on a quiet activity until class is over.