I'm using writing models with my students much more deliberately this year than I have in the past. My AP Comp students wrote New Yorker "Briefly Noted"-style reviews (e.g., Download New_Yorker_Review) of their free-choice nonfiction summer reading book, and they're now writing four-sentence précis (using basically this structure) of the essays they're reading, and in both cases, I gave them models that we went over very carefully before they tried it themselves. I gave my sophomores a four-paragraph book review of a YA book -- from our school librarian's blog -- as a model and then had them write their own four-paragraph review of their own free-choice summer reading. Then we did a lot of work with SPA (Statement-Proof-Analysis) paragraphs, and the faithfulness with which they have followed that model is one of the major things I'm grading them on in their first in-class essay, which they wrote last Friday; they also have a SPA paragraph assignment on A Doll's House due next week. We are all about the models in the What Now classroom these days!
Now, there's a reason I haven't emphasized models so much in the past. I don't actually want every single student writing exactly the same way -- how tedious! how squelching of individuality! how Pink Floyd's "The Wall"! And, sure enough, some of that tedium started creeping in with the sophomores' work particularly; the librarian had added a specifically phrased note at the end of her book review, and dang if half the students didn't append a similar note, expressed in almost exactly the same sentence structure, and in exactly the same place in the review, whether it was really necessary for their review or not. And since one of the things I want to stress in my classes is the importance of finding one's own voice, then I wouldn't want to go too far with having everyone writing exactly the same all the time. Indeed, I spend a lot of time trying to break students from their five-paragraph-essay reliance, so in a way it is counterproductive to be insisting on new models as I'm trying to dispell the influence of the old model.
However, I was influenced to go in this models direction by a friend of mine, an art teacher who believes very strongly that you have to show students exactly what you want them to do before they do it, and then when they've developed some skills they can start showing some more individuality. So there's a project that every single FGS student does in the opening art course (required of all students) in which they do a perspective drawing of part of a hallway in the school. Now, they get to choose which part of which hallway and where they're going to sit, but otherwise it's all about rendering the picture in the most realistic perspective possible (and of course it's almost all straight lines, which helps). So this is an annual tradition at school, where there's a certain week in the year in which walking down the hallway requires weaving one's way among students and their sketchpads and rulers.
His argument is that you literally need to show a student how to draw a line before she will know how you want her to do it. Makes sense, certainly. So that's what I'm doing with these models. In previous years I've talked and talked and talked about thesis statements and topic sentences and evidence and all the rest, but it only goes so far with some students, so this year I'm giving them acronyms and models and we're doing practice after practice. And I've had older students tell me years later that one of the most helpful things they learned in my 9th grade class was a thesis model that I got from a colleague: "Although X, Subject is Judgment." And you know, that is a pretty good model, one that can be used to make fairly sophisticated arguments.
So my goal is to use models a lot in this first term with the understanding that these models are simply tools or guides that students can use now but discard later if they see better ways of expressing something. I often use the metaphor of training wheels, that these models are something to rely on while one is learning to ride a bike (or write an essay) but then eventually need to come off the bike so that one can ride freely. After all, the same art teacher who pushed me to use models more worries that his students aren't getting opportunities to express themselves individually or show creativity or get really invested in a project. So that's the downside of over-reliance on a model or a particular way of doing something.
And in my AP class, I'm hoping that we move quite quickly past the précis format and the models and do more exciting work once they've got this mastered. And I hope this for my sophomores as well, but with them (some of whom I'm teaching for a second year in a row), I'm very aware that some of them are pretty weak verbally, and it's possible that they won't actually move past the model, at least in the forseeable future. But here's my thought: Wouldn't I rather see these students master a model for a SPA paragraph and be able to use it effectively if not very originally than not be able to write a good paragraph at all?
Anyway, this is my pedagogical innovation for the fall term, and we will see how it goes.