They Whys and Hows of Writing Across the Curriculum

There you are at the top of your game.  You are widely recognized as an ace at teaching Geometry or Biology and suddenly it happens, the Lord Voldemort of educational innovation: Your principal tells you that a significant part of your annual performance evaluation is going to depend on how well you support writing in your class.   You KNOW that many students in your class do not write well.  A dedicated teacher, you have already tried to deal with this by assigning more written work:  You have asked Geometry students to explain in writing how they arrived at a proof; you have asked Biology students to write a three page paper on the pros and cons of human cloning.  The results made you want to propose marriage to your protractor, to tearfully seek solace among your amoeba and paramecium slides.   

But wait.  Writing across the curriculum really is a good idea.  And it doesn’t require that you take a crash course in Teaching Subjects You Haven’t Mastered at the New Trends School of Education.  Like so much else in modern life, it requires things much more elusive: patience and common sense.

Why Must We Teach Writing Across the Curriculum?   The short answer is: Because writing has become a core requirement for finding any kind of employment.  The notion that you need to write well only if you plan on seeking a “white collar” job is obsolete.  As Kelly Gallagher points out in Write Like This, writing skills have become part of the evaluation process for aspiring plumbers, landscapers, policemen, fast-food workers, bankers, mechanics and chefs.  According to a report from the National Commission on Writing two-thirds of salaried employees held jobs with writing responsibilities – and that was back in 2004!  The same report found that U.S. employers rate more than 80 percent of high school graduates entering the work force as “deficient” in written communications skills.  Although four-year college grads do better, the numbers are still alarming — nearly 28 percent can’t write basic memos and other communications critical to day-to-day office operations.  

These real-world demands for better writing are actually good news for teachers.  Remember, writing is just thinking on paper.  The more your students write, the more opportunities they have to think and reflect on what they have learned. Colleges and universities across the country have taken the lead in emphasizing writing across the curriculum, and  student response has been extremely positive.  For instance, here’s what a student from the University of Manoa (Hawaii), a highly writing-intensive school had to say about writing and learning:

  • [Writing] helps you get a perspective of what you studied. When you read something–okay, you read it and you sort of understand it, but when you actually have to write about it and tell someone else, in writing, it forces your mind to think of it in a new way. You have to organize your thoughts, you have to make it into some sort of order rather than just thinking on the vast subject. And it forces you to refine your thinking to even more than just having these general ideas. When you have to try to convince someone in writing, it forces you to think a lot sharper . . . it forces you to be even more analytical. (History major)

This response was typical.   And, when directly asked in a survey,  seventy-six percent of Manoa students reported feelings of confidence when writing in their major.

I can almost hear you say, “Alright already.  Writing is important.  But why should I have to focus on writing in my class? Isn’t that the English teacher’s job?”   Well, yes, of course.  But for students to grasp the importance of writing, they need to spend more than 1/5 of their school day thinking about it!

How Can Math and Science Teachers Be Expected to Teach Writing?   What if, despite being a cracker jack math teacher, writing gives you the heebie-jeebies? How can you possibly be effective at supporting writing in your classroom if you break out in hives whenever you’re asked to put pen to paper?  Here’s some more good news:  you don’t have to do all the work.  In fact, as we will soon discuss, when you encourage collaboration and peer review in your class, your role in “teaching” writing becomes more of a coaching role, supporting students who work collaboratively.  And even when you do assign papers to students individually, you are not expected to supply feedback the way English teachers would.  Consider these guidelines to teachers in writing–rich (WR) courses from Carleton College, another writing intensive institution:

What is  Writing Rich  (WR) Course? This DOES mean that… This does NOT necessarily mean…
A WR course will normally have 3 or more writing assignments. …students have opportunities for improving their writing over the course of a term. …three formal papers with detailed feedback from the professor on each.
A WR course will offer students feedback on their writing. …professors provide written comments. …professors comment on sentence structure or mechanics;…professors line-edit students’ writing;…professors comment in detail on all writing assignments;…all feedback the student receives must be from the professor.
A WR course will provide students with opportunities for revision. …students have an opportunity to write more than a single draft of at least one assignment. …professors must read, comment on and grade multiple drafts of a single paper.

The takeaway is that to support writing in your classroom, you do not have to become a superhero who can instantly transform himself into an English Language Arts teacher. 

Where Do You Start?  Since writing is just thinking on paper, start by asking your students to think.  Once a week as a “do now” activity, post a big question on the board and ask your students to take five or ten minutes to answer it using the three questions all good writers use:

  • What’s my point?
  • How do I support it?
  • So What?

