Having kids write essays can feel like pushing a boulder up a mountain with a piano on your back. (Even Sisyphus didn’t have it this hard.) Part of what makes teaching writing so difficult is that it requires a lot of time, differentiation and spiraling.
When teaching writing, one mistake I’ve made is to emphasize every skill with every writing assignment. I used to feel that a writing assignment wasn’t authentic or rigorous if students didn’t produce every single element of a complete, grade-level essay – even on the very first assignment of the year. So, I’d spend the first weeks or months of the year teaching tons of lessons on how to write every component of an essay. By the end, students had so many lessons and strategies floating in their heads that they couldn’t remember what the essay was supposed to be about. Even worse, each writing assignment would take weeks, and by the end of the year, students would actually complete very little writing.
Instead, I’ve achieved better results by starting the year with a lot of short writing assignments that focus on a couple skills and strategies that I want the kids to master. Then we repeat, repeat, add another skill, and repeat. As the year progresses, I make the writing assignments longer, keep layering skills and begin removing scaffolds. With this process, kids are writing complete, grade-level essays by the end of the year by themselves.
This method of teaching writing is an evolution. Think of the first writing assignment of the year as a primate. Perhaps this assignment is one paragraph with a question prompt. Later assignments evolve into a neanderthal – a paragraph with multiple supporting quotes. And by the end of the year, the evolution is complete: a five paragraph essay with all the trimmings — the homo sapien of writing assignments. In this method, each assignment builds on the previous assignment, adding in new skills to make the writing more complex.
After years of experimenting with different methods of writing, this is the method that Rob and I have found to be most successful. In future posts, we’ll delve more deeply into:
- how to backwards plan from the beginning of the year
- how to order the skills that you’ll be focusing on
- how to spiral assignments
- how to embed a variety scaffolds
- how to know when you should remove scaffolds
- how to balance using writing as a check for understanding versus using assignments as a way to teach writing
Based on different curriculum demands, Rob and I also recognize that you can’t always use the Evolution of Writing method. As such, we’ll also address some of the other methods that you can use.