A Writing Lesson to Get High School Students Thinking

Secondary students need writing lessons that inspire them to think critically, like this one.

Secondary students need writing lessons that inspire them to think critically, like this one.

The magic that occurs when all components of a language arts class mesh together - that makes for a perfect writing lesson plan.

I have a basic format for when I want to bring literature and language discussions into a writing lesson. Hopefully, you can apply these basic ideas when you want to marry language, reading, and writing. 

This is a lesson I recently completed with Romeo and Juliet. You can read the outline and apply the ideas to other units. 

Here's the deal. 

Start with your ending goal

My students finished Act V, scene iii of Romeo and Juliet. This involves tears or eye rolls depending upon the students' feeling of this famous love story. I want my students to understand how Romeo is a tragic hero, so I spend time examining all the emotions students feel about the play, especially Romeo.

My students and I have discussed that this is a tragedy and loosely covered the concept of Romeo as a tragic hero. Again, I specifically define tragic hero - a noble character in a tragedy whose character flaws contribute to his undoing.

At this point, my students were not seeing Romeo as the tragic hero; they were too annoyed by his actions to define him as a "hero." That's fine! 

We dove deeper into those feelings. Is Romeo a coward? brave? honorable? silly? Most students acknowledge that he is hasty and impatient. 

All of these emotions are fair assessments! I save my opinions until the end of the play, but I am honest with students when we get to the end. I share that Romeo  drives me a tad crazy; he is one of my least favorite Shakespearean characters. 

Brainstorm together

Students were thinking and opinionated - good! I needed to return to the definition and model brainstorming with them. I reminded students that these conflicting thoughts about Romeo were partially because of the dynamic of a tragic hero. A tragic hero has faults, and Romeo is impulsive to a fault. 

Brainstorm about Romeo... as a hasty/impatient gentleman. We found examples of that:

  1. Romeo attends the Capulet party, horribly distressed over his lost love, Rosaline.

  2. Romeo spots Juliet, immediately falling in love with her.

  3. Romeo is moved by love to hide in Juliet's orchard (owned by his family's enemy).

  4. Romeo gets married.

  5. When Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead, he immediately recalls an apothecary he believes will sell him poison.

At this point, we have the definition, examples, and opinions. This will create a good writing lesson, but I want students to have more resources. 

The writing lessons I love the most get students to think.

The writing lessons I love the most get students to think.

So! We finished the play, and I showed students this. https://myshakespeare.com/romeo-and-juliet/act-5-scene-3 (Scroll to the interviews at the bottom.)

We discussed how directors take liberty with a writer's play. This fact is important because for 99% of my students, this is their first exposure to Shakespeare. They need more than reading through the play.

I reminded students that this director interpreted how the character Romeo should behave and conveyed that to the actor. The actor then put his own "spin" on Romeo. 

All of these influences led to the Romeo in the video. Whatever image we have of Romeo as audience members is shaped by our reading of the play along with other images of Romeo. 

Draw a conclusion

At this point, students had a really nice set of tools for the writing lesson. I wanted them to think more, though. 

For freshmen, this step needs practice. Students will happily claim that Romeo is a tragic hero because of his impatient nature, and then list the examples we brainstormed. 

What do those two facts mean, though?? Students must draw a conclusion.

We returned to the definition. Some students honed in on the idea that Romeo was a tragic hero because Juliet's dad liked him and allowed him to stay at the party. They argued that he was from nobility.

Other students drew the conclusion that Romeo's impulsivity (most students said his youth) classified him as a tragic hero.

And other students ran with it. Some argued that tragic heroes don't exist today because we have psychological interventions for people with depression or impulsivity. They claimed that Romeo was a tragic hero of the time period.  Others derived that Romeo wouldn't be a tragic hero unless he met someone similar in nature, like Juliet. They argued that the destruction would not have occurred if the adults in his life had not been impulsive and continued with the feud. 

Most students ultimately wrote that yes, Romeo is a tragic hero, but only because of the situation given to him. We find fault with Romeo (many of us find him unrealistic) since he allows his circumstances to dictate and ultimately end his life.

When I work to incorporate reading, language, and images to writing, the final product pays off. Students have more sources for their writing and feel inspired. They trust that I value their opinion and are willing to produce writing that they take seriously. 


Lauralee Moss has taught English in Illinois for more than a decade. She blogs at Language Arts Classroom and posts real classroom pictures on Instagram (@elaclassroom). She lives with her husband, three kids, and crazy dog. 


This writing bundle contains everything I use for writing throughout the year with my freshmen and sophomores; I have developed these materials to address different learners and needs. 

While creating these writing activities, I kept the overarching idea in mind that students can and should take responsibility in for their learning and writing. At many points throughout these activities, I ask students to reflect and take ownership of the writing process - something important for older students.