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Writing Beyond the Essay

by Rebecca Ripperton
​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 least as 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!

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What Seeds Are You Planting?

by Lisa Ripperton

January 31, 2019

Sometimes we plant seeds intentionally and
sometimes we do so by happenstance.

My second son, Daniel, was born in mid-July, a full three months before his October due date. When he came home in late September after a long sojourn in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UNC Hospitals, we were in a quandary about what to do with him. There was little point in looking at the book of milestones of what babies do when, as each premature baby progresses at his own rate, especially those born as early as Daniel. So we spoke to him, sang to him, and rocked him, providing a soothing environment that he probably appreciated after the constant bombardment of noise in the NICU. But his movements at the time were limited to infrequently reaching out with his hands and striking the chimes hanging in front of him. What to do to awaken him to life?

An answer to that question came one afternoon while I was busy with dinner preparations. Upon coming home from work, my husband scooped up Daniel out of his crib and laid him down gently on his back on the floor of his room. Then he sat down beside him on the white braided cotton rug, tucked a pillow under his head, picked a book off the shelf, and started reading one poem after another aloud from its pages. Thus began a tradition that lasted for many months, with Daniel's ever-growing delight obvious to us all.

A year later when my youngest child, Rebecca, arrived on the scene, the before-dinner reading tradition carried on with one child nestled up on either side of their father. They continued to read from the book that started it all, Poems to Read to the Very Young, and added the poetry of Edward Lear, A. A. Milne, Eugene Field, and Maurice Sendak, as well. Is it any wonder that they both grew up to be so fond of poetry, and even noted poets themselves?

Whether or not their father intentionally planted the poetry seed, I will never know because he passed unexpectedly around the time of their 8th and 9th birthdays before I ever thought to pose the question to him. I can say, however, that it would never have occurred to me to introduce poetry to children so young. If I had it to do all over again, I would be much more intentional about planting seeds. And what other seeds would I plant? More about that in upcoming posts!

What seeds are you trying to plant in your children's lives? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Purchase Books at Amazon

Poems to Read to the Very Young illustrated by Eloise Wilkins

Nutshell Library
by Maurice Sendak

The Shut-Eye Train
by Eugene Field

Edward Lear's Nonsense Book illustrated by Tony Palazzo

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