Imagine you’ve bought a new house, but it’s a “fixer-upper.” The plumbing is ancient, the back stairs are deadly and the paint is peeling. You’ve got a plan to make this work, though: First, replace those stairs. Then, address the plumbing. Maybe two months later you’ll paint the first floor a delicious color called “mocha java chip.” As strange as it sounds, this is a lot like one method of teaching writing. We call this method the “fixer-upper.”
In this scenario, which isn’t ideal, your students are expected to write a five-paragraph, on-grade-level essay at the beginning of the year, ready or not. So, you scaffold or modify a lot, focus on a few select skills and, wallah! they’ve written an essay in two weeks. If we think of each element of the essay as a room in the fixer-upper, we know we can’t fix every room at the same time, or teach every writing skill during the first essay. So we select one room, or skill, we really want to focus on and start there. As the year progresses, we work on other rooms, or teach other skills. With this method, students have written several five-paragraph essays and mastered a variety of skills by the end of the year.
This method is in contrast to the “Evolution Method” of teaching writing. In that style, which Rob and I prefer, the writing assignments evolve over the course of the year from one-paragraph, one-skill assignments to five-paragraph, multiple-skill essays. But you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt, and that often means starting the year writing full-length essays. There are a variety of reasons for this that are out of a teacher’s control – curricular demands, time constraints, team decisions, etc. – but there are things you do control, and that is how you teach within these parameters.
Rob and I are using the “fixer-upper” method this year. Currently our students are writing an argument essay about Lyddie, a historical fiction novel about the factory girls of the 1840s. This is the second five-paragraph essay of the year. Before crafting any of the writing lessons, Rob and I sat down and we discussed the skills we wanted kids to master in this five paragraph essay and which skills we would scaffold and teach in more detail with a subsequent essay. Below are the skills we wanted to focus on versus the skills we wanted to de-prioritize and scaffold, but still address.
|Skills we’ll teach and expect kids to master||Skills we’ll scaffold and expect kids to practice|
|Writing context for quotes||Collecting evidence|
|Writing explanations for quotes||Sorting evidence into pro/con categories and picking a side|
|Sorting evidence into reasons|
In the next article, I’ll show how Rob and I used the “fixer-upper” method to teach our most recent essay.