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Collecting a sample of each student’s writing should be at the top of your priority list during the first week of school. The writing should not be graded, nor should it be commented on. Rather, it should serve as a quick introduction to each student’s abilities. This also provides the chance to gauge who may be having trouble seeing the board, which students might find focusing difficult, and even pinpointing those who struggle to write longhand versus typing.

This is also an opportunity to go over how to properly head a paper as well as establish the routine for getting papers out and passing them forward in your classroom. It’s important to stress that not all writing is destined for final draft perfection. Above all, it’s the perfect time to emphasize the paramount rule of classroom writing:


Writing time is silent time!

Lead the class through heading their papers. I always have an example of an MLA heading on the front board. I’ve found that students transitioning from middle school to high school find this quite hard to get used to.


For the prompt, it’s always best to read it aloud, but do make sure to have it posted as well. I also encourage teachers to incorporate their own writing into the classroom. In this case, I always prepare my own cluster diagram on one of the sideboards. It’s also a great way for students to get to know you a bit better was well.


Picture of cluster diagram.


Part One: Make a cluster-diagram about your self-identity. Refer to the example on the board for ideas. Cover as much of the page as possible and keep going for five minutes.


Part Two: Write a ten-minute biography that explains what makes you a unique, fantastic, interesting person.


This low-stress, ungraded writing will reveal a lot about your new group of students. During a quick read through, I might jot a note or two in my student files on issues that appear. Then I file them away to be returned at the end of the year for inclusion in their writing portfolios. It’s also a good idea to begin the next class by pointing out a few interesting things you noted in their biographies.

A More Time-Consuming Alternative (aka “Live and Learn”)

One year, I had my freshmen write letters about their first impressions of starting high school. This involved going over proper letter format as well as how to address an envelope. Needless to say, it became very time-consuming to teach what should have been skills already in place! Not to mention, it took me forever to take each letter out of its envelope in order to read it! If I were a business teacher, I would still use this activity, but it proved to be beyond the scope of what time I could provide for the activity in an English classroom.


However, the assignment was worth it at the end of the year when the students got their letters back, most having completely forgotten writing them, and then enjoying a good laugh from the chance to revisit the year via their old selves.


What types of writing activities have you used to collection an initial writing sample?


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