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As a young teacher, I spent a lot of time bemoaning the fact that my students didn’t follow even the smallest instructions. I told them how to format their papers using careful MLA guidelines, and they would turn in single-spaced papers with no headers. I assigned outlines, and they would turn in lists or bullet points with no Roman numerals in sight. I showed them how to create works cited pages, and they would turn in URLs and book titles without punctuation.
I just couldn’t understand why they didn’t follow my instructions or look at my examples. It felt like they ignored everything I taught them for the ease of turning in their writing in whichever format they chose. And they didn’t seem to care that I would deduct points from their grades for doing so.
The more experienced I got, the more I realized that my students were not being stubborn. Nor did they lack the intellectual ability to do what I was asking them to do. For a few, it was a matter of inexperience. Some of my students became so anxious at the thought of writing anything that they couldn’t be bothered with doing it exactly the way I wanted. Others suffered from writer’s block and didn’t know where to start. I had to finally accept that my students needed more help than I initially believed.
Changing Technology Gave Me New Tools
For the first ten years of my teaching career, I struggled and complained and beat myself up over the fact that I must somehow be failing because some of my students just never did it “right.” Eventually, I became better at guiding instead of directing. I embraced the concept of a growth mindset and worked to show my students how to keep going back and doing better instead of just giving them a grade and moving on. I learned how to use tracking tools in word processing programs to show them how to see the transformation of their work over time. I also used projectors or videos to demonstrate how to work with the tools while they followed along on their own devices.
By the time I entered my second decade of teaching, course management systems were more commonplace. With course management systems came the increased use of electronic documents and the Google Suite. Suddenly, I had an easy way to take away the “I don’t know how to do it” excuse from all of my students. I could give them the electronic form to follow, show them how to use those templates, and expect them to do their assigned work the way I wanted it completed. I could show them how to complete tasks effectively while also giving them the appropriate tools to emulate my own work. I started creating outlines with unique instructions appropriate for the assigned paper, works cited forms, and, most recently, project templates for them to follow.
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Templates Eliminate Ambiguous Expectations
I admit it. I was that teacher. I was the teacher who gave my students a paper sample, put it up on the screen in front of them, and then said, “Make it look like this.” Over time I learned to take time walking them through the process. But that still didn’t translate to students following the formatting that I gave them.
Giving students a template forced me to slow down and explain the how and the why of everything that they were doing for me. I showed them how to create headers, insert page numbers and page breaks, and other word processing skills they had missed in the rush to put technology into their hands. I explained that following an assigned format didn’t just make their papers more presentable; it made them easier for their teachers to read and grade. My instructions stopped being about “when you get to college” and became about the here and now.
It doesn’t mean that students always follow those Google Doc templates perfectly, either, but it does streamline the process. During the paper my students are currently working on, I’ve shown students how to take the outlines that they have completed and use those outlines to write their rough draft, copying, pasting, deleting formatting, and taking notes and turning them into a coherent essay ready for “publishing.” It has helped my more advanced students work more quickly and guided my students who work slower or have IEPs through the process with less guesswork about what I expect from them in their final drafts. They know what I expect from them, and they can confidently follow through.
Templates Ensure They Don’t Leave Out Important Details
I fought against assigning outlines for a really long time. We tend to avoid the practices that we hated as students. I’ve always been the type of writer that prefers to just sit down and write everything out, going back to revise and edit where necessary. But eventually, I realized that many students left out important details from their writing assignments. Others didn’t understand how one element of the assigned paper flowed to the next.
This changed when I began providing outline templates. These templates not only gave students the appropriate format but also spelled out how to organize their papers. I finally had a way to find issues long before they wrote the first draft. If they didn’t understand a concept in the outline, we could talk about what they needed to include. If they turned in an outline that was incomplete, I could ask questions about what they planned to write to help them process what they wanted to say. And if they were on the right track, I could confidently tell them to move forward with their paper.
Outline templates and storyboarding transformed my writing instruction in ways I could not have anticipated. My instruction became more clear, my students’ work more focused, and the final products significantly easier to grade because they turned in what I expected from them.
Templates Help Ease Student Anxiety
How many times do we hear our students say, “I don’t know where to start”? It is one of the reasons I started requiring my students to complete outlines from templates that I created for them. It doesn’t take away creative freedom or stifle their growth as writers. I often tell my more skilled writers that they can use the outlines as more of a plan than a road map. But for those less confident writers who need help getting started, an outline gives them the basic elements they need to include in the paper. In addition, it puts those elements in an order that makes sense to them and the reader. They may complain about the extra step, but I have seen that extra step transform their final products, which benefits both students and teachers.
Giving students templates doesn’t take work and learning responsibility away from them. Instead, it helps to train them to pay attention to details and develop consistent habits without the additional stress of constantly checking to make sure they did something correctly. This is especially effective if schools or departments work together to hold all students in a grade level or subject to the same basic standards.
So this year, consider adding more templates to your classroom instruction. The work you put in at the beginning will pay off in the end.
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