During my first three years of teaching, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed with planning, teaching, and grading essays. Whenever I would look ahead at my plan book, I would immediately feel nervous thinking of how to plan the next writing unit. In college, my professors assigned a paper, and I wrote a paper. There was a lot of discussing content, but nearly nothing in terms of discussing process.
However, during my fourth year of teaching, I had an epiphany. I was working diligently on my dissertation, my final requirement to earn my doctorate, and I realized the process I was going through with guidance and feedback from my dissertation committee produced the absolute best work I had ever written to date. That’s when I realized that I should model the teaching practice in my classroom just like the writing process I was experiencing while writing my dissertation. My Manuscript Model came to be, albeit rather slowly.
Over the years, I applied what I learned through the process to my planning, teaching, and feedback. This system overhaul revolutionized my entire teaching career. I created a plan that I can apply to all writing units. No more stressing about planning. No longer did I have to stress about how to teach something that was challenging for my students, but came easily to me. And, finally, NO more long hours spent grading at home.
In this article series, I’ll explain my system through the three elements I discussed above: planning, teaching, and grading. This article is specific to the planning process, describing how I streamlined my planning process. Here are six strategies to apply to your writing to improve student writing and teacher workload.
Make Revision the Center of Your Plan
The first and most important change that I made was changing my writing unit plan format to focus on revision. In the past, I had great lessons about writing introductions, thesis statements, conclusions, etc., but it was a one-and-done process. I thought if I’m struggling to grade essays once through, how could I possibly grade them twice through? However, I realized that again, I was putting the onus on me and not on my students. Now, I design my writing units so that students receive feedback and a preliminary score from me and feedback from their peers. Then, we focus on revision for improvement.
This shift has to start from the beginning of the unit by encouraging students to think about their essays as a work in progress. After all, every article or book chapter I’ve written has gone through rigorous revision. I’ve found that students make the mindset shift when I emphasize revision from the beginning and throughout the process. It really only takes one revision writing unit for students to compare their first drafts and their final drafts (and their scores) for them to buy in! Once they do, you’ll never go back! The revision is where the real learning takes place.
As a side note, I want to point out that I do not use a revision assignment for every essay. Still, I always create a revision assignment for the first essay of its kind for the students. This means that if students are writing an argumentative essay for the first time, it will definitely be a revision assignment, so they can learn through revision. However, if they complete additional argumentative essays throughout the year, I may not assign the essay as a revision. This is particularly true for my AP classes. They need to practice pacing for the requirements on the test, and therefore, after they’ve had at least one assignment using revision, they will not always have this option.
Revise Your Assignment
Speaking of revision, have you revised your assignment lately? After you’ve established revision as the focus of your students’ essay, I suggest taking your own advice by revising your essay directions. One of my key mistakes years ago was that I didn’t have a great vision for the project. Once I started using backwards design to plan my reading and writing units, I was able to focus in on the specific objective(s) and then re-design my essay units and assessment rubrics to meet those objectives. Having this clarity helped me design a writing unit that was directly aligned to the objective, while also being practical in terms of how I would be able to assess and provide feedback. When my objective became clear, so did my feedback. Not only was this far more helpful for students, but it also helped me provide more targeted, direct, and time efficient feedback.
Master Your Writing Rubric
One of the most important parts of the assignment directions revision is creating a rubric. I found that thinking of the rubric for the students, not for me, helped me create a rubric that was realistic, aligned, and simplified. In the past, I was guilty of giving students an assignment and using the rubric just for my grading. While this might be a fine practice for other assignments, I encourage you to use the rubric to your advantage for essays. When students have a really good understanding of the rubric, they’ll be able to improve their essays more efficiently during revision and they’ll be less likely to be confused about your feedback (or score). Here are some tips that I’ve discovered along the way:
- Keep it short. Long, confusing rubrics can complicate students’ understanding of the essay and how they’re being assessed. Not to mention for the teacher, they take SO long to use!
- Keep it simple. Simple language and function is best. If you have to use writing jargon or vocabulary, be sure to review it closely with students prior to the feedback step.
- Keep it aligned. The connection between the rubric and the objective(s) of the unit should be clear on the rubric. Otherwise, you’ll have to do more work to determine if students mastered or showed growth in relation to the objective.
There are several different types of rubrics to choose from. Your situation might dictate a specific one to use, and of course, you may already have a rubric depending on the task at hand. For example, if you are teaching an essay that is on a standardized test, like an AP test or a state standardized test, don’t reinvent the wheel. Save yourself time and use their rubric. Ultimately, this will help your students. You can read about the different types of rubrics and which ones I like to use here.
