Before students start writing their essays, they need to see what an organized essay looks like; they also need practice in organizing claims as well as individualized feedback. I’ve struggled with this aspect of writing-teaching because 1) It’s often unclear how many students are focused when I’m “showing” examples, and 2) Not all students are intrigued by essay graphic organizers.
Given these issues, I tried a new hands-on approach to essay organization for one of my classes that got students are out of their seats and (all) actively engaged with the material. I borrowed this approach from Dr. Lorie Ostrander several years ago and have since tried out variations of this with larger groups of students.
Note: We have been following the Evidence-Based Claims Literary Technique Unit from Odell Education’s Developing Core Proficiencies series; students have already been taught how to read closely, for evidence-based claims, and have seen and been walked through a sample evidence-based essay.
- Establish objectives (develop ability to organize essays) and remind students of discussion norms/protocols.
- Students write out claims that they’ve made on 8×11″ paper (one claim per sheet, written with marker in large print)
- Give directions: Tell students that they will work together to organize their claims. They’ll be looking for larger, “global claims” and will see what claims might work to support global claims.
- Students stand up in a circle; spread out claims on the floor.
- Encourage students pair claims that seem similar, or to begin to organize the claims. The teacher may suggest a “global claim” and then ask students to decide what sub-claims they would need to support this claim.
- Require students to provide an explanation every time he/she moves a claim & require students to get consensus from other students. Remind students that it’s OK to not use every claim (if it doesn’t fit, then leave it out).
In this class, the students discovered that they were missing a few claims and ended up writing out a few new claims to fill in the gaps. What I liked about this was that it allowed students to better visualize the process of “building” an essay; they were able to move around and swap claims easily. This exercise also required students to work together and discuss organization with me as a facilitator rather than a lecturer.
Modifications & Variations
- I plan to test this out with a larger class by 1) Doing more active modeling in front of the class and then 2) Asking students to try out this activity in small-groups (desks in clusters of 4 take on the bulk of the work while I circulate around the classroom to ask questions and provide feedback)
- If multiple groups are organizing the same claims, it might make sense to have students discuss how they organized their claims & help each other evaluate this organization.
- Another idea: The “Organizing Evidence-Based Claims” sheets from Odell are created in such a way that it’s easy to cut/re-organize claims. Students who continue to struggle with organization could potentially use these to organize their entire essay/swap out pieces of evidence and sub-claims before they begin writing.