The No-Fail Pre-Writing Strategy

There is a strategy that has gotten me four jobs. In each case, I was asked to demonstrate my teaching skills in front of interviewing committees, and was completely confident that this exercise would cast me in a positive light. Moreover, the strategy is as easy to administer as a think-pair-share.

If Anthony Robbins taught AP, he’d use this strategy: the discussion web, a process and graphic organizer first developed by Donna Alvermann in 1991.

You could probably get an idea of how it works by studying the graphic organizer, but there are a couple twists that really give it power—namely step 5 and step 8, below: 

Step 1.

Have students read a complex text, either in class or as homework.

Step 2. 

Ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no. Examples:

  • Was killing Lennie at the end of Mice and Men a moral thing to do?
  • Is the nature of humankind evil or good?
  • What is the most important function of art: to educate or incite to action?

You’ll have students who argue that the answer is “both”—rightly so. In response, tell them that a big part of critical thinking is the ability to adopt different perspectives, and this exercise supports that development. Put more eloquently by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Step 3.

Ask students to get into groups of 2-4 and fill out the graphic organizer with their four best reasons for saying “no” and four best reasons for saying “yes” as shown in the graphic organizer. This can take between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on students’ answers. If you want to add another degree of difficulty, ask students to cite specific textual evidence and page numbers in their answers.

Step 5. 

Ask the original teams to partner with another group of students for about 7 minutes and create a “super-discussion web” of the four best answers for “yes” and “no.”

Discussion Web 2

Step 6.

Have a representative of each group present their reasons for or against, while you record answers on the board. Invite anyone in class to ask follow-up questions to representatives. Or you may ask students for clarification or elaboration.

Step 7.

Finally, ask every learner in class, one by one, to lock in their final opinion—yes or no while you tally the votes and determine the winning answer. As an extension, you can also ask the kids to state the single most compelling reason for their answer.

Step 8.

You can stop at step 7 or ask students to compose a persuasive essay, using the same prompt used in the discussion web. Instruct them to address reasons why someone might draw the opposite conclusion, and articulate counter-arguments to those reasons.

As I said, this is a no-fail strategy that involves the following:

  • comprehension
  • finding textual evidence
  • analysis
  • synthesis
  • collaboration
  • critical thinking
  • perspective taking
  • and debate

Use it…unless you like failure.

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One thought on “The No-Fail Pre-Writing Strategy

  1. This looks like a great strategy, but two of the three questions you provide aren’t yes or no questions…I do like the idea, though!

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