Then randomly choose students to come to the front of the class and give an oral presentation of their answer.  Encourage the rest of the class to ask questions, to respectfully challenge the presenter.  This simple activity  encourages thinking and therefore encourages writing!  After doing this for a few weeks, you will be able to transition into short writing assignments. To cut back on the labor intensity of teaching writing, create peer editing groups in your class.  Confer with the English teacher on your team and find out who the strong writers in each class are so you can group four or five students together with least one strong writer on each team.  These teams can work together to review first drafts of short writing assignments and suggest specific improvements to each writer. 

Here are a few writing assignments, courtesy of the University of Wisconsin, you might want to start out with:

  • A fifty word sentence, summarizing what the student learned in (Math, Science, History) that week.
  • A one minute paper requiring students to cite one new bit of information they learned in class and to ask one question about something that remained unclear.
  • A weekly journal entry, one paragraph long, reflecting on how what was learned in this week’s class is relevant in the real world.
  • An explanation of how a Math problem was solved:  This assignment might be given with a rubric so that students understand the criteria on which they will be graded.

These simple short writing exercises will help students flex their writing muscles. 

Another suggestion (from both MIT and University of Wisconsin) for teaching writing across the curriculum, is to sequence assignments, specifically:

  • Repeat the same assignment; vary the topic.  For example, if you want students to explain how they answered a math problem, spend a lot of time modeling how the answer should look when you first give the assignment.  A couple of weeks later, ask students to explain their answers again, and briefly refer back to the model you already gave them. The next time you give the assignment, you probably won’t need to do any more modelling!
  • Move from simpler to more complex assignments: For example, University of Wisconsin’s writing center suggests that “Over the course of a semester you might build up to a six-page critical review of several sources by having students complete the following series of assignments: a one-page summary of one source; a two-page summary and critique of a single source; a four-page review of two sources (with revision); a six-page review of four sources (with revision). You might first asks students to write a close analysis, then later have them write a longer paper that includes another close analysis. This approach to sequencing assumes that students will be better equipped to write longer papers or undertake more cognitively challenging tasks if they first have the opportunity to build their skills and their confidence.”
  • Break a complex assignment into smaller parts.   For instance, you might want to assign students one 2 – 4 page paper relating what they are studying to the real world (e.g., ”Please write a two to four page argument on why  students must study Algebra in high school.”).    Instead of just assigning the paper with a deadline a few weeks later, break the paper into parts with shorter deadlines, and required peer review team approval before you move to the next step. 
    • Assignment one:  Choose a topic and a potential thesis statement and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment two: Draft your short outline (What is my point?  How do I support it? So what?)  and have it peer-reviewed.
    • Assignment three:  Write your introduction and have it peer-reviewed.

And so on.  (By the way, stay tuned for next week’s post, which will highlight the benefits of peer review and how to teach students to be peer editors.)

There is a lot more to say about writing across the curriculum, and this blog will focus on specific strategies in future posts.   In the meantime,  check out Colorado State University’s wonderful website, which has links to scores of colleges that emphasize writing across the curriculum with very positive results!

Imitation: the Highest form of …Writing?

“I am the best writer in my classroom.  You are the best writer in your classroom.  Our children need to stand next to us and see how we write.  And in addition to standing next to us, your students should stand next to and study other expert writers”

This passage from Kelley Gallagher’s wonderful, new book, Write Like This, gets to the heart of a critical component of learning how to write:  imitation.  I once asked a friend of mine, a former editor-in-chief at an internationally famous publication, how he’d learned to write.  He responded with an anecdote about the first journalism piece he’d ever written. He submitted it to his editor, who shortly thereafter handed it back to him, telling him he’d done a very good job.  But when my friend looked at what his editor had returned, it bore very little resemblance to the original.  “He had entirely rewritten it.  It was much better than what I gave to him, and I studied everything he did so that I would become a better writer,” he said.  He observed that the really good writers he knew got that way by paying close attention to how their work was improved in the editing process. In other words, great writers became great by imitating great writing.

As Gallagher points out, teachers are the best writers in the classroom.  Therefore, the best gift we can give our students is showing them how we write, by talking through the process as we craft a written piece in the classroom. And it’s OK to show them that sometimes you get stuck and need to think things through a little more.  You might even quickly write a less-than-perfect piece and then challenge “teams of editors” (say, four students to a team) to collaborate and improve it.  Students like nothing better than to criticize their teachers.

Gallagher also emphasizes the importance of incorporating real world texts into the writing instruction process. When he wants his students to write an editorial, he presents them with an extremely well-written editorial for them to imitate.  The lesson begins with a discussion of what makes the editorial great, and then students write their own.  English teachers have told me they have used this approach with short pieces of literature with great success. By analyzing what makes the written piece so good and then imitating it, students not only improve their writing style, but also their understanding of literature. 

The bottom line?  When teaching writing, imitations can be as valuable as the originals.

