This week, I was working with a middle school student, one whom I tutor, who needed help with his entrance essay for a prestigious high school in our area.  My conscience was gnawing away at me while working with him.  First of all, when I arrived at the session, he had attempted to write the essay, but it was completely disorganized and a laundry list of his “good” qualities, with no further support or explanation as to why these qualities would make him an asset to the school.  Next, the paper was littered with syntactical and grammatical errors, making him sound like he was not fit to attend the school.  The difficult thing about being a tutor, especially when the students come to you with writing concerns, is that it is very hard to ingrain flexible and strategic writing skills when seeing a student only once per week.  Was I really helping this student (long-term) by walking him through the writing process for this essay?  Further, was he going to be able to keep up at this high-achieving school if he could not compose a one-page essay?  Regardless, I helped him through, trying to transmit some transferrable skills onto him.

In my opinion, one of the most difficult areas to teach is writing.  In fact, I believe it to be an art that can only be nurtured through some isolated skill practice which gradually releases to time to practice holistically.  Having said that, it is exceedingly difficult to teach children how to convey their own thoughts after the skill practice, especially in the elementary grades, without creating something that is too formulaic or contrived.  In some cases in the past, I feel that I’ve assigned papers, and received 25 copies of the same exact paper in return, due to the way I’ve instructed them to write.  This has neither reflected how well they’ve applied the writing lessons, nor the effectiveness of my instruction; rather, it has shown that they can follow directions and “plug and chug.”

This year, I’ve tried something radically different, and I am so happy with the results I’m receiving.

In an effort to become a teacher who uses the Common Core as frequently as possible, I began this year by teaching the five text structures.  I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t thought about this before, but seeing these words within the Common Core standards struck a chord in me.  I immediately began work on the unit.  The unit’s essential outcome was summarizing using the main idea and details of a text.  I have always struggled with teaching summarizing, as the “sponge” metaphor doesn’t always click with every child.  What’s important to me might not be “important” to them.  It seemed that “important” was too subjective a word for their concrete-operational minds.  When saying important, what I was really trying to say was, “Which facts are essential to the structure of the piece?”  Using text structures, then, became an essential foundation to teaching summarizing and determining important facts in a text.

Graphic Organizer for Cause/Effect Text Structure

Long story short, the unit went wonderfully.  We examined many texts, analyzed the text structures, and then used the structure of the text to help summarize.  For instance, we read a cause/effect text on  vultures and how they’re dying due to a drug fed to farm animals, mainly cows.  Due to the fact that vultures are scavengers, they feed on the dead carcasses of cows, causing the drug to go into their system.  In effect, they die.  By grounding this article in the cause/effect text structure and using the graphic organizer, the children were able to discern between important and unimportant facts because they either helped us see the structure of the text, or they didn’t.   In essence, instead of a metaphorical sponge, the organizer coupled with the knowledge of the text structure gave them a more concrete “sponge” in which they could pull out the main idea and important details.

Of course, I started this article talking about writing.  I suppose my “long story short” comment didn’t really pan out.  Teaching and learning never seem to be a short story, though.

This unit took place in September and October, with a review in December when we began research skills. We are currently in a place where we are writing our expository essays (or “research articles” as I like to call them) on topics they have chosen on their own.  All of them have different questions, relating to different factors within different biomes.  Note my use of repetition here–different, all different.  This used to be a nightmare–an absolute nightmare.  I never knew how to instruct an entire class, each with different topics, on writing papers independently, while still preserving structure and voice.  The answer seems to be text structure.

After months of intense practice and deep understanding of the structure of text, many of my students are, without much difficulty, learning to write and organize their papers through text structure, instead of the boring and contrived five-paragraph essay.  In fact, many of them have six- or seven-paragraph essays in which they interchange text structures based on the section of the paper in which they are.  Without this initial instruction in identifying and using text structure to summarize, I highly doubt I would be receiving the same products I am currently.

I can’t help but think, for the student that I tutor, that text structures would have helped him to become a much more independent and flexible writer.  This will be a practice I continue throughout my entire career.

I welcome comments, questions, and constructive criticism!  Please comment below!

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One thought

  1. Bravo, Mr. France!! When students are given opportunity and guidance to truly understand how to organize and write an essay, it isn't a chore, but something many of them will find enjoyable and can see success at! It's being able to recognize that we, as educators, must step back and look at ourselves if we want there to be real improvement and change within our classrooms!

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