From Paragraph to Essay

ry=400For some students, producing a paragraph of writing is a struggle—for the student and the teacher. The mere mention of essay writing so overwhelms these students that they won’t even start. For teachers, essay writing inevitably means hours of work at night and on the weekends. And if the writing isn’t particularly engaging, that work can be drudgery.

One way to get those pens moving or fingers typing is what one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, calls the “bird-by-bird” strategy.  I call it the “Piecemeal Method.” The students write the essay one paragraph at a time, and the teacher responds to it in the same way. It’s easy on both parties.

On Monday, after a prewriting warm-up, I have the students write the first paragraph, the introduction. And believe me, when I say “warm-up,” I mean both their warming up to the idea of writing as much as I mean any prewriting strategy I might use (like making lists, webbing, outlining, etc.).

I give each student a folder for their pre-writing ideas and then collect the folders along with the introductions. Many times, students who are challenged to write essays are the same ones who stuff loose papers into their notebooks, tuck English work into science texts, or lose their work in the recesses of their lockers. I solve that problem by keeping the folders in the room.

That night, I read the introductions, making whatever corrections or suggestions for revision I think are necessary on the papers. I hand the introductions back on Tuesday along with the folders.

Then I have the students write the first support paragraph. I collect the lot, read them that night and make my marks, and return them all the next day.

On Wednesday,  the students write the second support paragraph. Once again, I collect their work, and before I even go home from school, I go through those paragraphs, making my corrections. It’s relatively easy to read a stack of paragraphs, I have found, whereas reading a whole stack of essays is daunting. Teachers aren’t any different from students!

I repeat the process on Thursday for the last paragraph of support, and on Friday, the students write their conclusions. On the following Monday, when I hand back the conclusions and the folders, students will have an entire essay.

Now they can rewrite their essays, in ink or at the computer, making the corrections and revisions I suggested along the way. If they’re homework-averse individuals (and most are these days!), I can set aside class time for this final draft.

Of course, I could go farther before they make their last revisions.  I could present a mini-lesson on transitions and ask the students to use words like first, second, third (for beginners) or later, while, since, occasionally, moreover, consequently and so forth (for more experienced writers) between paragraphs. I could teach them how to use Word’s grammar checker if they don’t already know. I could work on identifying weak or clichéd words and expressions and replacing the limp language with strong action verbs, vivid adjectives, and specific nouns. I could do a review on semi-colons, for example, and ask them to find a couple of places in their essays where they could use a semicolon instead of a comma and a coordinating conjunction. I can’t—and shouldn’t—do it all. “All” will overwhelm the students, and they’re bored with the topic by this time anyway. I choose what seems most important for them to learn or do–and that can vary from year to year and from class to class. And, if the needs aren’t universal, I can differentiate by focusing on the different challenges of individuals or groups of kids.

The grading rubric I construct is simple. I might score for organization, length, grammar and punctuation, sentence structure. The kids usually do well, now that they’ve had a chance to revise. I’ve already marked the paper for surface error, made suggestions for elaboration, crossed out redundancies, suggested places where they could combine sentences, and facilitated improvement in any number of other ways.

As long as they’ve written a paragraph a day, the chances are good that most of the papers will meet my standard for organization and length. The same with grammar and punctuation. It’s likely that the most egregious mechanical errors have been eliminated, thanks to the pre-assessment suggestions I made and the grammar checker the students utilized at the end. Sentence structure may be a place some students will fall short, but overall, they won’t do badly.

This is a “feel good” approach to writing an essay, and it works with middle-schoolers who are just learning the structure of a five-paragraph theme and seniors who are still dragging their heels about writing anything. It isn’t going to elicit charming, eloquent, or fluid writing, but it will produce serviceable prose. Students will score better than average for a change and feel good about their ability to produce a lengthy piece of writing.

And I’ve graded it all in less time than usual (or it will feel like less time!) and ended up with better results. A win-win for everyone!

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