How to Avoid the Perils of Peer Editing

It sounds like a great idea:  teach your students to grade each other.  Actually, it is a great idea.  Good writers need multiple drafts.  You should not have to grade at least one of those drafts.

But often, initiating a peer editing program in the classroom seems like more of a chore than a time-saver.  Why is this so?  Is it because peer editors do not take their job as seriously as teachers?  Maybe, but some teachers are using peer editing effectively and cutting back on hours they spend grading as a result. 

What are these lucky teachers doing right? Here are a few simple tips to avoid the perils of peer editing:

  1. Teach them what to look for:  In the beginning, just ask your student editors to assess whether the written piece makes a point that is worth making and backs it up.  That’s all.  It will save you time later on.  Over time, make sure your students, can distinguish between big problems and smaller problems in the essays/papers they read.  (See “How Much Red Ink Should You Use?”) 

Here are the big problems: 

  • The basic point of the essay is not clear.
  • The basic point of the essay is clear, but not worth making.
  • The basic point of the essay is not supported in the essay.
  • The essay is so poorly written that you cannot figure out what the writer is trying to say: the essay is unintelligible.
  • The many grammatical problems in the essay are making it hard to understand what the writer is trying to say. 

Here are smaller problems:

  • The basic point is clear and defended, but the language is boring.
  • The essay is wordy.
  • The writer does not use a consistent tense addressing the audience.
  • The writer has some grammar weaknesses that need to be addressed. 

2.  Hold both writers and editors accountable.  When you ask students to edit each others work, make sure you give a joint grade on the result.  Grade the writer’s revisions based on the editor’s feedback, but also grade the editor’s feedback.  Since the ability to revise and to edit are equally important, explain to your students that the grade they receive on an assignment that is peer edited will depend on both the quality of their writing and revision and the quality of the feedback they give to their partner. 

 3. First, pair weak with strong. It sounds counter intuitive, but it is actually a good idea to pair very strong with very weak writers.  Why? Because strong writers will usually have a pretty good first draft that features a strong point that is well defended.  The weaker writer can help the strong writer by asking for clarification in certain areas.  The strong writer can help the weaker writer better define the main point and better organize his ideas for a second draft.  This saves you time, and it is a nice challenge for a strong writer to have to analyze and think about how to fix a weak paper.  

4. Then, mix it up.  After a few peer editing sessions, change partners.  Have strong writers edit each other.  Give weaker writers an opportunity to make suggestions for improving weaker pieces of writing. Then, keep mixing it up: Writers benefit from different perspectives!

Why You Should Discuss Real Estate With Weak Writers

Imagine you are shopping for a house.  You have seen so many houses that you have a good idea of what you like and what you don’t like.  You don’t like dark wood paneling in the family room.   You prefer wood floors to carpeted ones in general.  

 One day, you find a house that is just about perfect; it has everything you want, even the wood floors!  But when you have the house inspected, you learn that its foundation is weak – so weak, that the house is not structurally sound.  In other words, even thought it looks almost perfect, the house is almost worthless.  

In many ways, a well-written essay is like a well-built house.  If it has a solid structure, that is, if the writer has something worthwhile to say, can back it up, and can tell us why we need to know it, he is well on his way to writing a good essay.  But if the main point is not worth making, even grammatically perfect and well-organized essay will be a weak one. 

Students need to be reminded over and over again that writing is thinking on paper.  So if a writer has not thought hard about what she wants to say and why she needs to say it, her paper will not be a good one. If on the other hand, the writer has a good point to make and can back it up well, she has already scaled the biggest hurdle in writing a good paper. 

So the next time you read one of your student’s essays, remember to focus first on the basics

  • What point is this writer trying to make? 
  • Is it a good point? 
  • Can she back it up?” 

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” don’t bother talking to the writer about redundancies and run-on sentences.  Even if the writer were to get rid of redundancies and run-ons, the essay would be weak.  

 

The fundamental rule about a written work is that it can only be as good as the information it imparts. Or to use the words of writer Sholem Asch, “Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”

How Much Red Ink Should You Use?

One of the biggest challenges writing teachers face is to determine how much criticism to give developing writers.  If you try to correct everything, the writer may retain nothing except a sense of failure.  So you have to adjust your feedback accordingly. 

 Generally Speaking:  

Weak writers need to work on the basic argument and logical flow of ideas:

  • Think out loud with them, help them to organize their thoughts as they speak.
  • Once you agree on a point, help them come up with support for it – again, ask them questions (lead if necessary)  

Average writers need to work on grammar, especially fragments and run-ons.  The weaker the writer, the simpler the sentences should be. 

Stronger writers need to work on mining for richer vocabulary and better transitions.  Use 10 Rules for Adding Bling to help them make their writing more interesting.

