When I tried to prevent students from failing their second essay…

One thing I have learned this past semester: teaching writing is difficult. It’s easy enough to get students to write a paragraph or two on a given topic, but to get them to write a coherent five paragraph essay is like herding cats. Since the start of my teaching career in 2013, I have been getting my students to write more, but rarely did essays.

This changed when two fantastic things occurred. First, the English department at my school began Writing Across All Disciplines, a program where the English teachers helped support other departments by providing training, outline formats, a common writing rubric, etc. At about the same time I attended a training for DBQs (Document Based Questions), where students read and analyze primary or secondary sources and then write an essay that answers an overarching question. Both of these programs helped encourage me and the rest of the social science department to incorporate more writing into our curriculum.

At the start of this school year, we hit the ground running by incorporating more reading, writing, and, most of all, critical thinking. Overall, my juniors adjusted well to this new curriculum since I had tested it out with them last year, but the sophomores initially did not. With the first essay of the semester (Was the Reign of Terror Justified? Mini-Q), the average score on the essay was 48% for my sophomores. Many of these scores resulted from students not turning in the essay properly on Google Classroom or not understanding the overall question; students struggled with the term ‘justification’. Despite these possible explanations, I reflected on the entire lesson and considered that I may have not provided enough structure during the writing process. I spoke with other English teachers, especially the department head, and realized that I could not simply tell my students to write without clear and attainable goals.

Instead of avoiding it, I chose to have my sophomores write another essay to help support them for the upcoming CAHSEE and for me to try out a new structure for my students’ writing. We did the Mini-Q packet titled “What were the Driving Forces behind European Imperialism in Africa?” as we usually did. The difference came to the actual writing of the paper.

One change I made was extending the writing process from two days to five days. It seemed like an excessive amount of time for students to write, but this came at the English department’s recommendation. This extended amount of time also gave me the opportunity to have students participate in two or three rounds of Peer Evaluations, where they read and graded each other’s papers.

Another change I made was setting short term goals for my students. With the Reign of Terror essay, I set a daily goal, such as “By the end of today, you should finish your introduction and first body paragraph”. The second time around I set a goal for every ten or fifteen minute goals. Since the English department has a common writing format, I based these goals on that structure. For example, “When the timer goes off in ten minutes you should have completed your hook statement and begin working on your background information” or “You should be finishing up your analysis and starting your closing statement when the timer goes off”. I added another element of accountability by stopping and having either the student or their partner proofread their work so far or stopping to brainstorm ideas for the next portion of their essay.

To me, this particular change seemed incredibly controlling and I worried that this overbearing structure would not work well. Many of my students did work faster or slower than the pace I set, but the majority of my students seemed to benefit from it. With frequent warnings and timers, unfocused students got back on track and knew every few minutes what they should be doing.

A final change I made was not sitting at my desk and monitoring their writing from Google Classroom. While I do love the ability to monitor student work in real time and used it to get an idea overall where students were at, students seemed to respond better to having me walk around and give verbal feedback. I have found that many students will mark my comments as resolved without actually making the corrections. Hopefully as my students get use to using Chromebooks, they will adjust to digital feedback rather as well as verbal, but for the time being I decided to do what was best for the students.

In the end, my student scores improved significantly; the average score on the European Imperialism essay was 69%. While it is a D+ and not passing, the drastic jump from the first essay score of 48% was something that my students and I were very proud of. I also noticed that more students had a strong and controlling closed three part thesis, which was proven throughout the entire paper; a weakness in the previous paper. I also noticed less grammatical mistakes and less “drift” that can happen as an essay progresses.

While I did not prevent every student from failing their Imperialism essay(is that possible while also keeping students accountable and learning?), the changes I made to my classroom structure did help to support my sophomore students and encourage higher scores. I’m eager for next semester to have my students write another paper so that I can improve upon my classroom structure even more and hopefully see another increase in scores.


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