The Writing Corner: 6 Ways to Teach With Student Writing

Do yourself a favor right now: Start saving samples of students’ writing.

When I get a particularly good piece of student writing, I am usually so excited to get the graded paper back that I forget to ask if I can make a copy for myself to use for teaching. But when I do, it is so helpful.

There is something about having an actual piece of student writing—it’s probably flawed, it likely still contains errors in citation or dialogue format or maybe the topic sentences aren't quite right yet—but when students see what their peers are capable of doing, they realize that they can achieve those standards as well.

This is a strategy that I have been using in my personal essay unit for years—we look at student samples for many different lessons, and I have some great ones that I have held onto for years. But you could use student writing to teach just about any kind of writing—from plays to lab reports to open AP open responses to literary analysis to poetry. Just make sure to ask that student for permission, and I usually black out their name as well.

But what should you do with those samples? Here is how I use sample student writing to teach.

Grade a sample with a rubric as a class.

Just handing out a rubric and telling students that they will be graded on it usually means that they stuff it in their backpacks, never to look at it again (including when they are writing the assignment or contesting their low grade later on). But when students spend time with the rubric, they remember it. So one activity that I do often is to hand out a sample essay from a former class and ask students to grade it using the rubric. They are usually pretty close to what I would give the piece—most often, they grade harder than I do.

Do a focused critique of a single paragraph.

For this activity, I usually hand out a copy of one paragraph of one essay, and I also project that paragraph on to the whiteboard. We might take an entire class period analyzing that single paragraph, but this is another activity that really sticks with students. I think that maybe because, again, the student writing is usually good but not perfect. Students feel a sense of satisfaction when they can point out a little grammar error such as a citation that is almost there but missing a few pieces. This is also a great way to teach a skill that has been eluding even the best writers since we can really focus in on a small section.

Have students read a few samples in groups and talk about which is their favorite and why.

This activity is a little risky—students might not like the same piece that I do and I might not be happy with their reasons! But I still value this exercise because students are evaluating. I generally have a pretty easy time hitting all of the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy—except evaluate. But as long as students are justifying their responses with specific examples and evidence, comparing samples of student pieces is a great way to get them evaluating

Read a sample to introduce a type of writing.

Often, I am asking my students to write something that is not quite like anything they have ever done before—a historical fiction story based on research, an epic poem about their lives, a new version of an already-told story. Rather than stand in front of them and describe what their final product will be, I simply read them a sample. Paired with one of the other activities, this is all I need to do to give students a good idea of what is expected of them.

Read a sample as a class to talk about specific techniques.

The more creative the assignment, the more options students have. Sometimes, all of those options can get overwhelming. I find that telling students “you can organize a personal essay any way that you want” is not helpful at all. So instead, we read a few different essays, each of which is organized in a specific way, and I tell students that those are options.

Compare student writing to professional pieces.

Truth be told, when my students read pieces that have been written by their peers and pieces that have been written by professional writers, they often like the student writing better. The themes, ideas, and experiences are some that they can likely relate to easily. Still, it’s great to have the two together. Student writing might contain a few nice metaphors, but professional writing will contain one elegant extended metaphor.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.