My students are working on a persuasive research essay and we did a lot of prep work last week with activities that had them focus squarely on the pre-writing process.
I'm very aware that many of our students skip over the steps of the process and are more apt to whip something off the night before. Because of that, the first time we do a formal essay in my class, I devote a lot of class time to showing them that good essay writing is a thinking process, one that takes some time. Here's what we did:
1. We started with the question: what makes a good essay? The students, twelfth graders, had all the right answers as they've been down this road before. However, I know from experience that a student can parrot back what they've heard from other teachers and still not write a good essay. That's because knowing what an essay is doesn't mean they know how to execute it (or will take the time to do it right).
2. Next I showed them some mentor texts, including two sample drafts I had written. I use the drafts to illustrate that even writing teachers need to improve their first attempts, and if I want them to work through the process, I have to show them mine as well. So, next week, I'll illustrate how I will improve these drafts.
3. The next activity took a whole class, but I think it was well worth the time. I started by showing them a topic: the problems with smoking. We then created a working thesis: smoking is a terrible habit. I made it clear that a working thesis may not be the final one, and that in the early stages of the process, a writer should stress too much over the perfect wording; instead s/he should focus on getting ideas down. Then we brainstormed possible points to develop this thesis: smoking is expensive, smoking can age a smoker prematurely, smoking can cause serious health problems, smoking can kill you, smoking affects one's appearance, second hand smoke is dangerous.
Each of these ideas was assigned to a group, and the group members had to write details on post-it notes that would develop the idea they were assigned. The group was given a piece of chart paper, and the kids had to write a topic sentence on the top of the page, then organize the details they had on the post-it notes in an order that made logical sense.
After each group was finished, one member from each group stood at the front of the class holding their group's chart paper. I read off the details under each topic sentence and it became clear there was some overlap between groups, so we moved post-its/ideas to the appropriate piece of chart paper. This illustrated the process a writer has to go through to decide which details belong where in an outline.
After going through each group's ideas, we had a discussion about the order that they would be presented if these pieces of chart paper were body paragraphs. I had the class move the students/paper around until they were in an order that made sense to them: cost, appearance, aging, second hand smoke, health problems, death. This is when the great discussion began. We considered the idea that a writer could choose to drop the paragraph on cost, as all other ideas focused more on the physical effects of smoking. Then we played around with other possibilities for order by moving the students around, and they decided that maybe second hand smoke was the most serious issue, so it should go at the end.
I pointed out to the students that our class activity modelled the process they should go through in their head, and on paper, when preparing to write an essay. At that point, I gave them an outline and asked them to have a rough one completed for the next class.
In the end, I spent about three classes just getting them to the point where they are ready to start a draft. It's more time than I would normally take, but I believe so much in the thinking process that should precede good writing, that I do not think it was time wasted. By the time these kids sit down in the computer lab on Monday to start their drafts, they will have a very solid understanding of where they are going with their essays.
And, once those drafts are done, we will be doing a lot more work on the revision process. Lots of great writing to come, I hope!