Image by Zazzle.com
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!
- Model Draft: When Music Offends Position Paper printable
- Writing paper and pencils
- Position Paper Rubric printable
- Optional: Computer and projector
- Optional: Lesson Three: Writing the Introduction of a Position Paper Presentation
- Make a class set of the Model Draft: When Music Offends Position Paper printable.
- Optional: Connect the projector to the computer and load the Lesson Three: Writing the Introduction of a Position Paper Presentation prior to class.
Step 1: As a warm-up activity, post the following essay leads on chart paper (or begin the Lesson Three: Writing the Introduction of a Position Paper Presentation).
- Lead 1: This essay is about whether or not potentially offensive CDs should carry warning labels. I am a music store owner and I think that they shouldn’t carry warning labels.
- Lead 2: Can you imagine going through the rest of your life being told what you can and cannot say? Music artists go through this type of anguish every time a "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" label is placed on one of their CDs.
- Lead 3: As a music store owner, I feel that it should not be mandatory for CDs to carry any type of warning labels.
Step 2: Ask students which lead they feel is best and why.
Step 3: Review with students the components of an effective position paper introduction. A Position Paper Introduction should:
- Capture the reader's attention. This can be done by posing a question, stating a relevant quote, making a strong statement, or using a statistic.
- State your thesis (the topic and your opinion on it from your chosen perspective).
- Introduce the main points to be discussed.
Step 4: Distribute the Model Draft: When Music Offends Position Paper printable to students and read the introduction aloud. Have students assess whether or not the model introduction contains all of the required components.
Step 5: Have students write the lead to their position papers.
Supporting All Learners
As students are working on their leads, you may need to place your struggling students and ELLs in a small group and provide more examples of attention grabbing statements to scaffold their writing.
Have students work in partnerships to assess each other's leads or entire introductory paragraphs.
Have students read their lead to a friend or family member in order to assess whether or not it is attention grabbing.
Students will complete their position paper introductory paragraph, referring to the model introduction and their class notes as they write.
Review student leads and assess whether or not they are Level 4 attention grabbers according to the Position Paper Rubric.
- Learn how to write a compelling introduction to a position paper
Review student leads and thesis statements to assure that all students have clearly stated their theses and have provided an attention grabbing leads. Re-teach if necessary.