Today, students will work on a short formal writing assignment. The topic of the assignment is power. They have already formulated questions about this topic in a previous lesson. Today, I ask students to walk up to the wall where we have posted all the questions they formulated and to select one they are interested in responding to in writing today. I'm hoping to facilitate students' thinking process by giving them the opportunity to choose what question they will respond to. Students write the question selected on a piece of paper. I tell students they will be drafting a formal response on this paper. Their response will be an argumentative paragraph where they state a claim about the topic of power and provide supporting evidence from the texts we have read so far in class. Students respond to this with a quizzical expression. I tell them that I will be walking them through each step of this process.
I begin with a quick overview of terminology my students are familiar with: topic sentence, evidence and analysis. I have a large chart with these basic elements of an essay prepared in advance. My students usually come to me with vague knowledge of these terms and their writing tends to lack control of them. This is the first formal written assignment for this particular group of students and I'm assuming this much. To gather a bit more information, I place the chart on the board, point to Topic Sentence and ask them if they know what this means and if they can explain it on their own. I'm preventing something I know they will want to do, read off the chart word by word. Few can explain it in their own words. The same happens with Analysis. Evidence is the only term several of them can successfully explain on their own. They notice that I skipped Thesis and I explain that it is because they are only writing two paragraphs today, not an entire essay, which is when a Thesis is needed. We are not writing an entire essay because it takes a lot to complete the first essay of the school year. I like assigning shorter pieces of writing at the beginning of the year because we get to practice the skills of formulating claims and analyzing and supporting ideas with evidence, but at a smaller and more manageable scale.
The first step I have my students take is writing a topic sentence. We have discussed that a topic sentence states what the entire paragraph is about, which is an easier way of saying that it establishes the central idea in the paragraph. I find it helpful to offer the entire class a definition and an easier version of it at the same time. My struggling students especially benefit from this. I explain that in this paragraph, their central idea will be their response to the question they selected. I instruct them to formulate an answer and give them a few minutes to do this. During this time, some will formulate an eloquent, clear sentence and some will not be able to come up with anything at all. I openly acknowledge that the writing process is not this linear, meaning that a writer does not begin by formulating their central idea and move on. What actually happens often, I continue, is that a writer may have a vague idea of the central idea they want to establish and will quickly jot something down and move on and that it is not until later in the writing process that their central idea is clarified. At that point, I finish, the writer may come back and edit their initial central idea. I tell the class that if any of them are unclear about their answer at this point, to go ahead and jot something down and they will have an opportunity to edit this sentence later in the period as they engage in the writing process.
The second step is for students to revisit the children's stories we have been working with and select evidence to support their topic sentence. In this manner, they will be practicing supporting their ideas with textual evidence, as per the Common Core. One of the stories is "The Bear That Wasn't" and the other one is "Click, Clack, Moo, Cows That Type." Students will need access to a few copies of these for reference as they work. What I did is scan the pages, put them on a power point and printed a few copies of the slides for students to share. They need little guidance as they select evidence. They are very familiar with selecting examples from a text to support their ideas. The only guidance I give them is to remind them and emphasize the fact that there is such a thing as strong and weak evidence. Strong evidence, I continue, strongly supports their central idea. I ask students to refer to their topic sentence repeatedly as they select their evidence. There are students who do not have a clear topic sentence at this point. To these students, I tell that they should select the details from the story that they believe can help them discuss something significant about power and that this will be an opportunity to decide what point they will make about this topic, which will allow them to go back and clarify their topic sentence. I ask all students not to write their selected evidence on their paper yet. Some will choose to copy a quote on scratch paper. These are children’s stories and easy to remember so most students will opt to keep the detail in mind.
Finally, we arrive at analysis. I tell them that their analytical sentences work the hardest in their writing because their job is to connect everything. To explain, I refer to a previous lesson on Costa’s Levels of Inquiry and ask students to label each of the elements in their paragraph as level 1, 2, or 3. I quickly add that I am aware that these are not formulated as questions, but that they should remember that levels of questioning also refer to levels of thinking. Specifically, level 1information is found straight on the text and requires less thinking. Level 2 information has to come from our minds and explains how we are processing and making sense of level 1 information. Level 3 goes beyond the text and expressed profound thinking. With this, students can quite easily state that evidence is level 1 that their topic sentence level 3. I state that analysis is level 2 or level 3, which means that it comes from their mind and expresses how they make sense of the details they just selected from the stories. This is a lot of information for them so I give them concrete criteria to follow as they write the rest of their paragraph: Analysis must explain how the evidence proves their topic sentence and it must be level 2 or level 3. Later in the year, I expect to give them more mini lessons on the writing process. This is all I tell them today. I want to see what they do with this information.
I let students draft the rest of the period. I ask them all to turn it in by the end of the period because I need to read their work and see what I need to do to support them in their writing. In this video, I discuss one student sample.