A few weeks ago a student walked out of my class angry and frustrated because he hadn’t finished his fifth timed writing assignment of the year.
Before he’d even started writing, I had given him some advice on writing a concluding sentence, knowing this was a weakness of his. I told him a story of my own timed writing experience back in high school.
I was rushing to finish my 40-minute essay after the bell rang, knowing that time was up but still searching for a way to conclude. My teacher read my half-sentence conclusion, thought for a moment, and said, “it.” I re-read my sentence and realized the beautiful simplicity of her suggestion. I tacked on the word “it” and handed her the essay. Was it perfect? No. Was I proud? No. Was the essay finished? Yes.
My student dismissed this idea as a cop out and turned in another unfinished essay.
During the sixth timed writing of the year, I wrote the essay along with my students. Not only did this help me to empathize with their struggles, it also thrust me back into a once-familiar situation. As the period came to a close, I found myself rushing to finish my conclusion just like I had back in high school. Reading over my last sentence, I tacked on my trusty “it” and was done.
The next day, I photocopied my essay and handed out to my class. I told them that I was rushed at the end, and while my conclusion wasn’t perfect, it served its purpose effectively. The same student who turned down the “it” conclusion when I described it found it brilliant in my example essay.
This experience reinforced my belief that when it comes to timed writings, students need practical strategies they can apply during those precious minutes. In fact, my class found other phrases they wanted to “steal” from my example essay. We made a board of those they found the most useful, like “…highlights the importance of…” “…emphasizes the meaning by…” “…this is further emphasized by…” “…he/she does this because…” and “…as evidenced by…”
Taking the time to engrain these phrases helped my students build a “bank” of sentence starters and transitions that they could draw from during a stressful timed writing. Providing my own writing and exemplary student samples puts these tools into context, making them easier to remember.
Timed writings and take-home essays target different skills, and are both important tools to make students into better writers. In life, sometimes you need to write things as quickly as possible and sometimes you need to write things to the best of your ability. Timed writing practice helps students with time management and pushes them to produce higher quality work faster—a crucial 21st century skill. Take-home essays allow students to labor over specifics like word choice and sentence structure, skills which take less time with more practice. Because these types of writing target different skills, it’s essential to use both in any writing or language class.