The Wandering Essay: A Lesson Plan for Teaching Writing


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Before I even started teaching I knew that one of the most difficult parts of the job would be teaching writing. It’s not that I consider myself a great writer; I know I’m prone to tangents, and I’ve never met a dash, comma, or semi-colon I didn’t want to use. It’s just that I find writing pretty intuitive. For informal pieces like this one, I tend to write the way that I talk, and for more structured academic writing my first drafts are pretty crappy—but they get written and then ironed out in my editing process. The takeaway here is that I’ve had to think hard about how to teach writing because the process of writing isn’t really one that I had to articulate before I had students. Knowing that many of you are almost ready to collect first essay assignments, I thought I’d talk a bit today about how we teach writing to students. My Wandering Essay lesson plan is one of the meanest, most productive approaches I’ve used because it makes clear the fact that writing is a process. Here’s how you do it:

Based off of the readings for the week in which you conduct this lesson plan, come up with an essay question that encourages students to make an argument (for or against). Write it on the board.

5 minutes. Break students into groups of 3. Explain what an essay’s introduction needs to do (set out the argument, introduce the reader to the sources, gesture at the essay’s counterargument).

10 minutes. Ask each group to take one sheet of paper, and together as a group, write out the introductory paragraph to their essay.

photo10 minutes. Ask groups to pause, and explain what topic sentences need to do. Explain what a counterargument needs to accomplish, emphasizing that although the counterargument should introduce evidence that contradicts the overarching argument, it must also explain why the essay’s original argument is more important. Ask each group to take their introduction, and pass it to the group next to them. That group is now responsible for writing the topic sentences (including the topic sentence for the counterargument) for their new essay, based off of the other group’s introduction. You should instruct them to read the introduction, write a topic sentence, skip down 3-4 four lines, write another topic sentence, skip down 3-4 lines, write another topic sentence, skip down 3-4 lines, and write the topic sentence of the counterargument. It may be helpful to draw a rough sketch of what their paper should look like on the board.

10 minutes. Ask groups to pause, and explain that together, the introduction and topic sentences should provide a road map that indicates what evidence students will use to write their essay. Ask each group to take their piece of paper with introduction and topic sentences, and pass it to the next group. That group is now responsible for coming up with the pieces of evidence for each paragraph. They may use bullet points rather than write full sentences.

5 minutes. Ask groups to pass their completed essay back to the original groups. Students should read their essay, and discuss whether or not it came out the way that they expected.

5 minutes. Wrap up the session by making several points:

Change arg1) That this exercise was difficult because students could not change the introduction or topic sentences as they wrote. Emphasize that while writing a real take-home essay, students can and should be constantly re-evaluating the argument as stated in their introduction, and the tie-ins to the argument that they’ve suggested in their topic sentences. Writing should be a process that helps students figure out their argument, and they shouldn’t really know exactly what they’re arguing until they’ve analyzed their evidence.

2) That the essays they’ve written were easy to write for two reasons: because they talked about it out loud, and because they were writing by hand. Emphasize that written work should be produced independently to avoid plagiarism, but that students can and should talk through ideas with peers, and ask people to proofread their work. You should also suggest that it can sometimes be very helpful to step away from the laptop, pull out a piece of paper, and try to draft something the old-fashioned way. Doing so sometimes yields an essay draft in as little as 45 minutes.

Writing by hand3) That all essays should go through several drafts before being handed in. If students follow this process, they should have time to go through another draft (at least) before the essay deadline.

There are a few ways to tweak this exercise. Our first- and second-year seminars are a very short 45 minutes, which means that there’s really only time to run the plan the way I’ve written it. If I had more time I’d break the counterargument section into its own block, and have students do it at the end, once they’d filled in topic sentences and evidence for the other essays (though I’d emphasize that a counterargument can go at the beginning or end of an essay). I’d also have groups write a conclusion, because you obviously need one in an essay.

I really enjoy running this lesson plan. A very, very small part of me does enjoy students’ look of doom when they figure out that they have to write someone else’s essay, but overall the most gratifying feeling is the look of relief on their faces when they walk out of seminar knowing that they can write a well-structured first draft in less than an hour. It’s the best way I’ve found of emphasizing writing as a process rather than a product—but I’m ready to hear your methods for teaching writing in the comments!

4 comments on “The Wandering Essay: A Lesson Plan for Teaching Writing

  1. Thank You! I really enjoy reading and listening when other teachers discuss teaching writing. I have taught AP US History for 25 years now and find that so many students are crippled by the “Grammar Hammer,” and have difficulty articulating their arguments. In our class, all of our writings are timed essays, yet in the beginning, I have approached teaching writing as an extension of a verbal exchange with which the students have a familiarity and use topics other than history as a modeling opportunity with the class. I find once the students begin to feel free from fear of error they begin to allow themselves to attempt to persuade each other and create thoughtful arguments naturally, especially in groups, as you use in your example. I have found that after a few lessons that are similar to yours above, for most students, the structure of essays seems inherently natural and thus allows them to focus on the substance of their arguments.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts—I am looking forward to experimenting with your lesson in my classes 🙂


  2. phadde2 says:

    When Hemingway uses a semicolon, he’s a genius. When you use a semicolon, you’re a moron.

  3. This is purely great method of teaching essay writing. I liked especially the tackling of the counterargument part. Each student should thoroughly understand that their argument exists because of the counterargument.

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