How to Do an Essay Workshop for Struggling Writers
Real Moments, Real Scaffolding
I would like to take a second to pause out of all of the hustle and bustle of testing and the end of the month of May to realize that it is really, the end of the month of May. I have spent 9 months with my students. Thinking back about accomplishments, it is easy to see how far they have come. Then, I do what all teachers do, and I focus on what they don't know. My missteps, my come-up-shorts, my "yes, you tried, but you didn't quite make it" mentality. This is the ugly stepsister of make-up or catch-up growth: Realizing you still have a long way to go.
I think the cycle of blame is priceless. We get into the mindset that it is because students came with a deficit at some point. They are not lacking anything besides necessary instruction. My general English 6th-grade students came in this year still working on mechanics like capitals, periods, and complete sentences. Where is the disconnect when I am teaching their same-age counterparts in advanced classes how to structure an MLA formatted research paper?
Achievement Gap? Meet frustration.
However, we don't have time to be frustrated. Cue the last essay project my students will write this year where they take an older project from the beginning of the year and revise it using the skills they have obtained this school year...with some help. I like to scaffold the last essay project just to give them the added lift-off before seventh grade.
I provided the same prompt, the same articles, and the same videos used in the fall. They got the exact same assignment. However, we walked through it together. I provided them space to view the videos independently, and on the articles, I had already pre-underlined quotations that they could use for the PRO or CON side of their argument. This eliminated the pesky, "I don't know how to pick a quotation from all of this text" predicament (PS I am always looking for resources on teaching students to pull quotations from a text).
The plan was to provide a three-day essay workshop approach where students took guided notes with me, had time to plan out essay, refreshed memories on inserting evidence into written text, and then, of course, had drafting time. Here is each day broken down with pictures and step-by-step lesson notes:
Day 1: Notes/Planning
Day 1 is and will always be my favorite day. For this project, they took an essay they have already attempted, and they were revising and editing it at the end of the year. I love this day because the first pull is to have them open a document they haven't seen in a long time. You could also do this activity without the aide of technology, but it is extremely helpful having the document on file for submission and resubmission. Many struggling writers get held up about the length. They might say, "I didn't write anything!" Reward this thought because they are demonstrating that they recognize their papers don't have support or enough reasons. They many not be able to articulate this even if they make this awesome oversation.
We started with a focused writing or focused reading warm-up. Then, we move into notes. Students took guided notes of an overview of the assignment.
Day 2: Evidence Pulling/Sentence Starters
After the foundation was set regarding the outline of the essay, and students were given time to review articles and videos, I like to show them how I pulled quotations out of an article. I gave them sample quotations that I underlined in the articles and let them choose which quotation helped them understand their side of the argument, Pro or Con. This is a great approach if you are struggling to get kids to find quotations from articles-an often missed step. They don't know how to "pull quotations" because they are deliberately shown most of the time. The gradual release from teacher to the student can seem like a mile-long jump to a struggling writer. I like to demonstrate the task, and then I ask them to choose their quotations. Example: I am against this idea. They look at the underlined text and hear me say, "This is a reason someone might say they don't agree with this idea." Lightbulb! Students can begin to see how to pull quotations for their own writing. You can also repeat this process with thinking about reading or literary elements.
I also like to show them this document to help them become independent writers:
Day 3: Drafting
On this day, I left them alone and circulated. They got participation points for drafting because the effort is still huge at this time period. Also, I allowed them to listen to music while they wrote. Side note: Learning the skill of trying to find your jam and also inserting evidence into your essay is a skill in and of itself.
I reminded them when they have questions to go back to their sentence starters and to go back to the article and the video clips to find their reasons for why they think the way they do. I always ask questions as the first line of defense when the hands go up needing help.
The areas I check before submission are:
Did you meet the minimum sentence length? (4 paragraphs X 5 sentences=20 sentences....you can't edit a blank page)
Did you check your capitals and periods?
Did you follow your outline?
Did you put your quotations in your body paragraphs? Use quotation marks?
Did you put your name on the document and include a proper header?
I also spot check with my eyes these three areas:
I look for a claim in the right setup at the end of the introduction.
I look for quotation marks. Quotation marks mean citing has happened.
I look at the general length to make sure they have enough material covered.
Alert! Struggling Writer Behaviors
My struggling writers often send up (both quietly and loudly) signal behaviors that they are stuck and do not know where to start in their writing. This can occur at any phase of the writing process, but I have found these three writing tendencies happen the most often in a writing workshop and can cause the blank stare of doom for my struggling writers.
I CAN'T START.
Often, my struggling writers don't have the words to start even if I tell them directly, "The hook is a question." Modeling is key here but also showing an example paper to students helps with understanding. For my students who remain stuck, I walk them through each step in the introduction process. For example:
How would you get somebody's attention about this?
What should they know about the argument?
What side did you choose?
Depending on the level of stuck, I may type for them. This helps them see that ideas get out of minds and on to the page. So often kids don't sound like them. We need them to understand the big thing about the idea trait of writing is that their ideas should match their own thinking.
I DON'T KNOW WHAT ELSE TO SAY.
This one is the reason why I made the sentence starter page above. My students often ask, "How am I supposed to make that a paragraph?" My thinking-emoji face goes on, and I ask, "How would you add detail to an essay about your opinion?" My hope is that they answer what I want them to think: Give reasons and support!
Students struggle with evidence and inserting citations. However, struggling writers struggling with the organization of ideas. You can't help students to focus on the idea of a parenthetical in-text citation if they don't understand that one reason goes in one paragraph. And then that paragraph has to include EVERYTHING for that reason. In my common growth assessment every single year, my students can grasp the concepts of evidence from the text (aka I know this because...) and a claim; however, the organization is something that I often pass them on to the next grade knowing that they needed more practice.
HOW DO I END IT?
I hate teaching conclusions because they drive me crazy. Ridiculous conclusive sentences that go something like this: "And these are the reasons for proving why I think blah, blah, blah" make. me. insane. However, students are taught from an early age that this is the proper method of concluding their thoughts. Restating their claim in the exact same manner. I actually made a kid pinky promise me that he would stop doing the doesn't-add-anything-to-my-paper conclusion sentence. I feel that strongly about it. However, kids need to know how to end their writing.
I love a good call-to-action in the conclusion. Some teachers I see put counter-claims in the conclusion. I like the idea of doing something with the information that has been presented. This concept makes sense to my struggling writers because they can relate to the idea of "why care" about a particular topic. This call-to-action leads to a naturally strong drop-the-mic as the last sentence.
Writing Mindset Reflection: What strategies do you use to reach struggling writers?