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Before I even started teaching I knew that one of the most difficult parts of the job would be teaching writing. It’s not that I consider myself a great writer; I know I’m prone to tangents, and I’ve never met a dash, comma, or semi-colon I didn’t want to use. It’s just that I find writing pretty intuitive. For informal pieces like this one, I tend to write the way that I talk, and for more structured academic writing my first drafts are pretty crappy—but they get written and then ironed out in my editing process. The takeaway here is that I’ve had to think hard about how to teach writing because the process of writing isn’t really one that I had to articulate before I had students. Knowing that many of you are almost ready to collect first essay assignments, I thought I’d talk a bit today about how we teach writing to students. My Wandering Essay lesson plan is one of the meanest, most productive approaches I’ve used because it makes clear the fact that writing is a process. Here’s how you do it:
Based off of the readings for the week in which you conduct this lesson plan, come up with an essay question that encourages students to make an argument (for or against). Write it on the board.
5 minutes. Break students into groups of 3. Explain what an essay’s introduction needs to do (set out the argument, introduce the reader to the sources, gesture at the essay’s counterargument).
10 minutes. Ask each group to take one sheet of paper, and together as a group, write out the introductory paragraph to their essay.
10 minutes. Ask groups to pause, and explain what topic sentences need to do. Explain what a counterargument needs to accomplish, emphasizing that although the counterargument should introduce evidence that contradicts the overarching argument, it must also explain why the essay’s original argument is more important. Ask each group to take their introduction, and pass it to the group next to them. That group is now responsible for writing the topic sentences (including the topic sentence for the counterargument) for their new essay, based off of the other group’s introduction. You should instruct them to read the introduction, write a topic sentence, skip down 3-4 four lines, write another topic sentence, skip down 3-4 lines, write another topic sentence, skip down 3-4 lines, and write the topic sentence of the counterargument. It may be helpful to draw a rough sketch of what their paper should look like on the board.
10 minutes. Ask groups to pause, and explain that together, the introduction and topic sentences should provide a road map that indicates what evidence students will use to write their essay. Ask each group to take their piece of paper with introduction and topic sentences, and pass it to the next group. That group is now responsible for coming up with the pieces of evidence for each paragraph. They may use bullet points rather than write full sentences.
5 minutes. Ask groups to pass their completed essay back to the original groups. Students should read their essay, and discuss whether or not it came out the way that they expected.
5 minutes. Wrap up the session by making several points:
1) That this exercise was difficult because students could not change the introduction or topic sentences as they wrote. Emphasize that while writing a real take-home essay, students can and should be constantly re-evaluating the argument as stated in their introduction, and the tie-ins to the argument that they’ve suggested in their topic sentences. Writing should be a process that helps students figure out their argument, and they shouldn’t really know exactly what they’re arguing until they’ve analyzed their evidence.
2) That the essays they’ve written were easy to write for two reasons: because they talked about it out loud, and because they were writing by hand. Emphasize that written work should be produced independently to avoid plagiarism, but that students can and should talk through ideas with peers, and ask people to proofread their work. You should also suggest that it can sometimes be very helpful to step away from the laptop, pull out a piece of paper, and try to draft something the old-fashioned way. Doing so sometimes yields an essay draft in as little as 45 minutes.
3) That all essays should go through several drafts before being handed in. If students follow this process, they should have time to go through another draft (at least) before the essay deadline.
There are a few ways to tweak this exercise. Our first- and second-year seminars are a very short 45 minutes, which means that there’s really only time to run the plan the way I’ve written it. If I had more time I’d break the counterargument section into its own block, and have students do it at the end, once they’d filled in topic sentences and evidence for the other essays (though I’d emphasize that a counterargument can go at the beginning or end of an essay). I’d also have groups write a conclusion, because you obviously need one in an essay.
I really enjoy running this lesson plan. A very, very small part of me does enjoy students’ look of doom when they figure out that they have to write someone else’s essay, but overall the most gratifying feeling is the look of relief on their faces when they walk out of seminar knowing that they can write a well-structured first draft in less than an hour. It’s the best way I’ve found of emphasizing writing as a process rather than a product—but I’m ready to hear your methods for teaching writing in the comments!
From Theory to Practice
What do students need to know to succeed in fourth grade (or third or fifth)? What supplies are needed? What rules and steps should be followed? These and many other questions provide the framework for students to write how-to essays for a specific audiencefuture fourth graders. Although this lesson focuses specifically on fourth grade, it can be easily adapted for third or fifth graders. Students first learn about the how-to writing genre by reading an assortment of instruction manuals. This also demonstrates how how-to writing relates to their everyday lives. The teacher then models each step of the writing process as the students write about how to be successful fourth graders. After students publish their writing, the final drafts are saved for the following year's fourth graders to read at the beginning of the next school year.
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- Power Proofreading: Students can use this interactive site to complete activities to build their proofreading skills.
- Essay Map: Using this interactive site, students can organize the information they will include in their essay.
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FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
Huntley-Johnston, L., Merritt, S.P., & Huffman, L.E. (1997). How to do how-to books: Real life writing in the classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 41(3), 172179.
- Students need to understand that there are purposes for writing other than for the teacher to read and grade it. Writing how-to essays has been found to be a successful alternative to the traditional research paper or teacher-based essay.
- How-to writing is a genre that appeals to most students because it is applicable in the world. This genre involves exploring interests and needs to identify a topic, conducting several research methods, and working through the writing process.
- When students' writing has an authentic audience beyond the classroom teacher, they can see a direct connection between their lives and their literacy development.
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