Strongest writers should be challenged even more.  Ask them to find the greatest weaknesses in their papers.  Play “devil’s advocate” and disagree with their main points just to make them defend them more strongly.  Have them read their papers out loud! Whenever a writer finds that a sentence is a mouthful, have her rewrite it.

In Sum:  Some Basics for How to Give Feedback on Writing 

First:  Content and Structure

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  If not, allow her to talk through her ideas and ask questions that will help her determine which point she wants to make.
  • Does the writer back up her point well? If not, ask him how he can defend his main point.  Are there passages from the text that he can use to defend what he is saying (if he is arguing a point)?  Can she put her ideas in a more logical order (if she is explaining a point)?
  • Has the writer considered opposing views? If the writer is arguing a point, it is useful to consider the opposing side.  This can be a great way to transition into a new paragraph (e.g., if you are writing a paper against cloning, you might begin your second supporting paragraph with: “The Frankenstein Society recently argued forcefully that human cloning would save lives and ultimately prolong our existence.  But at what cost?”)
  • Does the writer answer “so what?” in the conclusion? Why did the writer write this in the first place? Why do we need to know this?  

Then, Paragraphs, Transitions, Definitions and Grammar  

  • Does the writer use paragraphs correctly?  If not, review the five paragraph essay (first paragraph= introduction, next three paragraphs=supporting points, final paragraph = conclusion)
  • Does the writer use transitions?  If not, help her to practice moving from one point to the next – talk it through, then have her rewrite.
  • Does the writer define all terms? Remember, a good paper can be understood by anyone – even someone unfamiliar with the material.
  • Does the writer use too many run-on sentences or sentence fragments?  If so, encourage him to writing in simple, short sentences – for a while. 
  • Are there subject/verb/pronoun agreement and other problems?  If the writer has never been taught grammar (and many students these days are not), you will have to help him learn it.  DON’T PANIC: There are plenty of resources out there. Most SAT prep books, for instance, provide a quick way to cover the basics. 

Finally, Style

  • Does the opening paragraph grab you?
  • Are there too many passive or tired verbs?
  • Are there opportunities to redefine boring nouns so they seem fresh (Remember Abe Lincoln — instead of “our democracy,” he wrote “our government of the people, by the people, for the people.”)
  • Is there too much telling and not enough showing? (Remember Barack Obama– Instead of “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.”)
  • Are there too many clichés and mixed metaphors?
  • Is the paper too wordy?  (if so, have the writer go through and eliminate all words (sometimes sentences and even paragraphs!) that are not necessary to making his point.)
  • Is the writing easy on the ear? The ear is a writer’s best friend. If a writer can not read a sentence out loud without difficulty, he needs to rewrite it.

Step Four: Top Ten Rules for Adding Bling: Abe Lincoln’s First Draft

What’s your point? How do you support it? So what? 

 If the piece you’ve written can answer those three questions, you are off to a good start.  But really good writers go one step further: they add some bling.  Consider, for instance, one of the most famous American speeches of all time, the Gettysburg Address.  What if Abe Lincoln had delivered this version – we’ll call it Abe’s first draft: 

The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.   But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham. Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special?”  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand.  No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  We must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.  

Let’s face it:  If Abe Lincoln had delivered these words at Gettysburg, he would have been absolutely right — no one would have remembered him being there.  So what is it about the Gettysburg address that makes it so good?  

Well, for starters, Abe did not violate any of the top ten rules for how to add bling to  prose when he wrote it.  Here they are: 

The Top Ten Rules for Adding  Bling 

  1. Start with a wow.  If your first paragraph doesn’t really grab the reader, you are in trouble. There are countless ways to draw readers in. You can make a shocking claim, contradict yourself, write a poetic sentence, ask a probing question.  The important point is to read your first few sentences carefully.  Do they make the reader think, “Wow, interesting.  I want to keep reading?”  If not, rewrite for the wow.
  2. Be specific.  This is perhaps the most important and most difficult rule of all – you must strive to write exactly what you mean.  Beware of vagueness.  Instead of “He was tired of his job,” try “Whatever ambition he had was crushed along with the countless bottles he fed into the jaws of the compactor. ” 
  3. Vet your verbs.  One easy way to make your prose more interesting is to go through and check your verbs.  You can probably replace 90 percent of them with verbs that are more specific, more appropriate, more precise – and less tired — than the verbs you used. 
  4. Replace or define tired nouns and modifiers.  This is similar to the verb check.  If you must use a common word, define it for us in a fresh way – e.g., instead of “our democracy,” try “this government, of the people, by the people, for the people.” 
  5. Use the active voice.   It’s an old remedy that never fails to perk up a sentence.  
  6. Pepper in a little poetry.   Strive for prose that has a rhythm that you can hear as you read it aloud.  Look for opportunities to include alliteration and rhyme when you replace those tired verbs, nouns, and modifiers. 
  7. Paint a picture (show, don’t tell).   One of the Barack Obama’s great rhetorical talents is his ability to paint a picture with words. Instead of saying “We need to create more jobs,” he talks about “the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, and every walk of life.” You can see why we need more jobs, he doesn’t need to tell you.  
  8. Stay away from cliches and don’t mix metaphors.   If, on one bright and sunny day, you find yourself standing on a well-manicured lawn with a smile beaming from ear to ear, run for your life. This place will not bring out the best in you.  And, by the way I’m not just saying that because I see the glass half empty with sour grapes and would rather curse the dark than light a candle.   
  9. Punch up your transitions.  Never underestimate the power of the transition.  In a long paper, a good, “one-liner” transition can perk up your prose and renew your reader’s interest.    In a short essay, a powerful transition (e.g., “But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.”) will keep your audience riveted. 
  10. End with a bang.  The last paragraph is often the “so what?” of a well written piece.  The last line should leave your readers in awe – you made your point so eloquently, they are speechless.   

