A Writing Fashion Show: How I Teach my Students to Develop Their Writing Style

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We were looking at an example SAT essay that had earned a perfect score: 4’s for reading comprehension, 4’s for analysis, and 4’s for writing. The essay task is deceptively difficult. Students have 50 minutes to read a passage and analyze how the author develops his or her argument. And although the argument is provided in the prompt and context, executing a well-organized, clear, sophisticated, response with dashes of style embedded within it is not easy. My juniors tore this essay to shreds.

“I don’t write like this,” one said. “I’ve been taught not to do, like, all the things this kid did.”

She was talking about the rhetorical question in the opening sentence, the conversational tone throughout, and the infomercial sales-y vibe of the conclusion. I got where she was coming from. And then came:

“I didn’t know we were allowed to write like that.”

And I realized that there needed to be some intentional rewiring of my writing instruction, starting with the freshmen.

Teaching style is hard, but so freeing. Here’s how I approach it. Hint: it all ends with a fashion show.

  1. Warm up: If I ran into you at the mall on a Saturday night, what would you be wearing? My students wear uniforms to school, so this yielded some hilarious conversations about our non-school styles. One of my kids also blurted out she saw me at the mall in Forever 21 and that my style was cute.
  2. Idea Generator: Students complete a series of questions about writing style. I’ll include the handout in the download at the end of this post. We share out, then segway into some language around talking about style.
  3. The 5 Style Elements: There’s wayyy more than five style moves in writing, of course, but since this was an introductory lesson with 9th graders, five was a manageable amount:
  • Begin with a new opening sentence that shares a message about the topic you’re writing on
  • Use punctuation like dashes and parenthesis to add emphasis or side comments
  • Beef up your vocabulary
  • Begin your analysis with a verb immediately following your quote*
  • Utilize more complex transition phrases and statements to link multiple ideas.

*This is to combat students constantly starting their analysis with: “This shows” or “This means”.

4. Once students have this language recorded in their notes, we look at an example SAT essay I wrote with the juniors. I chose an unrelated writing task to the freshmen to push them not to overly emulate my style. Students annotate where they see me using these style elements in my work and record them in a chart. This will also be in the download at the end of the post.

5. After we’ve shared out about their findings, I have them choose 1-2 style elements they want to use in their next writing piece and then I give them time to begin their evidence chart and their first draft.

That’s my introductory cycle for teaching style with my 9th graders! Once they’ve turned it in, gotten feedback, and have had the opportunity to revise, we have our Fall Writing Fashion Week 2019! I’ll include these materials in the download, too!

To overview:

  1. At the top of their written response, students write which style category they belong to.:
  • Style 1: The Trendsetters (New Opening Sentence)
  • Style 2: The Season’s Must-Have Accessories (Beefed Up Vocab)
  • Style 3: The New Classics (Verb After Analysis and Complex Transitions)
  • Style 4: The All-Around Showstopper (A Combination of Multiple Styles)

2. They leave their responses at their desks. I play “Fashion Show Music” and we all move around the room to see the latest “style exhibitions”. In a chart I’ve given them, they record the model (the author), what they’re wearing (a quote from their work showing style), and why it’s inspiring.

3. At the end of the fashion show they shout-out someone who inspired them and what they’d like to try in their work next time. To end, we draft the opening statement of their fashion reports and share the names of their magazines.

There’s a hundred ways to teach writing style, but I’ve found that giving kids the language to talk about it, an example to see the practice in action, and a chance to showcase and learn from one another is the cycle that works best for my classroom. I hope this is helpful if you’re thinking about teaching style or have started and need some ideas on where to go next! Download all the materials below and don’t forget to subscribe to the Cobble&Brick weekly newsletter where I continue to celebrate allllll things work-life balance–style, home decor, food, teaching, and more.

Thanks so much for reading!

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