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Why Assignment Sheets Might Be Killing Your Students’ Writing

58090ec056811830ee936030edb1c9dbMy first year of teaching, I didn’t realize that the “five-paragraph essay” was a dirty phrase. My  internship year I painstakingly dragged my freshmen through the essay outlining process, watching them regurgitate homogeneous essays about symbolism in Lord of the Flies. At the end of our six-week study of the book, I slogged through 25 nearly identical essays, all of which had eloquent yet oddly familiar intro, body, and conclusion paragraphs. I’ll readily admit that despite the dull content, I felt victorious. My students had completed literary analysis essays and I had taught the foundation of essay structures.

It was that summer that my perception on structured essays changed. Two days into taking Penny Kittle’s writing course at the University of New Hampshire’s Literacy Institute, I realized that I had committed a cardinal sin of workshop teachers. Admitting to teaching the five-paragraph essay (let alone the sandwich method of paragraph-writing) was like confessing to enjoying McDonald’s burgers at an elegant chophouse: the cut (or concoction) of meat might serve the same purpose, to fill me up, but the quality was quite different. In turn, I was feeding my students homogeneous writing, a detailed equation to a subject that couldn’t be distilled down to simple mathematics. If I expected greatness, I needed to break beyond the boundaries of such a restrictive form of writing. After all, an introduction + body paragraphs + conclusion didn’t guarantee a solid essay; if anything, it guaranteed an entirely unspectacular essay.

This process of digesting the material and then providing a summary of the structure was far too easy for students. Not only did it place the onus on me to provide a set guide of instructions, but it also required me to complete the majority of analysis. Instead of my students engaging with the text and delving into the intricacies of structure and craft through individual exploration and group discussions, I was basically pre-digesting the material before offering it to them.

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Students analyzing an author’s craft in front of the class.

This year I have made a point to wean my students, particularly my juniors and seniors, off the assignment outlines they so desperately desire. Instead, my students now receive a half-page sheet simply telling them the type of essay they are writing (cause and effect, definition, personal narrative, etc.), the mentor texts they may refer back to, the page length requirement, and the due date.

Initially, they were frustrated with this format. As one student said during our career building unit in which we practiced writing cover letters and resumes for celebrities, “Ms. Catcher, do you have an assignment sheet for this or something?” When I pointed out the paper I had given to him previously, he replied, “No, I mean something that tells me how to write this paper.” We discussed the numerous mentor texts we had read and dissected and how these as well as our class discussions ultimately provided the basis we to develop our pieces. As a class, we asked questions of the text and author, starting broad by looking at the overall tone, voice, structure, intended audience, and progression of the piece. Then, independently or within small groups, we delved into more of the intricacies—what examples were provided, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, and transitions. Students have gradually learned that there is no set solution for getting an A, which also means that they are forced to read and reread mentor texts to gain a firm understanding of a piece’s intricacies.

My problem from the beginning was that I was too busy telling my students how to write an essay to allow them to discover the messy albeit enlightening connection between reading, writing, and modeling. As we complete the last six weeks of school, I have noticed a significant difference in the structure and craft of my students’ work. They are relying more readily on mentors to help guide them in their process, and I can see both their group and independent analysis directly translate into their writing. For the past three years, I have harped on my students about showing rather than telling, but as the year comes to a close, I can finally say that I have internalized my own advice when it comes to my teaching.

How do you inspire students to rely on mentor texts instead of assignment sheets?  What steps have you taken throughout the year to make them more independent and confident writers?

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