With those rules in mind, let’s suppose Abe is looking over that first draft to see how to revise it.  He might proceed as follows: 

Problem:  The United States of America was born in 1776.  It was based on the idea that all men are equal.  

Hmm… A little boring – no, a lot boring.

 Solution:  Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Ahh, much better “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation” says the same thing as “Our country was born in 1776” but it says it with rhyme and alliteration it makes the opening line sound like a poem! Now, let’s get specific — if a nation is born, it must first be conceived – how about a nation conceived in liberty?  And let’s get rid of that passive voice – who gave birth to our country?  Our fathers – oops they can’t give birth — so let’s just say they brought forth a new nation. And let’s replace that boring phrase, “based on the idea” with “dedicated to the proposition.”  (“Dedicate” but the way is a much-repeated verb in this address – can you guess why?)

Problem:  But now our states are fighting each other and so it is hard to see how this is all going to last.   

Again, a little boring  – especially the verbs — and not specific enough.

Solution:  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Wow, what a few word replacements (with an ear for rhythm) can do“Engaged in a great civil war” is much more specific and eloquent than “we are fighting.”  “Testing whether that nation so conceived or so dedicated” is much more specific than “hard to see how it is all going to last.”    

Problem: Today, we are here to dedicate this cemetery in honor of our great soldiers.  And it’s the right thing to do.  But, when you think about it, this whole ceremony is a sham.  Who are we to stand here and say “this place is special”?  It’s really special because our soldiers died right here, where we stand. 

Aghh.  Boring, general, clichéd,   Today we are here?  Where are we? Why is it the cemetery dedication the “right thing to do?”  “When you think about it” is a weak transition that just sounds silly.  And using the word “special” twice in one paragraph? Even in 1863, before everything was special, that would have been the lazy thing to do.

Solution:  We are met on a great battlefield of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Great changes! Language is much more specific and powerful.  If we are in a great war, we are meeting on a great battlefield.  And, instead of dedicating a“cemetery” (overused word), we dedicate a “final resting place” which puts a more human image in the minds of the audience.  And “all together fitting and proper” is altogether more interesting and rhythmic than “it’s the right thing to do.” 

But perhaps the most important improvement to this section is the transition. To replace “But when you think about it” with “But in a larger sense” is to remind everyone that this cause is bigger than all of us.  And what does it really mean for Gettysburg to be “special”? It means it is sacred ground – ground it has been sanctified by the blood of our soldiers, not by a speech.  To make that point, Abe adds three synonyms for “sanctify” in a row — dedicate, consecrate, and hallow.   Wow. Then he adds that wonderful line about our poor ability to add and detract – great verbs that turn us into number crunchers compared to the brave men who spilled their blood for liberty.  

Problem: No one is going to remember us being here – but you can bet everyone will remember the people who died for us. That’s why we have to remember them too and keep our country together.  In the end, my fellow Americans, we must make sure we are always free so our democratic government doesn’t simply go away.

Here we go again:  too boring, too vague and does not end with a bang.  Who are “we” and what does it mean to “keep our country together?”  What exactly is “our democratic government?”  And the final line is so vague, it begs the question: where might our democracy go?

Solution:  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Much better. The first sentence is wonderfully alliterative (world will, little note nor long).   And instead of simply using the word “us,” Abe reminds us that we are still alive (unlike those dead soldiers), and we have a task, “ rather for us to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”    Then he cleverly rearranges the first half of that sentence to begin the next sentence (It is rather for us to be here dedicated…).  He replaces that tired word, “democracy,” with a fresh definition of it– a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  And then, for the last line, he gets really dramatic when he vets his verbs.  The risk is not that our government will go away, but that it will perish, from the face of the earth. Bang! 

And so Abe arrives at his final draft: 

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. 

Now that’s adding some bling!