Plan for Writing Quality, Not Quantity
Want to know a secret? I do NOT provide a page length. I don’t even give them a page length suggestion. Of course, students always ask, and I always give the same answer: “I can’t tell you how long your essay should be because it’s your essay.” I refocus the question to have a discussion on quality content versus quantity fluff. We all have heard urban legends of students who had a 15-page paper due for a class, and after about six pages got sick of it and decided to copy and paste the Braveheart screenplay smack dab in the middle (true story, but not in my class fortunately!). The point is writing length isn’t a badge of honor.
Students don’t need experience writing long essays. They just need experience writing essays. Once they have the building blocks of organization, structure, cohesion, argumentation, syntax, etc., writing a more complex (ahem, longer) essay will come naturally. But, length should be secondary to the development of an argument, not the other way around. Your students and your grading will be better off if you shift the focus to quality content versus asking them to write a 4-6 page essay with a whole lot of fluff. Of course, they will need guidance to be able to develop their ideas. The next points will give you ideas to help students develop their essays, while also saving you time grading in the end.
Plan Writing Checkpoints
The thought of writing a full essay can be really overwhelming for students. As a grad student, I remember feeling so intimidated by the dreaded dissertation. Thinking about writing an entire research study, made me wince. However, after speaking to my dissertation chair, we broke down my dissertation by chapter and then by section within the chapter. Having manageable sections was far more doable. Plus, as I went along the way, my advisor provided feedback so that I could redirect before making costly errors.
I use this same approach with students. I provide several writing checkpoints that align to the objectives and rubric for the assignment. The checkpoints will differ based on the topic. But, here is an example of what it might look like for an argumentative essay:
- Brainstorming checkpoint
- Thesis checkpoint
- Introduction (with added thesis) checkpoint
- Outline checkout
- Using evidence in body paragraph 1 checkpoint
- Conclusion checkpoint
Along with each checkpoint, I show students exemplary examples of the task. Sometimes this means that I have to write my own. But often you can find exemplary examples for the part of the essay that you’re teaching. If you’re teaching an essay that is aligned to a standardized test, you can often find released examples with scoring commentary.
These checkpoints break the essay down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and they cut down on the amount of feedback that I have to give at the end. If I can gently guide students through these checkpoints, they very likely will turn in a first draft that is more focused and better developed. It might be a little intimidating to think of all the grading that *could* go along with the checkpoints, but the checkpoints don’t have to result in extra grading. Rather than thinking of the checkpoints as an assignment, I like to think of it and present it as an opportunity for feedback. You certainly can give a score for accountability purposes, but you can pick or choose how to apply it to the checkpoints. Logistically, I use a simple conferencing strategy to make this work.
Conferencing and Check Points
Conferencing is a valuable strategy to manage the grading workload, and there are many ways to modify the strategy to meet the needs of your students. For instance, small groups or one-on-one conferencing works great. Your feedback can be targeted to a specific concept overall, or it can be individualized to students. Even better, conferencing works great in a digital classroom as well. This strategy is manageable because you can meet with students while they’re working on other steps. You can read this article to get more tips for successful conferencing.
Prepare Exemplary Essays
As already mentioned, it is helpful to break down exemplary essays or parts of essays to serve as an example. Usually, I choose topics that are similar, but not directly related to the prompt. Then, if I can’t find an exemplary essay, I write one. This obviously is extra work upfront, but it is something I’ve been able to use year after year.
In addition, I don’t always write the entire essay. Instead, I might write one exemplary paragraph. The benefit comes when I review the exemplary elements of the example essay. In other words, I explain what makes it exemplary. I also apply the rubric to the example so that students can learn how the rubric works as a grading tool. This effort provides students with a point of comparison, which is helpful for both writing and revision.
Prepare an Organizational Guide
There is nothing like having a set plan when it comes to planning a writing unit. Considering all of these strategies, I created a free Writing Plan Guide that you can use for teaching the three main Common Core strategies. Sign up below to grab your free copy.
I also find it really helpful to create a workbook with all of the reading checkpoints in one place. A workbook is a collection of students prewriting tasks and guides them through the process of writing the essay. I like to create workbooks that are specific one to type of writing. With this format, steps in the process are applicable to the specific task. These writing workbooks make it so that the entire unit is essentially planned ahead of time. Also, students appreciate that all of their tasks are in one place and organized in a helpful way. You can check out my writing workbooks below: