Writing Beyond the Essay

February 4, 2019

Our next recommendation for helping students organize their writing is to have them write beyond the traditional argumentative essay. While knowing how to organize essays is important, we also recommend that students craft structured pieces outside of formal essays. These other forms may be less academically traditional, but they require no less care and attention. And even though these creative assignments will likely require at leastas much organizational effort on the part of the student, this sort of writing often feels much more open and accessible to middle and high school students.

This kind of project gives students the opportunity to learn about a form synthetically by working through it for themselves. They may also have the chance to approach their work with clearer vision.  (Ideally that vision will be unclouded by any of the frustrations that often dog the argumentative essay.) I often find that students resent working with a thesis and topic sentences because it feels stifling and even prefabricated. With a more “creative” assignment, however, they can venture into – what is to them – a wide and yet unfamiliar territory. Experience working within different modalities can also improve a writer’s organizational dexterity. Eventually they will learn to use the restrictions of a structure to their advantage.

What are some examples of writing beyond the essay?

Instead of assigning students 5-paragraph essay after dreaded 5-paragraph essay, consider implementing a new kind of assignment. Ask them to write an additional scene for a play, a newspaper article, legal briefs, or a radio broadcast. Other ideas include political speeches, a letter from one character to another, a debate between characters, or something else altogether!

To give you more ideas: when I was in 10th grade, I remember writing metered monologues for an English class. These monologues were from the perspectives of supporting characters in The Odyssey such as Telemachus and Nausicaa. In order to write them, I had to structure my writing carefully, with a clear sequence to the thoughts. Each monologue included an opening, a progression of ideas, a climax, and then a resolution. Not to mention the challenge of writing in dactylic hexameter!

I once wrote (and delivered!) a sermon on the Parable of the Sower while studying the Gospels in high school. It was so different from writing an analytical essay, and in many ways more challenging. But, I also found myself much more eager to write it and to think through my argument carefully. It was intriguing simply because it was something other than what I was accustomed to writing. The form was both well known and simultaneously so foreign to me. I had heard many sermons before, but never once attempted to write one prior to that assignment. It was an extremely demanding yet exciting project.

How do I incorporate this sort of project into my lessons?

You can certainly ask students to write on more focused prompts, too. As an English teacher, I once had 7th graders draft short “legal briefs.” The topic was Mark Antony’s guilt or innocence in regards to the assassination of Caesar while reading Julius Caesar. The students argued whether or not Antony was guilty in Caesar’s death, essentially answering a yes or no question. The students loved this particular assignment, and approached their pieces with remarkable care and creativity.

Before the 7th graders wrote their legal briefs, we did create one example as a class on a book we had read earlier in the year so the students had an idea of what to aim for. I also gave them specific guidelines as to the number of reasons and textual references they would each need in their individual brief. They knew that they would also need to write a compelling opening to their argument, as well as a sound closing. The most thorough and convincing brief on either side of the argument would be read aloud in a mock trial – an extra incentive to do well!

The students were far more thorough in their reasoning for this exercise than they would have been if I had asked them to write a short argumentative essay, and not only that, we all had a blast during the process. Of course I still asked them to write short argumentative essays throughout the year, but this assignment was a great way for them to write something that was both highly structured and immensely enjoyable for all of us.

Share your experience

Please let us know in a comment below what your most memorable non-essay writing assignment has been to date or what unconventional writing projects you hope to undertake with students in the future!

The Importance of Freeform Writing

January 28, 2019

One of the earliest hurdles that young writers face is unfortunately one of the highest: mastering logical organization. As someone who personally wrestled with organization for years (my mom can attest to this, as well!), I wanted to put together a few suggestions for working with students or children who are also struggling with structure and cohesion. These are either practices that have helped me or ones that I used with middle and high school aged students to help them further develop both their writing and reasoning skills.

Why use freeform writing?

This first exercise may seem antithetical to the end goal of writing with clear organization, but I promise you that it is crucial to implement freeform writing as a regular practice. When working with young writers, your highest priority should be fostering in them a love for writing, and it is all too easy to injure an innate aptitude for writing by requiring that students only ever write in highly structured formats. (An appreciation for organization will come!)

To avoid this outcome, I would encourage any teacher to give their students at least as many opportunities to write in a freeform style as assignments to write structured pieces. These aren’t meant to be graded exercises or pieces that a student spends hours perfecting – they are intended to offer an opportunity for students to begin expressing their thoughts without any of the pressures that often accompany writing. This sort of writing is frequently and fittingly called “prewriting.” If a student is already a fluent writer, freeform and/or more open-ended creative writing exercises will give them an opportunity to further experiment with language and also to explore their ideas more deeply. If a student is a less fluent writer, freeform writing may help break down any mental barriers they may have, and, by removing the demands of formality, the student can recognize that the way to begin writing is to simply to begin jotting down whatever it is they are thinking. The primary objective here is to reinforce the relationship between the hand and the mind, between thinking and writing.

How do I incorporate freeform writing into my lessons?

I like to do this exercise in conjunction with a reading, whether it be a selection of chapters, a poem, an essay – it can even be done with a piece of art or music. I begin by giving the students a prompt, question, or topic and then set a timer for a relatively brief period of time. Somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes seems to work well for the scope of this exercise. As a side note: your topic or prompt should be on something that the student has seen or read already and will have had some time to think about prior to writing.

You can do this activity before a class or family discussion, as a “prewriting” exercise before beginning a more formal writing project, or just as a short, isolated writing activity. As an alternative to timed writing, you could ask a student just to complete a one to two page journal entry on a chapter, poem, or idea – whatever is being studied – and give them however much time is needed to complete it, so long as they are not re-reading and editing their work as they go. I emphasize to students that they should try to write continuously for the duration of the time, and I also ask them not to revise as they go. They can rethink their ideas in their writing in the subsequent sentence, but they shouldn’t erase or strike anything out. There will be plenty of opportunities to work on editing in the future.

On the rare occasion that I do collect these writings from students, I do not grade them or give feedback on sentence or paragraph structure, but I will write down notes about their ideas and the connections between them. To help either open up or narrow the focus of their inquiry and also to cause them to think about their topic from a new perspective, I might ask questions, simply because it’s interesting for me and because students seem to love getting written feedback. But ultimately this writing is just for them and they should be aware of that.

The main point of this practice is to get students to start writing and to begin recognizing for themselves that their writing should simply be an extension of their thinking. This jumping in and out of writing will eventually help students to develop the ability to sit down and write at any time, instead of dreading and forever postponing the process. It helps develop the ability to write efficiently – when you only have a few minutes, there really isn’t time to waste on circumlocution. The practice also obliquely helps students accept that their first drafts will never – and should never – be perfect: the most important part of a first draft is just the fact that it gets done. Lastly, I think this practice can help anyone realize that you don’t need to carve out an hour of your day in order to reap the benefits of writing. Even working during the odd 5 or 10 minutes between other activities can be tremendously productive and rewarding.

Share your experience

Have you ever done this sort of prewriting or freeform writing exercise? Let us know in a comment below whether it’s something you, your family, or your students have ever used before. And if you’ve never done it before and try it out for the first time, we’d love to hear how it goes!