Step Three: The Five Paragraph Essay: It’s a Great Place to START

Up for a challenge?  Try staying awake as you read this:

The five paragraph essay is a topic of much discussion.  Some argue that teaching students to write a five paragraph essay is teaching them to be boring writers.  I disagree for the following reasons:  First, the five paragraph essay helps students organize their thoughts.  Second, students who have mastered the five paragraph essay will do well on the essay portions of standardized tests.  Third, the problems with the five paragraph essay format are easy to solve. For these three reasons, the five paragraph essay does not lead to boring writing.

The five paragraph essay helps students organize their thoughts. In the first paragraph, the writer introduces his thesis statement.  The second third and fourth paragraphs each give a supporting idea for that thesis statement.  Each of these paragraphs begins with a topic sentence that states that supporting idea. The fifth paragraph, which is the conclusion, can just restate the thesis statement and summarizes the ideas of the writer.

The five paragraph essay can help students do better on the written portions of standardized tests.  Tests such as the SAT and the Regents exams have essay topics for which knowledge of the five paragraph essay is very useful.  These topics tend to be very general and require the writer to state a thesis, back it up and draw a conclusion – all of which can be accomplished very well using the five paragraph format.

Problems with the five paragraph format are easy to solve. For instance, writers can try to be more flexible in how they use the format.  They might try to use more interesting transitions.  They might try using the active voice.  They might try doing something more with their conclusions than merely restating the thesis statement and its supporting points. 

 Students need a way to organize their thoughts.  They need to master standardized writing tests.  Problems with the five paragraph essay can be easily remedied.  For these reasons, the five paragraph essay should always be taught in schools. 

The previous essay is a good example of what happens when students are taught the five paragraph essay. The resulting writing becomes a little formulaic.  As a result, many teachers have sworn off the five paragraph format altogether. But that’s a big mistake.

 As we have said before, any good piece of communication needs to answer the following questions:

  •  What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up?
  • Why do we need to know it?

 These questions lend themselves extremely well to a five paragraph format:

  • Paragraph 1 (Introduction):   What is my point?
  • Paragraphs 2,3,4 (Body):      How do I back it up?
  • Paragraph 5 (Conclusion):    So what? 

It’s OK for a first draft to sound like it was written by a robot. Just make sure the second draft sounds like it was written by a human. So now, please bear with me as I review this first draft of my five paragraph essay about five paragraph essays.  Surely I can do better.

What is the point of my essay?  The point of my first draft seems to be that the five paragraph essay does not lead to boring writing, and so it should be taught in school.  But actually, the point I meant to make was that to master the five paragraph essay format is to take a major first step toward better writing.

How do I back it up? Now that I have refined my main point, I need to rethink what points I need to make to back it up. As I think about my argument more carefully, I think my three supporting points are:

  • Good writing requires good thinking, and this essay format helps students organize their thoughts.
  • The five paragraph format provides a simple, formulaic structure for beginning writers.  Only after they nail structure can they focus on developing an interesting style.
  • The five paragraph approach is easily expandable for longer writing assignments such as research papers.

Why do we need to know it? In my first draft I never really addressed this question. So let me do it here.  The take away point for my readers is this: To write well, you must write logically, and one of the easiest ways to learn to write logically is to master the five paragraph essay.

With that in mind, let me revise my five paragraph essay about five paragraph essays:

Once upon a time in America, teachers routinely taught their students how to write a five paragraph essay.  Beginning when students were in third or fourth grade and continuing through high school, teachers assigned topics for short essays and asked students to write them in a specific format:  an introductory paragraph that stated the main point, three body paragraphs, each of which gave an idea to support the main point, and a conclusion.   Students dutifully followed their teachers’ instructions, and most of them learned to write coherently.  But over time, people decided that five paragraph essays were too boring, so teachers stopped assigning them.  And that’s why students today often write whacky papers that make no sense.  To write well, you have to think well, and there are few tools as handy as the five paragraph essay to help you organize your thoughts. 

The great strength of the five paragraph essay format is that it provides students with an easy way to structure their writing.  Any well- written essay needs to answer three questions:  What’s your point?  How do you back it up?  Why do we need to know it? The five paragraph essay format reminds students to answer those questions; it provides the basis for a solid first draft.  For beginning writers, there is probably nothing more valuable than a formula for a coherent first draft.

Although no writer wants to be boring, it is better to be boring than unintelligible.  Any good writer knows that it is a lot easier to fix an essay that’s snoozy than one that is pointless and rambling.  Once you know how to make your point and back it up in a logical way, it’s actually pretty easy to jazz things up.   On the other hand, trying to revise an incoherent first draft is like trying to knit with a ball of yarn that has become impossibly knotted up — after wasting a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to unravel the mess, you conclude that it would be a lot easier to chuck it all  and start over.

