Today students will spend the first part of class on a timed-writing assignment. The assignment asks for students to explain the meaning of a quote, take a position on what is communicated in the quote and support their position with evidence. These are the three tasks they are going to be asked to do in a writing assessment they are taking in class in the near future. This assessment and its purpose have already been explained to students in a previous lesson. The task allows students to practice informational writing, in that they explain what the quote means, as well as argumentative writing, in that they have to take a position on what the quote communicates and develop this position. The essay they write for the assessment will have to be completed in 45 minutes. Today, the quote students have to explain and agree/disagree with is a quote I selected for them from an excerpt of Thoreau’s Walden: “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Students have already analyzed, discussed and agreed or disagreed with what is communicated in this quote and have written about it. Because of this, they will only have 20 minutes to finish an their entire essay.
I remind students that they are working on a timed writing assignment today and that the prompt is to do the following three tasks with the Thoreau quote we have been working with:
Explain the quote, take a position and support position with evidence.
I write these brief instructions on the board. I announce that because they have already done some writing on this, they will only get 20 minutes to draft an entire essay. The expected gasps erupt and I explain that I am preparing them for the writing assessment they will be taking in the near future, which only gives them 45 minutes to do everything, including what students have already done with the Thoreau quote at this point. Somebody asks if they can use all the writing they have already done for this quote and I say, “Absolutely!” This makes them feel better. This timed writing session also addresses CCSS Writing standard 10 that calls for students to engage in a variety of writing tasks.
I ask students to take out their packet of sample essays they received in the previous lesson and to refer to them as needed during their writing session. The essays in this packet are meant to be used as models of what to do and what to avoid as they write. I briefly review the things I would like them to keep in mind as they write. These are some last minutes guidelines before jumping into this timed writing session:
The essay with the top score used multiple examples to support the argument. Make sure you give specific evidence.
Use the best vocabulary you are able to control, meaning that you don’t want to use advanced vocabulary you don’t know how to use.
Make it clear you understand what the quote means.
I also give them a copy of transitions and encourage them to use these as they write. In terms of structure, I tell them the best way of approaching this is to explain what the quote means in the intro paragraph. Also, they should end their intro with a sentence stating their position and to give reason(s) why they take that position. The body paragraphs should be devoted to explaining their position and backing it up with evidence. This is a lot of last-minute guidelines, but they have heard all of this more than once so I am not worried about overwhelming them.
With this, I give them 20 minutes to write. This is the first timed writing they do with me and I know they have not had much experience doing this so there will be issues of time management. The reason why I assign the quote we have been talking about for a few days is to make this timed-writing session one where they are mainly getting their feet wet. They have already highlighted significant words and phrases, talked about the meaning of it and explained it on their paper, like this student has. They can incorporate all this work into today’s writing assignment.
Students start off slow. I let five minutes go by. Even though I asked them to work in absolute silence, some have been whispering questions to each other. I begin to call out the time. I announce that five minutes have gone by and that they now have fifteen minutes. I make the best out of this interruption and remind them they only have 20 minutes for this and that I will grade whatever they have finished at that time. This has the intended effect of giving them a jolt, especially those with the poorest time management. The class is absolutely quiet the remainder of the writing session. I call out time every five minutes.
I then announce that they will get 2 minutes to edit. Again, this is meant to give them the experience of on-demand writing. I did not let them know they would be getting this time to edit because I did not want them to use this time for last minute writing. It is really important that they learn to edit their work. They have not learned the value of editing so at this point I need to purposely make time for them to edit their writing before they turn it in.
I then ask students to turn in their writing as well as the paper with the work for the quote.
I tell students we are moving on to a new writing assignment, I ignore the groans, and explain that this new assignment is also asking them to do the three tasks we have been practicing: explain the quote, take a position and support position with evidence. The new quote is on the topic of solitude and the copy I give them is structured in the same way the writing assessment they are taking in the near future will be structured.
To help them do the first task successfully, make meaning of the quote, I ask students to take 2 minutes to highlight the most important words in the quote. I remind them of the mistake someone made in the previous lesson when trying to explain the argument made in the quote about using celebrities in ads. I use that mistake to illustrate the importance of highlighting the most important words, the ones that carry the meaning of the quote. I make the point that when they don’t focus on the words that carry the meaning of this quote, they arrive at an inaccurate interpretation. So I say, “Remember yesterday, someone said that the quote about using celebrities in ads is making the argument that we should not fall for advertising? We realized that this was not accurate. That statement would lead you off topic. That inaccurate interpretation means you missed the real point, which is in the words ‘boycott’ and ‘legislate’ and ‘celebritiy ads.’ These words would lead you to say that this quote is calling for a boycott on ads that use celebrities and to push for legislation that prohibits the use of celebrities to sell products.” I emphasize the importance of making sure they have highlighted the most significant words and phrases and that they think about these as they try and explain the meaning of this quote.
I then give them 4 minutes to discuss what it means in small groups. Engaging in discussion is very helpful when students are trying to make sense of a text, even when it is only a quote. They will not be allowed to discuss the quote during the writing assessment I am preparing them for, but discussion is a great tool to help students get better at making meaning of sophisticated language. I ask students to come up with one sentence that explains the quote per group. I listen in and engage students in conversation, like these two students in this video who were doing a good job of making sense of this quote.
I then ask students to share sentences with the whole class and we discuss together. The first sentence shared was inaccurate. A student suggests the quote is arguing that loneliness can sometimes be your best company. I want other students to point out the misunderstanding so I ask the second group who shares to agree or disagree with this. They thankfully disagree and one of the two students in the video gives an accurate description of the quote, except he does not highlight the central idea, solitude. I push the third group to use words from the quote. This is meant to push them to use the word solitude because that is what the quote was mainly talking about. This group does a good job of using the phrases “achieve most important goals” and “we are pressured and encouraged” to be with others. This was a good opportunity to again highlight the importance of identifying the powerful language and sticking close to what the author is trying to communicate. Some of the students who have a sentence that is mostly accurate but just misses one important point are a bit frustrated. For instance, one student’s sentence captures the idea of achieving our most important goals in solitude but then states that we can also achieve our goals in some other way, which is not what the author claims. I make sure to make the point that we need to make these mistakes during this lesson because the point of this lesson is to help them avoid these mistakes in the future. We certainly do not want them to make these mistakes on an important assessment like the one coming up.
I want students to work on an introductory paragraph for this prompt for homework. The introductory paragraph must address two parts of the writing task: explain the quote and take a position. I point out that we have already interpreted the quote together and that they just have to explain it in writing and take a stand. They should be ready to share this in class tomorrow.