After years of WASL/MSP/HSBE and self-based writing, we are struggling to work with 7th graders who haven’t been expected to write with evidence. My team and I have been teaching students to answer, use quotes, and explain their thinking in reading responses, but not all the earlier grades had up to this point, and we hadn’t been using this skill in writing essays. Now, we are thinking, how do we get them to transfer what we know they can do in short reading responses to larger, and much more complex, essays using multiple sources.
The first step, of course, is to get them to try it, understand what it’s like, and struggle with it. We worked with our social studies team to do the Causes of Conflict CBA as a history and English joint venture. They read the sources, took notes, and did close reading in social studies, and we worked on the pre-write and essay writing in English class. It was pretty terrible. Not the working with the other team experience, that was good and with more practice + coordination will be great, but the essays were terrible. Of course there are the shining stars that always do wonders, but we were mostly disappointed. Here are some steps we took before the next essay and re-writes.
Step One: Exemplars and Coding
One of the primary struggles in the students’ writing was flow and quote integration, as well as balanced fact and explanation/thinking. We read through a few good examples from students and then we color-coded the different parts of an exemplar essay. Red = claim connections. Blue = explanation and elaboration. Purple = transitions/linking words. Yellow = quotes/facts. Green = citations. We wanted students to visually see how good writing flows back and forth, weaving all the pieces together.
Step Two: Non-Examples
Next we decided that we should target a few areas that we saw struggles with in many of our essays. My team chose student examples that could help us focus on adding citations, adding elaboration and transitions, and some editing practice with quotes. We went through the color-coding process as a discussion with the students. What color would this be? What is missing? How is it unbalanced?
The first example, adding citations, seemed like it was mostly opinion, but when we looked more closely the students realized that the writer was using facts, they just were phrased as personal ideas and weren’t cited. The students concluded that the writer showed good thinking, but they needed to cite the sources and use some more specific quotes. We made margin notes as a class and on the individual papers to keep as reference.
On the next non-example we looked a piece that had many cited facts, but was lacking cohesion and explanation. Again we went through the color-coding discussion and this time we added some comments and questions in the margins before the students made corrections in their groups. The revised paragraph was drastically improved in the students’ opinions, not just mine, and it took minimal revising. We wanted to emphasize to the students “on the bubble,” or who are there with the thinking but lacking the craft, that small, intentional changes can make a big impact.
Our final non-example was for editing purposes. We chose a piece that had areas where we saw repeated errors in students’ essays. Students edited in their groups and we discussed the changes as a class, adding corrections to the class copy.
Step Three: A New Organizer
One of the problems we found was a bad pre-writing organizer. We had combined a note-taking and organizing tool for the students to use, but it failed. Plain and simple failure. What we didn’t think about it is that our students had so little essay writing experience, and definitely with such a cognitively challenging task, that they needed more help with organization.
For the next essay, and our rewrites, we structured a pre-write/outline tool that would help lead them to good organization. Whether you like concrete details and commentary, or CER, or ACES, or CLEAR, or whatever works for you and your school, giving the kids a clear structure really helps. We found that our next batch of essays was improved and, while there are always kids who won’t follow directions, the students who tried to follow along got much better scores.
This is the reading format that we use and have incorporated into our essay paragraphs: Answer/Reason ->Quote ->Explain/Elaborate ->Quote ->Explain/Elaborate ->Connect
I am more than happy to share any insight or materials I and my team have come up with. Please contact me if you think I can help!
In my non-teacher consumed hours I love to spend time with my husband and son, play board games, sew/craft/quilt, and read (I DO teach ELA).I aspire to be more into fitness and outdoors more often, though I find a comfy chair and a good book/movie mightily appealing.