Another really great thing about the five paragraph essay is that it’s easy to build on.  Let’s say you are assigned a ten page paper.  Yikes!  Where do you start?  Well, a fine place to start is with a five paragraph essay that summarizes what your paper will be about.  As you develop your ideas and weave in supporting research, your introductory paragraph will become your paper’s page-long introduction that sets forth what your paper is about.  Your first supporting paragraph becomes a two or three page section that focuses on the first supporting idea you have to back up your main point. Get the picture?

 As writing guru William Zinsser observes, “Writing is thinking on paper.” To write well, you must write logically.  So practice the five paragraph essay often.  Structure your thoughts before you try to make them sound interesting. But once you’ve structured your thoughts please do make them sound interesting.  Remember, it’s OK for an essay to sound robotic –as long as it’s only a first draft.     

Before You Teach Students to Write…

1. Teach them how to think

  • Ask each student to find a difficult-to-understand article from mainstream media and bring it into class:  Usually, such articles are poorly written. Reassure them that if they read something–in or out of school–that they don’t understand it may well be that the piece doesn’t make sense.
  • Ask “What’s your point?    Encourage students to listen for the main point when people speak and to look for the main point in written works. Ask them to assess whether and how well that point is supported. 
  • Encourage them to challenge you (politely) if they do not understand the point you are trying to make.  Then on occasion, be intentionally unclear when you give directions or explain a concept.  If no one challenges you, tell them poor listening and no questions is likely to affect their class participation grade. 
  • Offer them extra credit if they bring in two examples of an illogical argument or unsupported point on Cable TV news or in Op Ed columns.
  • Encourage logic over speed of response. Encourage them to practice saying, “Let me think about that for a minute,” and then mentally draft a short, logical argument in response to a tough question. Better this approach than to blurt out a thoughtless answer which may more easily be contradicted.

 2.  Ask Better Questions: 

 Better questions lead to better writing.  If you ask a student merely to summarize a passage, they will simply paraphrase what they have read without thinking much about what the passage means.  Instead, think of better questions to get them to start thinking. 

 1.  Encourage students to develop their own questions:  When they read literature, history, science, even Math, encourage them to develop “higher order” thinking questions.  (Why, What if, How…)  And, as criticalthinking.org, suggests, have them share views and ask:  Is there a different question we should be asking ourselves?  What other questions do we need to answer before we can answer this one? In other words, get students to think about the quality of questions they ask and are being asked.

 2.  Encourage in-class debates:  Divide students into groups and have them choose an issue (from a list that you provide) of topics they do not all agree about.   Have the opposing side present their arguments and then have the class evaluate them:

  •  What is the main point?
  • What is the evidence that backs up the main point?
  • How well can the speaker refute the arguments of his opponent?
  • On the basis of these questions, who won?

This is a wonderful exercise with which to introduce persuasive essays.   After the in-class debate, have the members of each group write on the topic of another group.

 3.  When reading books or stories, focus on purpose

  • Why did the author write this story?
  • What was he trying to accomplish?
  • Did he succeed?
  • What is the main point of the story?
  • Why does main character have the traits he has?
  • Is there anything that seems unrealistic or exaggerated in the story?  Why do you think the author exaggerated that way?
  • Is the story’s lesson obsolete now?  What have we learned as humans since it was written?
  • Does the author have a view of the world that is different from yours?  How so?  Is your view better? Why? Is her view better? Why?  Are you both justified in thinking about the world the way you do?  Why?

 4.  Explore the “what if”

  • What if Atticus Finch had been an angry, loud mouthed and opinionated man?  How would that have changed the story and affected the story’s message?
  • What if America never used nuclear weapons in WWII?  Would we be a different and safer world today?

 5.  Foster unobvious connections

  • How is The Paradise of the Blind like The Great Gatsby?

 3.  Pique their Interest Research shows that students write more easily when they can write about topics that interest them. A great way to get classroom writing started on a positive note is to begin the year with an “introductions” survey.   Ask your students to tell you their favorite subject, their hobbies and interests, what books they have read lately, what their favorite movies and TV shows are – you get the idea.  You will get much better answers if the survey is anonymous. Then, develop a list of thoughtful questions based on the survey results.   For instance, if a few students tell you that they play xbox every day, you might ask:  Are video games a help or a hindrance to teenage social life?”

 Your first assignment will be to have them select a topic from the list and write about it.  Don’t grade this one – hold onto it!

 At the end of the year, when their writing is oh so improved, let them write a second draft of that essay as their final writing project.

Step 2: The Well-Built Essay: All About Structure

Having challenged your own thinking, it is now time to challenge your students’ thinking.  The objective is to enable them to figure out whether an argument, whether oral or written, is well structured.

