Saturday, March 14, 2015

So Many Essays, and How to Write Them

For some reason, January and February are THE months in which, if you want to hold an essay contest for children, you hold that contest. The two essay contests that Will entered for Black History Month make sense, but she also participated in a Hoosier Heroines essay contest, and both kids participated in a human rights essay contest. For Will, that was FOUR big essays in two months!

If she wasn't comfortable belting out a research essay before (and she wasn't), she is comfortable belting out a research essay now! She's not happy about it, necessarily, but she does have the procedure down pat.

Here's how I break down these big essay assignments into manageable chunks:

DAY 1: Brainstorm your topic.

The child reads the essay prompt, highlighting the important information. We then review that prompt together, so that I can make sure that the child notices each requirement for the prompt, and what her essay should include.

If there is a choice of topics, the child will go online or to an encyclopedia and briefly research each topic. She should take into account her preferences, but also how well each topic could be made to meet the requirements of the prompt. She should make notes as she goes.

If the prompt requires creative writing rather than research, I might write a brainstorming sheet myself or pull one off of the internet to help the child organize her thoughts. I always require her, in this case, to brainstorm at least three ideas, so that she has some choice.

Many fits are thrown on this day, because kids see the entire process as overwhelming. It's very important, therefore, to not cave in; this step, like all the steps, does require focus, and it can be time-consuming, if the essay prompt offers lots of options, but it's not difficult, and kids absolutely must see that, which they only will if they complete this step. After this step, you can remind them during all the other steps that each step alone is not difficult, and the big result will come from adding each small step to the previous one.

DAY 2: Research your topic.

First, the kid should reread the essay prompt and any brainstorming notes that she wrote about her chosen topic.

Let's go to the library! I do some sneaky pre-research for this step, both so I can recall books if they're checked out, and so I can have some expectations of what the child will find. I also flip through the subscription websites that I have access to, places like Britannica for Kids or Discovery Education Streaming, so that I can point those sites out to the kid if there's anything useful that they could find there.

This day actually can be a little tricky--some of the essay topics for the contests that Will entered this year were really obscure; she couldn't simply check out a library book on Anthony "Kapel" Van Jones, for instance, and she had a hell of a time finding a "Hoosier" heroine. Also, nobody has written much kid-level information about Historically Black Colleges and Universities. For those, especially, my pre-research is essential--for Van Jones, I logged into our local university's Time Magazine subscription, and pointed Will to the Indiana Magazine of History archives for her Hoosier Heroines research, and to Britannica for Kids to start her HBCUs research.

I will let a child use Wikipedia for research--I mean, of course--but I will not let her only use Wikipedia for research.

Online articles should be printed, including the bibliographic information for the essay's Works Cited page, and relevant information highlighted. Printed materials can either be photocopied and highlighted, or the child can make notes on a separate page--Will loathes writing by hand, so she always photocopies and highlights:
This HBCUs essay was a bitch to write; Will had no choice but to slog through some difficult articles to get her information, because there's very little written for children on the topic.
This step can be split into two or even three days.

DAY 3: Write an outline.

Have the kid reread the essay prompt, and her brainstorming notes, and have her flip through or skim her research, rereading the highlighted passages and her notes.

The kid's outline should include headings for the introduction, each key point in the essay prompt, and the conclusion. Syd still really likes the visual nature of this sticky note outline, but for Will's longer essays, I usually let her dictate to me and watch as I type the information in outline-form in Microsoft Word--she's quick to point out any grammatical or punctuation errors!

I do not permit the children to simply quote their information from their source to the outline--everything, unless they want to literally quote it in their essay, must be rephrased. Otherwise, it's too easy to forget what hasn't been rephrased yet, and much too easy to plagiarize. Will also likes to change as little as possible when she rephrases, just putting the odd synonym into what's basically an unaltered quote, so I require her to completely cover the sentence that she's trying to rephrase, and then tell it to me--that always results in a more thoughtful construction.

This step is the hardest--I like to have the kid get all of the hard work of thinking what to say done in the outline, so that the actual writing, which can seem like the most intimidating step to a kid, becomes just a matter of putting the information into essay format. This means that the conclusion must also be tackled--here's how I teach how to write conclusions.

Here's Will's outline for her Van Jones essay:

And here's the one for her HBCUs essay:

DAY 4: Write the essay.

Have the kid reread the essay prompt, and her brainstorming notes, have her flip through or skim her research, rereading the highlighted passages and her notes, and have her read her outline. She may object to doing this every day, but it's crucial to stay familiar with the prompt, all the information, and the notes that she's made so far--she may need to add information or alter things in the editing stage.

