For eight years, I assigned an essay each week to my Middle School students. Many students have told me that the weekly essay was one of the most useful exercises that they did in school. Here I describe the essay program as it was in my brick and mortar classroom. This year, I moved the whole program online as part of a home-school program. It was an easy transition, and the program is working well!
My goal is to make all expectations clear and part of a routine. If the details are predictable, we can spend time and energy on the interesting things — what the kids are thinking about and creating. I do not want the kids distracted by schedule variations and uncertainty. They know that every Monday they get an assignment and every Wednesday a solid draft is due. On Thursday morning, they will get their essays returned with comments, and on Friday, a corrected draft is due. The students’ parents help them structure a regular time in their week when they work on their essay and respond to my comments. The predictable structure creates room for the students to work on their craft.
A clear and consistent format for the essay
This is, in every way except the free choice of essay content, an old-fashioned curriculum. The essay follows the standard form for a five paragraph essay, with a thesis and a content map in the introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. While this may not be the best recipe for engaging writing, this assignment is as much an exercise in organizing thoughts as it is a writing exercise. Read Think Write has a user-friendly organizational tool for essay-writing that we used a lot in the beginning of the year. You can find this tool here.
Predictable comments from me
I make thoughtful choices when editing and returning the drafts. Rather than written notes, I use voice comments, which are much more effective at conveying tone and nuance (especially with children). I record my voice comments on the essay, and the students are able to hear the comments when they re-open the document. If the essay is weakened by careless errors, I send it back with a playful but honest recording of my voice telling them to proofread their work. When I have a paper that seems to represent a decent effort, I don’t mark every error – only those that I think the student should know already, or is capable of learning in the next week. Then, I pick one or two new grammatical concepts for the student to work on. When they need a review of grammar, I often send my students to the Purdue Writing Lab, which is full of exercises and information.
I also use examples of their work in the WizIQ classroom. I place on the white board samples of strong thesis statements, interesting uses of words, and well written paragraphs. I point out what they are doing correctly, and help them see areas where they can improve. Each week I include a small essay lesson related to what I see are some of the needs of the students. For example, I might remind the students to write relevant titles, instead of ”Essay Number 7.” Or, I might give them a lesson on using quotation marks. None of the teaching feels forced: the kids are writing about topics that are interesting to them, and I am simply coaching them along the way.
But, what shall we write about?
Here is where things get interesting. Every Monday, I introduce an essay topic in the WizIQ classroom. Often, the assignment is related to the topic that we are studying for the year. Sometimes, it is inspired by a book that they have just read or something that is happening in the news. Other times it is just plain goofy. The goal is for the students to be able, eventually, to choose their own topic and research it, thus writing their weekly essay about something they really care about. One year I had a student who wrote almost every essay on a specific aspect of the Parelli method of horse training. Another wrote 10 essays about the Supreme Court. I do not care what the writing is about, as long as it follows the assigned form and shows improvement in grammar and structure.
Keeping the students organized
Every couple of months, I have the students organize all of their essays into one document, so that they can see the progress they have made. The students also keep a log, in which they list all of the grammar and punctuation rules they have learned.
Comments and observations from this year’s students include:
The more you write the easier it gets.
I use to hate writing. Now I think it is all right.
It is easier if you capitalize when you need to capitalize, instead of afterward.
My students are, without exception, writing more than they did before registering for this program. They are gaining confidence in the form and in their ability to complete a significant piece of writing by themselves. What more could I hope for them?