On this site,  when we us the term “structure,” we will be talking about the basic argument of the essay or written piece.  A piece of writing is well structured if it can answer three basic questions:

  • What’s your point?
  • How do you back it up? (We are looking for evidence, not emotional claims or opinions.)
  • So what?  (Why do we need to know it?  What are the implications of the argument overall?)

Great written works have great structure.  Consider, for example, the following:

 Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg AddressJune 1, 1865

 Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.   Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

 Now let’s see if this passes the structure test: 

 What’s the point?

These soldiers did not die in vain.

 How do you back it up?

  • Our country was founded on noble principles: equality and freedom.
  • These are the principles these soldiers fought for.

 So what?

If we don’t commit to the cause of these soldiers, our country as we know it, will cease to exist.

 Wow…It passes with flying colors.  (And as we’ll see in the next unit, Abe also does a great job of adding some bling to make his speech sing.)

 Practical Tips:  How can you help your students become better writers?

 Because structure is so important, it is useful to get your students to think about it all the time:

Take 10 or 15 minutes (ideally several times a week) to have them formulate a short argument in response to an open-ended question. Such questions can be general (e.g., What is success?) or specific to a work you are studying in class (e.g., Would Atticus Finch have been a more effective defender of Tom Robinson (and Civil Rights) if he had been more publicly outraged over the discrimination he saw around him?)  SAT prompts are great questions to assign for this exercise, and a list of such prompts is listed below.

The goal is to have students think about such questions for a few minutes, and formulate an argument outline – as though they were getting ready to write an essay — by answering:

    • What’s my point?
    • How do I back it up?
    • So What? (Why do we need to know this?)

 Then they can take turns getting a little improvisational speaking practice by sharing their outlines aloud with the class. 

 This activity is a wonderful way to maximize use of your class time:  Post the question on the board as a “do now” activity for students to work on as soon as they enter the classroom.

Sample Questions for Developing Arguments[1]

 Questions about ethics:

  • Is conscience a more powerful motivator than money, fame power? 
  • Should modern society be criticized for being materialistic?
  • Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?
  • Should people take more responsibility for solving problems that affect their communities or the nation in general?
  • Do circumstances determine whether or not we should tell the truth?
  • Is it important to try to understand people’s motivations before judging their actions?
  • Can deception (pretending that something is true when it is not) sometimes have good results?

Questions about success:

  • Can success be disastrous?
  • Is the effort involved in pursuing any goal valuable, even if the goal is not reached?
  • Do people achieve greatness only by finding out what they are especially good at and developing that attribute above all else?
  • Are people more likely to be happy if they focus on goals other than their own happiness?
  • Is it best to have low expectations and to set goals we are sure of achieving?
  • Are all important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?
  • Do people achieve more success by cooperation than by competition?
  • Is it more important to do work that one finds fulfilling or work that pays well?

 Questions about technology and a changing world:

  •  Is the world changing for the better?
  • Is the most important purpose of technology today different from what it was in the past?
  • Have modern advancements truly improved the quality of people’s lives?
  • Does a strong commitment to technological progress cause a society to neglect other values, such as education and the protection of the environment?
  • Should people always prefer new things, ideas, or values to those of the past?

 Questions about self discovery:

  •  Do you think that ease does not challenge us as much as diversity to discover who we are?
  • Do we need other people to understand ourselves?
  • Is identity something people are born with or given, or is it something people create for themselves?
  • Do people truly benefit from hardship and misfortune?
  • Do we really benefit from every event or experience in some way?
  • Is education primarily the result of influences other than school?
  • Is it better to change one’s attitude than to change one’s circumstances?
  • Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?
  • Does true learning only occur when we experience difficulties?
  • Is it better for people to be realistic or optimistic?
  • Is happiness something over which people have no control, or can people choose to be happy?

 Questions about heroism:

  • Should heroes be defined as those who say what they think when others lack the courage to say it?
  • Should we admire heroes but not celebrities?
  • Is there a value in celebrating certain individuals as heroes?

 Questions about independent thinking versus “groupthink”

  • Is it always better to be original than to imitate or use the ideas of others?
  • Is there any value for people to belong only to a group or groups with which they have something in common?
  • Do people need to “unlearn,” or reject, many of their assumptions and ideas?
  • Is it always best to determine one’s own views of right and wrong, or can we benefit from following the crowd?
  • Is it more valuable for people to fit in than to be unique and different?
  • Can people ever be truly original?
  • Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?
  • Are people more likely to be productive and successful when they ignore the opinions of others?
  • Is it important to question the ideas and decisions of people in positions of authority?
  • Are established rules too limited to guide people in real-life situations?
  • Is it sometimes better to take risks than to follow a more reasonable course of action?
  • Do we tend to accept the opinions of others instead of developing our own independent ideas?

 


[1] Source:  The College Board and Examdude.com