In Chapter Three of my book New Realms for Writing (ISTE, 2019) I spend time addressing teaching essay writing. In the beginning of the chapter I write, “Essay writing is the foundation of secondary school. As much as I desire to focus on creative writing and diverse formats in my classroom, that is not the reality. My students are still working on literary essays throughout their schooling; learning and writing in a format that exists across content subjects, standardized tests, and throughout college. Students learn the five paragraph essay in order to articulate their thinking about their reading and showcase their understanding. How does one help students to do just that, while at the same time show original thinking about their reading, include textual evidence, maintain voice and individuality? Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, models and mentor texts, discussions, and scaffolds.”
State tests might be on hold during the pandemic but helping students with essay writing in a blended learning environment has not wavered. My students continue to write essays as well as creative writing pieces but the essay itself is like climbing Mt Kilimanjaro for many of my 8th graders. Whether it is formulating a thesis or claim or finding the strongest pieces of evidence to support their claims or thesis, writing an essay can be an arduous task. The more my students write and the more opportunities they have to practice collecting evidence and writing, they will grow as writers.
This year I created a guide book on Bookcreator.com for students to access written and video instructions, graphic organizers on how to tackle each part of the essay. Think of it like a collection of Flipped lesson on essay writing. You can view the book HERE.
Graphic organizers are great tools to help support student writing. When I create a graphic organizer I am thinking about where the students are at and what necessary scaffolds are needed to help them accomplish the writing task. In this graphic organizer students organize information about their reading — it helps students articulate their understanding and show the relationships between their thinking about a theme in the text. Some of my students might need a more modified organizer depending on their needs and accommodations. In this modified version of the graphic organizer I provide students with an evidence bank and adjust the essay format to three paragraphs versus a 4-5 paragraph essay. In addition to providing class time for students to write their essays and freeing up lessons on the writing process, I held writing conferences daily during class time, lunch time and after school.
Throughout the week I organized daily writing conferences with students. During the 6 minute conference time I would start by asking students “How’s it Going” — yes, this a line from Carl Anderson — a great lead into the conference. Then, I would ask students how I could help them, where they had questions or concerns. During the conference a student might read aloud their writing to me, ask me to read aloud a paragraph or help them to structure the conclusion without saying the same thing over and over again. This one-on-one time with students was beneficial for me because I was able to collect data on them as a writer and add notes in Powerschool. Writing conferences were beneficial the students because they were getting guidance and recommendations to make their writing stronger. Many students also worked with their peers for editing and feedback.
Writing is a life long skill. The more writing we allow students to do in our classroom, the stronger writers they become. Providing students with models, mentors, graphic organizers, sentence starters, and opportunities for revisions helps them grow and develop not only their writing skills, while at the same time build vocabulary, grammar, and language awareness when writing for academic purposes.
How do you support your students as writing to provide opportunities for growth? What are the writing lessons that you have found ageless in a blended learning environment? Share your ideas in the comments section of this blog.