Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Writing Guides: Providing Useful Organization for the ADHD and Learning Disabled Student

"Utter fear- that is what went through my head when my teacher assigned an essay for homework. First off, I am a crappy writer and then, I had to write about something I didn't understand, something that wasn't clear. It wasn't clear for a number of reasons- the topic wasn't explained well enough and getting to the point of actual writing a five paragraph essay was taught with the assumption that my previous teachers had taught me correctly EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. Except, here is the funny thing- since each teacher assumed the PREVIOUS teacher taught it to me, I never learned how to do it! Also, when you tell a dyslexic kid with ADHD to just 'write a hook sentence, include sentences about what the next body paragraphs are going to be about and follow your notes to write a thesis sentence' you basically set me up for failure."

I have talked extensively with my husband about why he wasn't successful in school until I met him during his Junior year of college. It always comes back to the same thing- he never learned how to write an effective sentence or paragraph or essay.

This is just a complete waste of time for students with ADHD.
My husband is an incredibly smart person. I am not kidding- he can take a multi-level, extremely difficult condominium project from blueprints to complete build. He sees this stuff in his mind as already completed, putting it into a 3D version as he reviews the plans, mentally going in and out of the rooms and seeing everything internally. The guy, as smart as he is though, simply can't write. He can just barely write a legible email and anything more complex leaves him very nervous and self-conscious. When I met him, he was earning just barely a C- in his college level courses that depended on papers and essays for grades. All other classes that were project based or test based, he was earning a B+ or better.

When he met me, I was in the middle of taking classes for a History major and double minors in English and Anthropology. I should have switched it around and worked for an English major but at the time I was feeling like I needed a challenge and History was harder for me than English. My husband would get so angry at me because I would have a paper due on Friday that I wouldn't start on until 7 pm on Thursday night, then I'd bang out 10-12 pages in two hours, go to the bar that night and still earn an A on it. He would spend 10-12 DAYS writing the same amount of pages and only come back with a D.

Writing always came pretty easy to me. In elementary school, I had fantastic teachers that modeled proper writing organization for me and would correct and critique my writing attempts, helping me learn how to self-edit my work as I went along and showed me the proper way to build on a proper sentence, then paragraph, then essay. It fit together for me like a giant puzzle and I loved the challenge. In my high school years, I had a teacher in my Honors English class that tore me apart and broke down my writing style until I was laid bare and learned how to say exactly what needed to be said and no more. After I mastered that skill, he helped me create the writer I wanted to be, eloquent and expressive, without being overly confident and self-indulgent.

When I became a teacher, I realized that writing in an organized fashion simply isn't natural to most people and by the time they reached high school, most students were so perplexed by the writing process, they put in the minimal amount of energy, doing what they needed to do to complete it, but not
caring about what they wrote or how it sounded. They were simply overwhelmed and too frustrated with the entire process because they were either taught by (well-meaning) people who used those tried and true statements such as "the hook sentence needs to come first in your introductory paragraph" or "write the thesis statement so it connects with your three body paragraphs" or better yet "you need to analyze the quote from the book in this paragraph." These people were simply parroting what they learned and how they understood writing. However, these statements don't take into account those kids who don't understand what those words mean or how to organize the essay. When these students hear statements like this, it is the same as the teacher saying to them "now, put your foot behind your head and hop in a counterclockwise direction chanting the ancient Navaho request for rain". It simply does not make sense.

So how are they supposed to know what to do, how to do it, and feel confident in the process? Answer: They simply can't.

I hate to see these students feel bad about their writing ability and I resolved to find a way to help them. I started at the beginning, remembering how I helped my husband organize his essay with simple verbal questions asking him to say what he wanted to say in his paper. Then, I used a very straightforward, linear organizer that had the components of each paragraph outlined with sentences and prompts that told him exactly what he needed to include in each sentence, eliminating the uncertainty of what goes where.

This seemed to help them "see" how to construct the essay and also what elements were included and why they were important. Originally, I designed the organizer without any breaks in between the paragraphs and I found that students were still feeling overwhelmed by the idea that there was SO MUCH to write! So, I separated each paragraph to be on its own page, eliminating the "wall of lines" and allowing them to focus on just finishing that paragraph instead of being daunted by "what comes next." To say I saw an improvement was an understatement!! Their essays were organized, included all the components of a correct essay such as a thesis statement, quote, analysis, transition sentence, and a correct conclusion that DIDN'T simply re-state the argument!

I have now expanded my Original writing guide to include one for a Compare/Contrast essay, a literary analysis essay, and "How To" guides for writing a Murder Mystery, an interesting biography and just recently, reflective journals. Some of the these writing guides are included in the units I designed them for, but I have been debating whether or not to make a large bundle with instructions on how to implement them for all levels and subject areas....still working on it though!

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