So, I have been thinking about how to help students write effective analytical essays for what seems like forever. Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? The goals are certainly different at different ages; what I expected in 5th grade was different from what I expected in 9th and what I look for in 12th. However, I still see the same old divide between those papers that are about the book (effective summaries) and papers that are about an idea that is discussed by way of the book. Really what it comes down to is how do I move the book report writers into the analytical writers’ camp. Is there a magic wand, pen, saying? Would bribing them with s’mores do the trick? Seriously, I would do whatever it takes.
I’ve been talking with colleagues about this, going to summer workshops, thinking of new and not new ideas. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to go back to what I know worked in 5th grade. I don’t say this in a mean way or to be insulting. But, for the students who have not found their way to the analytical camp on their own, how can I check in earlier, before they head off down that long, boring summary road.
So what do I know?
In 5th grade I never let students start writing without an approved plan of some sort. As the year progressed, I knew who was ok without a detailed plan and who was not. So there might be students whom I let start writing with what was a very brief plan; however, they were students who had proven themselves to be on the analytical path, which in 5th grade is more like the “having an opinion” path.
In 5th grade I had students do physical things to identify different sentences in a paper. So, I might read aloud a paragraph. One side of the room would stand when the sentence was a retelling or summary sentence. One side would stand if it was the writer’s opinion (which is what analysis starts as in lower school). This turned out to be one of the most effective tactics in helping students even understand what I meant by summary or opinion sentence.
In 5th grade we sometimes wrote papers a paragraph at a time and “discovered” that this might actually be an essay with a bit of introduction and conclusion added to the paragraphs. Sneaking up on the essay was not a bad strategy. Everybody could write a paragraph on Karana’s friendship with Rontu (Island of the Blue Dolphins is still a winner), a paragraph on her friendship with the birds. Oh, look it seems like we are writing about her friendships. Hmmm. What could we say about the community she has or has created? Seems like that would be an interesting conclusion. While we’re adding things, let’s just introduce the book at the beginning. Tada, essay!
In 5th grade I learned that writing gets better writing. It’s like babies and sleep–good naps lead to good betimes, overly tired kids fight sleep. I learned, and was reminded of this fact at my summer workshop this past summer, that I did not need to edit everything, give extensive comments, and have students write many drafts of every assignment. We need to do some of that. We also just need to write. A lot. That is how my class’ blog was born, oh so many years ago
Now, how to take these lessons to some 12th graders.
Plans are totally doable. Shame on me for not making students be more intentional here. Some do a quick list of big point and sub-points and I can tell they are all set. No need to force the issue. However, for those who have proved that they are summarizers, I need to be more forceful. They may be 12th graders, but if I see they need the scaffolding, I should be providing more of it, even students don’t like it.
Standing up and sitting down in class to identify parts of the essay, probably not going to work with high schoolers. However, for those who are not getting to the analysis, insisting that their rough draft have analytical sentences highlighted, totally doable. Again, it is about me insisting.
Sneaky papers. This one I think I might be able to do next semester. I had forgotten about it, but I think it has potential. Again, there are going to be those who do not need this support, and I will need to think about whether everyone does it anyway or some folks do something else. I have time on this one since my current class ends mid-January and I won’t have time to do everything between now and then, but I’m definitely going to move this to a front burner item.
Just writing. I’ve been really trying to do this. My summer workshop reminded me of and reaffirmed my belief in this strategy in addition to convincing me that it would work in high school. My class has been doing a lot of short writing in online forums, in class, wherever. On the recent reflections that the students wrote, many commented on the amount of writing, not always in a complementary way, but many of those same students also said they felt more confident in their writing.
Now if I could just go back to not having to give letter grades, that would be great.