When I taught middle school, I liked to have kids display their talents as often as possible. While students usually didn't have trouble sharing their social selves, asking them to extol their academic virtues is another story. One way to link the social with the academic self in any student is a strengths chart. On a large piece of chart paper divided into two columns, I write the names of students in the class down the lefthand side and the label "My Writing Strength" at the top of the righthand side. Each student is asked to think of a writing strategy they feel comfortable using and offering to others.
Many students can quickly name their skill, but others need guidance. To help, I guide the class in brainstorming a list called "What Good Writers Do." Behaviors offered by students might include basic clean-up skills such as spell-checkers, punctuation helpers, and grammar wizards. But less obvious offerings are often popular, such as thinking of titles, naming characters, choosing exciting verbs, proposing topics, writing character descriptions, suggesting plot or setting details, and creating realistic dialogue.
Sample Writing Strengths from Anchor Chart
Eric – Thinking of names for characters
Jill – Spellchecking
Laura – Adding adjectives to describe scenes
Paul – Writing endings that make sense
Tim – Using realistic dialogue
Suzannah – Noticing places where a good verb is needed
Jolene – Rhyming, especially lyrics
Delaine – Figuring out where paragraphs go
Peter – Writing action scenes and sound effects
Patrick – Thinking of ideas to write about
Ella – Finding a way to begin a story with oomph!
Nick – Writing nonfiction
Marco – Illustrating scenes from writing
Meg – Turning facts into historical fiction
Kelsey – Adding graphics to nonfiction writing
Tessa – Punctuation
Ben – Describing the bad guys in a story
Mrs. Kaback – Making sure the writing flows
As students begin filling in their writing strengths, another opportunity to take advantage of the power of suggestion is offered. Sometimes a student wishes he were adept at a skill and writes it by his name, only to find that when a classmate approaches him for expert help, he rises to the challenge.
I once had a student named Nate who wrote his protagonists out of the most life-threatening situations with this ending: "And then he woke up and found out it was all a dream." Despite this convenient but uninspired solution to concluding stories, Nate wrote next to his name "I'm good at writing story endings." Evidently the sleep-wake solution was a point of pride for Nate. Anticipating that I would see a lot of this ending from kids who consulted Nate for great story ending ideas, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nate had other tricks up his sleeve. When asked to step outside the familiarity of his own writing habits, he was able to offer suggestions to classmates that showed relevance and originality.
The "Writing Strengths" chart supported the group's growth as a community of writers throughout the school year, but it was a particularly effective activity early in the year, or at the beginning of a unit of study when we were taking stock of the expertise or background knowledge of our class. The chart highlighted the writing assets of my students . . . even if sometimes they had to stretch a bit to find labels to write next to their names. Focusing on what they could do together set the tone for collaboration. The suggestion was that they were going to be successful writers — look at all these skills they already had!