Many students struggle getting started on persuasive writing assignments because they feel they have to have a defined, provable point mapped out before they begin typing their first word. This mental block points to one of the most important reasons for teaching writing: writing is a vehicle for thinking and learning.

One master writing teacher who advises us uses analogous writing assignments to help students move past writer’s block. In this sample, she describes her approach to one of her favorite topics when analyzing Macbeth.

I love to have my students compare and/or contrast the relative power of susceptibility of Macbeth to the external women (witches, Lady Macbeth) and his own internal ambition on his decision-making. I know both contribute, but my students seemed to always want to argue for one or the other. When I used to just assign this essay without purposeful prewriting, the results were unimpressive.

So now I do “Parallel Assignments” to get them to use “writing as thinking” prior to working on an assignment. My parallel assignment begins with students opening a word processor (or get a pen and paper ready) and writing quickly without worry about spelling, grammar, or usage issues.

For this example I have students write for 5 minutes about whether women are more persuasive than men. I have them stop and read over what they wrote and then respond to this second prompt: is it more important to be a leader than a follower? I encourage them to re-evaluate or “answer” what they wrote in response to the first prompt. I then repeat the re-reading and ask for one final “think on the fly”: are women more likely to be leaders than men? Prior to using WriterKEY, I did not collect or look at these because of the paper volume. My goal is to have students be reflective, reconsider ideas, express doubt, or see the issues of logic that these prompts elicit. I want them to have a model of how thinking through works and how it produces thoughtful insight they can use to shape into a more coherent writing piece. It is then that I introduce the Macbeth assignment and demonstrate how it is made up of three “think on the fly” opportunities. My students then work with their peers to discuss the connections between the “think on the fly” and what they might write about Macbeth. Get ready. Those conversations are pretty heated and the essays that followed were worth reading.

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