For many decades in English classrooms, writing instruction tended to follow a common pattern: teachers assigned essays each Monday, collected them the following Friday, and in the meantime devoted class time to other activities–which most often meant reading and discussing literature in anthologies. Students turned in their essays at the end of the week; teachers graded them over the weekend and returned them the following Monday. Most of the students would glance at the grade, ignore the carefully written comments, and file their work in their notebooks (at best) or the trashcan (at worst.) Then the cycle would repeat: topic assigned, due date given, and on to other topics.
What is missing from this description is the knowledge we have from more than two decades of research on composition: that writing is an act of discovery, a way of clarifying ideas, a social activity that often thrives upon contact with others, and a recursive process requiring time, reflection, feedback, and revision.
This curriculum guide is designed to offer tested and proven ideas to teach students how to write an essay. Its purpose is to demystify the writing process for both teachers and students and make it accessible to everyone. It reflects what we (as English teachers ourselves) have found to be successful, based on the best of writing research adapted to the realities of our high school classrooms. It has been developed over the last thirty years and used successfully with students at all ability levels, grades 9 through 12. We have seen elementary and junior high/middle school teachers use it in a variety of adaptations. It has worked in all these classes.
We would like to comment on the formulaic nature of the unit. For the first two essays–which we called the training essays–we have sentence requirements for each paragraph. This lets us see if our students understand the parts of the essay. When they are ready to leave the format–when they have shown us they understand how different parts work together–they are free to wean themselves from it. They must meet the minimum number of paragraphs (4), the minimum number of words per paragraph (outlined in the chart on page 71), and the minimum ratio of concrete detail and commentary, but they no longer must adhere to a sentence requirement. The formulaic nature of this unit does not bother us because students may leave it once they understand it. Some students leave the format early in the process; others choose not to leave it at all because they like the structure and say it helps them know what to do with a blank page.
The sample nine-week time line is predicated upon a 50- or 60-minute period. It teaches the literature analysis essay first and the personal essay second. Others may prefer to teach the personal paper later in the year. We have tried all these sequences and find that they all work. We encourage you to start with the one you do best, and then teach the other format. You will also see that this writing unit does not include grammar instruction out of context. We believe that such instruction does not help students write better essays, a belief supported by many research studies. What does work is direct instruction within the context of a student’s own writing. When students make a grammar mistake, we spend time at that point teaching how to fix the error and avoid it in the future. We find that classroom organization and planning are especially important here in order to accommodate different students with different needs. When several students make the same kind of error, we can spend time with the entire class on a particular point. We keep this intervention short; our goal is to address a particular weakness and have our students return to their writing as soon as possible. To this end, we use a number of sources for grammar instruction and practice, the same ones English teachers use across the country.
This brings us to one final comment: this unit is very flexible. It has absorbed as many variations in sequence and presentation as there are teachers using it. We offer several ways to organize it, all based on first-hand experience, but we know that there are many other combinations that will work as well. We believe that all teachers adapt ideas to fit their own teaching styles, and this unit, like all of our curriculum packets, is easily and successfully modified.