You may disagree with me here, but I have my kids dictate their essays to me. They must sit or stand at my elbow, so that they can see what I'm typing, and they must tell me where to make paragraph breaks, but dictating does mean that I handle all the spelling and basic punctuation myself. The thing is, though, that rhetoric/composition is NOT the same thing as handwriting/typing; they are two different skills, and at the ages that the kids are, learning both as they are, when they focus on both tasks at the same time, both tasks suffer. A kid who is also concentrating on forming her letters correctly or  holding down the shift button for every capital letter is not able to give her full concentration to creating an effective sentence, or when to start a new paragraph. If I want a kid to practice the physical acts of writing or typing, as well, I give them copywork, or ask them to write a letter or a creative story or even a book report. But if I want the kid to be able to do her best work on a composition, I do not ask her to also physically write or type it as she creates it.

That being said, there are no big standards for a rough draft. Remember, the idea is to show the kid that this single step that seems so overwhelming and significant is really just one small step in the greater whole. I remind the kid that an essay is more than just an outline strung together, but if that's what they end up doing, then fine--we'll fix it in the editing step. If they have no paragraph breaks (although if nothing else, the outline makes these breaks obvious), then that's fine--that's fixable in the editing step. As long as the essay has some identifiable introduction, meets all the points of the writing prompt, and has some attempt at a conclusion, it 100% DOES NOT MATTER how good or bad the essay is. It's just a draft!

DAY 5: Revise the essay.

Have the kid reread the essay prompt, and her brainstorming notes, have her flip through or skim her research, rereading the highlighted passages and her notes, and have her read her outline.

Ask the kid to read her essay and make note of anything that needs to be corrected or changed. She may note some things and she may not--it's not a big deal, either way. The important thing is to make reading that essay for the purpose of revision part of the process.

Let the kid move onto something fun for a while, then you sit down with a pen and mark that essay up. Circle grammar or transition errors that you can verbally explain or she should be able to fix without comment. Write notes about things that she's done especially well--"What an interesting fact!" and "You've put this into context very well here" and "Great choice of adjective!" Also write notes about things that she should correct--"These are long paragraphs; could you break them up more?" and "What is the significance or relevance of this fact?" and "This doesn't seem to fit here; is there a better place to put it?"

If there are a LOT of things to correct, that's totally fine. Choose to only comment on the number of issues that it seems reasonable for the kid to handle, then have her complete the revision step with those comments, then evaluate it again and let her revise again.

Have the kid read your notes, and discuss each one with her--a DISCUSSION, not a lecture. Rules are rules, so grammar and punctuation errors must be corrected, but if she disagrees with you about stylistic things, and you've said your piece and she doesn't agree, then she gets her way. It's more important for her to understand that she is the boss of her own essay than for her to have a perfect essay in your eyes.

I also tend to take any attempt at revision as a successful attempt. One of the critiques that I most often make is something like, "Add context to support this/details to expand this." I need the children to not simply string facts together, but to begin to express their own thoughts about these facts. That's why, in the essays that I'll show you in a minute, you'll see lots of details and lots of context. You'll notice, though, that they aren't always totally relevant details or context. And that's okay. I suggested that the kid add context to what she said, she did her best to do what I wanted, and I'm sure as hell not going to browbeat her until she also does it exactly according to my own ideas--I might as well write my own damn essay on Maude Essig then, right? If I'm still constantly suggesting that they add details and context, then we're clearly still at the "add details and context" stage of composition instruction. When I no longer find myself having to make that suggestion for every fact, then we can start with the "is this detail relevant?" stage.

Have the kid dictate her revisions to you as you dutifully type them, then send her on her way. Even if you're doing some of these steps on the same day, like with an older kid, the next round of revisions or the next step should take place tomorrow at the earliest.

DAY 6: Make final revisions, and write the Works Cited.

For a change, the kid does NOT have to re-read all her preparatory materials first. She'll be thrilled!

The kid should re-read her essay and make any notes for revision after every round of revision. Even when you have no other corrections to make, you should nevertheless print out yet another clean copy and have her re-read it. When she looks up and tells you that she has nothing more to correct, then, you just look at her and say, "Great!"

I have my kids make parenthetical citations for facts in the bodies of their essays, so our final step is to help the kids compile all the sources that they used, alphabetize them by author, and write them down for our Works Cited page.

Taken as a whole, I know that this process seems really intense, but this really is how you write an essay--small step by small step, taking up plenty of time. The last thing that you want to do is hurry this process, because all that teaches kids is to hurry the process, and they'll end up among those college students miserably pulling all-nighters to tumble out sub-standard essays. They certainly don't learn anything that way, and they're not enjoying themselves, so what's the point?

Here are some of the essays that the kids have written in the past few months using this process. They're not perfect essays, of course, but the kids learned a ton doing them, and, even if they didn't have fun, per se, they were pleased and proud of the results, and that's the important thing:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks a lot for this breakdown. Very helpful.- Betsy