What does writing look like in my classroom?
I get it! We hear the words essay, we cringe. Students do the same thing as well. It seems to garner the same reaction as when someone says they have to go the dentist (sorry dentist peeps!) Why?
What has happened in education to make students and teachers not want to talk about the most impactful thing in Language Arts: words and putting those words together to make meaning. That’s what essay writing is all about.
“Reading and Writing draws from the same well.” Repeat after me, ” Reading and Writing draws from the same well.” Put it on a sticker, tattoo it, whatever it takes to commit that thought to memory. Tim Shanahan said that many years ago at a literacy conference I attended and no truer words have been spoken. When my students read, they then write. If my students write, they then read. Simple. They are either responding to text by defending or disputing something an author said( oh look, is that a claim?), supporting a position an author said by looking for EVIDENCE, or expressing their thoughts about what they read by making it make sense to them or connect to them- A LA Elaborate.
In the Beginning…
This starts from day one. Our very first activity of the year is a read-aloud of a wonderful picture book called Rain School. Not only am I able to get my students to share out about their thoughts on what makes the perfect school, I am starting to pre- assess their writing ability. I continue to have students respond to either picture book read- alouds or to pictures or quotes on a daily basis. It is a low stress method for both them and me to start working on that writing muscle. The more they write, the more comfortable they get so the less they freak out when I add more to what they need to write AKA long form essay.
So at some point, I eventually throw out the word essay. Maybe… November/ December. But we still aren’t writing essays because I need my students to truly understand what that format of writing is and the purpose of all the components. Starting with the vocabulary terms: claim, thesis, evidence, elaboration, and yes, even the word paragraph. I use a lot of resources from Alan Sitomer’s book, Mastering Short Responses which I listed as one of my Best 15 Books for a Reading Teacher. Students first work on identifying claims and making claims. Then we move onto evidence and spend the bulk of the time fine tuning what they think is evidence and for argument writing, knowing which evidence supports which side. Check out my digital drag and drop activity on Teachers Pay Teachers to have your students practice sorting evidence. It includes 20 different prompts and evidence along with a bonus of two prompts.
So now they get it, but do they ‘get it get it’? Now I drill home the concept of an essay. I break down the idea of what a paragraph is and its purpose. I also want to conceptualize the idea of thesis, evidence, and evidence and I do this by having my students visualize and draw a house. A house is a metaphor for an essay. They have to label the parts of a house with a term related to essay writing and explain the connection. For example, the walls are evidence because without it, the house/essay falls apart. Most of our kids are visual learners so I give them a visual to connect to the topics.
January they start writing essays. But first: Writing Commandments. Here are a few:
- Thou shalt not start an essay with a question or “I’m going to tell you about’.
- Thou shalt not write an essay without a thesis.
- Thou shalt not write a body paragraph with only one piece of evidence.
- Thou shalt not plagiarize.
Notice there are NO rules about how many paragraphs or where counter claims should be or the use of transition words at the beginning of paragraphs.
Now they can start.
Have they been writing essays or parts of an essay all along? Yes. Did I call it an essay before? Not really. It was mind games! Years spent teaching, you learn when to not bring certain things up until they are ready and I got them ready. Their writing muscle is developed and still developing so for them to whip out multiple paragraphs by January is nothing for them. Is it always perfect? No but I have alleviated the gut reaction and broken down defenses students have built up over time as a writer. We see it in struggling readers too. Do you really think that kid acting up in class every time he has to read independently is because he is a bad kid or because he has built up a defense?!!
- For my demographics, I do not need to do a diagnostic essay in September to gauge their writing ability. Be real, we can typically weed out the strong writers from the not so strong within one paragraph.
- I do not do multiple choice assessments. I choose to do written response assessments. Yes, takes more work in the short run in terms of grading but long term value is there since they are still working on writing and responding to texts.
- I do thematic units which all end with a written response. The end of the first unit typically falls at the end of October so I scaffold that long response (AKA essay) with a sentence and paragraph frame.
- We are constantly working through the writing process and fine tuning bits of writing so quality over quantity reigns in my world.
- I always start with narrative writing but that’s a tip for another blog post.
This strategy has been very successful for me and my students. So successful that once they move past my classroom they bring what they know and have committed to memory to their next school year. Teachers tell me my students discuss and still use the methodologies I taught them. I even have students complaining, “Miss, can you believe Miss so and so is having us do a five paragraph essay but clearly there is not support for three points!” lol. I simply tell them to use the power of words to express to their teacher why a different lens to examine essay writing is needed. That’s what all this is about, right?
Power in words and power of words.