STAAR® Woes: Writing an Expository Essay Without It Transforming Into a Personal Narrative

Dear Dr. D',
"I have a question regarding last year's 7th grade Expository STAAR® Prompt.  We just took our 2015 benchmark (MOCK STAAR) and I am reading the students' essays.  I am a bit confused about how they would have come up with a specific concrete detail to write about with this prompt.  The prompt is "Write an essay explaining the importance of having a good friend."  I am unsure of the types of things that I would see in the Specific Concrete Detail box.  Some students spoke of others who were friends, but did not focus on why it is important to have a friend.  With essays like "Explain the importance of never giving up" I can see how to get the concrete detail, but the good friend almost seems too personal to me."

David

Dear David,

The State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, known as the STAAR, requires its 4th, 7th, and 9th grade students to write a 26-line expository essay at the end of the school year. The challenge for the test makers is to design a prompt which is accessible to the minds of our 7th graders, so the test makers choose topics, such as friendship (2015) and laughter (2014), to engage students' ideas on topics with which they are familiar. Most 7th graders have at least one friend and tend to laugh frequently (albeit at inappropriate times -- but, hey, they're 7th graders!).
As teachers, our challenge is instructing the students on how to access their ideas and provide solid examples while still maintaining the expository mode of discourse. Too often, with these types of topics, our students easily lapse into a personal narrative.

So, here's what we do at JSWP to assist teachers:

STEP ONE: Teach the students to write in third person. This helps tremendously.

STEP TWO: Teach the students to generate solid examples outside of their personal experiences.

You'll remember in your training in August, David, that concrete details come from four different places:

  1. What I have read;
  2. What I have seen;
  3. What I or someone else has done; and
  4. What I or someone else has said (dialogue/famous quotations, etc.).

Another way of looking at "what I have read, seen, done, said" is to have students generate ideas and examples by using the acronym, GET HELP.

G - Government (Politics, Candidates, Issues)

E - Education (Science, Math, English, Social Studies)

T - TV Shows (Sitcoms, Series)

H - History (Famous Historical Events)

E - Entertainment (Art, Movies, Social Media)

L - Literature (Novels, Dramas, Short Stories, Poetry, Essays)

P - Personal (Family, Friends, Hobbies, Goals)

Now, let's look at the 2015 7th grade composition prompt again: "Write an essay explaining the importance of having a good friend."

  • Friendships in Government: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (statesmen)
  • Friendships in Education: Science class - electrons and protons; seeds and flowers (a little twist on friendship . . .)
  • Friendships on TV: Ariana Grande -- a show based on two friends who start a baby-sitting service to earn money; Friends sitcom with Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross 
  • Friendships in History: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (trailblazers); Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway
  • Friendships in Entertainment: Han Solo and Chewbacca
  • Friendships in Literature: Harry Potter by JK Rowling: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermonine Granger; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: George and Lennie (a little old for 7th grade, but 9th graders might use this one); The Giver by Lois Lowry: Jonas, Asher, and Fiona
  • Personal Friendships: Each student would have his/her own.
You'll notice that "Personal Friendships" is last, and I'm happy it worked out that way in the acronym. I tell the students, "Use personal examples as your last resort, but use them, if necessary."

STEP THREE: There are two other types of sentences, critical in the body paragraphs, which help students to avoid the personal narrative: topic sentences and concluding sentences. Have the students start and end their body paragraphs with observations about the topic, not personal feelings. Reminder: A topic sentence (TS) has a subject (topic of the paragraph) and an opinion. The same may be said for the concluding sentence (CS); and, the concluding sentence gives a finished feeling.
  • Good friends are reliable.  Not, I can rely on my best friend. (Note: Avoid first person in an expository essay.)  
  • Good friends arrive when no one else will.  
  • Good friends make us laugh when we are down.  
Notice in the last sentence, I use the "royal we" instead of allowing students to use that pesky second person pronoun, "you." The idea is to teach the students to return to their purpose -- explaining the importance of friendship. We do that when we remove ourselves from the topic and make statements known as universal truths.

On October 5, 2015, the personal narrative was removed from the test; so, I have recently revised our Middle School STAAR writing guide. Doing so gave me the opportunity to provide a few more models for teaching.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season! See you next year!

Keep reading and writing!
Deborah (aka Dr. D')