Brainstorming and Organizing a Weekly Essay

I teach middle school students and have had quite a lot of joyful success with my method for teaching the five paragraph essay. My students write an essay each week all year long. Inevitably, they say it was the most useful thing they learned to do in my class. This year, I am taking the program online and have been trying to figure out how to best teach this program in an online format.

The Weekly Essay: An Overview

I use a fairly standard idea with a light and fun approach. The students and I brainstorm and develop a thesis and an outline on Monday. They work on a draft and show it to me on Tuesday. They edit the draft and turn it in, with their editing marks, on Wednesday. On Thursday, we discuss their grammar and on Friday, they turn in the final draft. Everyone knows what is expected of them every day. Within this structure, there is unlimited space for play and exploration.

Brainstorming: How it Works in my Brick and Mortar Classroom

At the beginning of the year, when the students are still learning the form of the essay, I am especially careful to keep the topics easy and non-threatening. I want the topic to be something that any student can participate in. We explore ideas such as “Why cake is awesome,” and “Why my parents should let me get a new puppy.” Sometimes, we have heated debates about which make better pets–dogs or cats. I encourage silliness and let the kids be playful. I want to convey to them the notion that writing is an opportunity to have fun and make ourselves laugh. As the essays are so silly, kids do not get stressed. I never hear “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have anything to say.” They easily get to work, and by the end of the year, the grammar, organization and tone all come into place.

Usually, the students and I brainstorm a topic together on Monday and formulate a thesis statement together. We then discuss several examples and reasons that go along with the topic. I often write an outline and a sample introductory paragraph with the students and then the students write another one by themselves. I encourage them to use their own ideas, but I also let them know that they are welcome to use the ideas on the board if they would like to.

Let’s take, as an example, the question, “What makes unicorns cry?” I would ask the class to call out reasons that a unicorn might cry, and I would probably get a list that looks like this:

-When someone’s dog dies

-When parents do not let their kids eat all of the chocolate ice cream

-When people call each other names

-When my little brother breaks my favorite toy

-When people do not play with other people

-When someone tries to cut off their wings

I will then work with the students to try to categorize these ideas. We would create three categories, such as “Things that just happen as a part of life,” “Things that happen when someone else is being mean,” and “Things that happen when a child’s joy is limited.” Each of these categories becomes one of the paragraphs of the body of the essay. The kids then can add more details to each of these ideas. I would rearrange everything on the white board into three boxes and then write a paragraph that was something like this:

Unicorns are fragile and sensitive creatures and are easily hurt by the sadness of others. Unicorns might cry when sad things happen to others, when people are mean to each other, or when limits are placed upon a child’s joy.

It absolutely does not matter that every bit of this is totally nonsensical.

What this could look like on WizIQ

I would introduce the idea by live video and encourage the kids to think about it for a few minutes before they started typing into the chat box. This would slow down the impulsive kids, while helping the kids who need a few extra moments. The students could then type possible ideas into the chat box, and I could put up most of them on the whiteboard. I would stop when we had 8 or 10 reasons. It would be easy to organize them into categories on the whiteboard. I would then instruct the students to create their own outline and they would be ready to write their essay!


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.

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