December 15, 2023

A Less Painful Essay Writing Process: Part 1 Pre-writing

Much of making the essay process less painful is getting off to a good start. Here is what I do during the prewriting stage to to help my students.

This is my fifth year teaching text dependent analysis writing to sixth graders, otherwise known as a literary analysis essay, and I’ve gotten to the point where it is a pretty painless process. 

It wasn’t aways that way. Students struggled with brainstorming examples and identifying text evidence. I struggled to teach writing skills as explicitly as students needed them to be taught. As a former high school teacher moving down to middle school, I didn’t always have accurate expectations of students’ writing capabilities. Students needed more support, more structure, more examples.

Much of making the essay process less painful is getting off to a good start. Here are a few things I do during the prewriting stage to make the essay process smoother for myself and my students.

1. Brainstorm Along The Way

If you are planning on culminating the reading of a text with an essay, don’t wait until students are finished reading to decide on a prompt and have them start brainstorming. For example, if the essay will focus on character development, take time throughout reading the book to have students identify character traits the character is displaying and text evidence to support those traits. 

As a culminating essay after reading Pax by Sara Pennypacker, my students write about how the conflict in the novel helps to develop the theme. After we’ve read about a third of the book, I assign each student a page range to look back at to see how the conflict is playing out. Students write a one sentence summary of what is happening in that part of the novel and then record text evidence and a page number, all on a large sticky note.

Much of making the essay process less painful is getting off to a good start. Here is what I do during the prewriting stage to to help my students.

Students post their sticky note on a grid on the board (their square has their name and page number range) so I can quickly check everyone’s at once. If needed, I can pull a small group of students who are struggling to find text evidence. These sticky notes are collected and saved for later in the essay writing process. 

We repeat this evidence collection process once or twice throughout reading so that when students are ready to write they already have text evidence picked out and are not struggling to remember what happened earlier in the book. I have also reviewed all of this text evidence which eliminates the issue of irrelevant text evidence being included in their essays.

2. Crowd Source Evidence

While collecting evidence throughout reading is helpful, allowing students to share the evidence they’ve found with peers is just as helpful, especially for students who might have been absent or if students’ essays will require more text evidence than what they’ve collected during reading.

To allow students’ to share their evidence with each other, you could do a “give one, get one” activity where students pair up, share their evidence with each other, then find a new partner and repeat the process as many times as needed. Students could then select the best evidence from everything they’ve collected. 

I usually use technology to allow all students to share with all students. In the past I’ve used the collaboration board feature in Nearpod to have students post their evidence for their classmates to view and choose from. Since students couldn’t view what was posted after we moved on in the Nearpod (or at least I couldn’t figure out how they could do that), I just took screenshots of the collaboration boards and posted those on Google Classroom for later reference. 

This year I used Padlet for the same purpose, but I didn’t need to take screenshots or post anything else because Padlet is just a “bulletin board” not part of a larger interactive lesson. Padlet let me delete posts as needed and I could also turn off editing capabilities if I didn’t want students to add anything else to it. 

3. Limit Students’ Choices

Most of the time, I am all about offering students as many choices as possible, whether it is a choice of six novels during literature circles or a choice of three creative options for an end of novel project, but when it comes to essay writing I’ve learned that less is better. 

For example, if students are writing about how the theme of the novel is revealed through the conflict the main character faces, develop a theme together rather than allowing each student to develop their own. If students are writing about how the setting impacts characters’ ability to survive, have students all select the same character. 

Much of making the essay process less painful is getting off to a good start. Here is what I do during the prewriting stage to to help my students.

As students’ writing skills grow stronger, you can begin to offer more choices in essay writing, but if students are all writing on a similar topic, it is much easier to build up your supports (i.e. having preselected page numbers for students to look at for evidence) and for students to help each other. The activities described above, brainstorming along the way and crowd sourcing evidence, work much better if students are all writing about the same thing.

You can find the resources I use during the essay writing process with my students here.

Read on for part 2 in this series of blog posts here

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