However, despite that large volume of writing, we haven't written many "standard" essays. We have done multi-draft pieces, but not as many as I'd like, really. And part of that was that in figuring out PBL and self-paced reading, I lost focus on teaching intense/formal writing. So my goal for the remaining seven weeks is to bring that back into focus and give them an intense writer's workshop model to sharpen their abilities as writers of academic content.
The first essay is one that goes along with a school-wide project: The Power Plant Proposal. Students research energy sources, write a report, then form interest groups and prepare a presentation to the Town Council (students elected by their peers) about which energy sources would make the most sense for the fictional town in the scenario.
Students are VERY confused about all those pieces (some of that is poor teacher-to-teacher communication, and some is just the complex nature of the project) but the idea is to have a persuasive essay in the middle of the process to help students craft the best possible final argument. And that's where abstracts come in.
So far, we've had students do (largely unguided) research on their energy source, and then I met with them individually and helped them focus on what information they needed and what information was extraneous. Then we finally got into the computer lab to start the essay. In between testing and the projects in the other grade levels, we only got three days of computer time to write this paper.
My solution to that problem: an abstract.
In higher-level formal academic writing, an abstract is written to help your reader get an overview of your argument and give them a frame with which to read your essay. It's sort of an introduction, but doesn't spend time building background. It's sort of like a body paragraph, but has no citations or evidence. It's sort of a conclusion, but it doesn't spend time focusing on persuasion.
So we reviewed purpose/audience/voice:
- Essay Purpose: Explain your energy source and decide if it’s worth investing in
- Essay Audience: President Obama
- Essay Voice: Cabinet advisor on energy for President Obama
and then I asked students to compose an abstract that was 50-100 words and included the advantages and disadvantages of their energy source, then whether it is worth investing in. I wrote out a model quickly when I realised that they were writing things like, "My essay will discuss the ways that fuel cell technology is both good and bad. And I will convince you of my point of view."
Here's my sample:
Nuclear energy is very efficient and is far more clean than most non-renewable sources. It is expensive and has serious risks to the people who work in the plant and live around the plant, as well as to local habitats in the case of nuclear radiation run-off. But the potential environmental and human cost is offset by the benefits of nuclear power, and is therefore worth considering for Ebarts [the fictional town].
After I gave them my sample, what resulted was some of the best writing I've seen from 9th graders. However, a few students had trouble weeding out unimportant details. Thankfully, I could watch them compose live in Google Drive, so I saw it early enough to help. THAT is why I don't have them write essays at home. For example, here is one student's work.
Hydroelectric energy fuel is not burned so there is a lot less pollution. Water to run the power plant is provided free by nature;rain and rivers. Hydropower plays a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Relatively low operations and maintenance costs. The technology is reliable and proven over time; rainfall renews the water in the reservoir, so the fuel is almost always there Ecosystem damage and loss of land Though, Siltation and flow shortage; Depending on where the hydroelectric power plant is depends on how much water it will recive to make energy, so if you're some where that it rains alot it can overflow and destroy the power plant just because theres too much water. Having too little of water will cause a drought making little or no energy. Methane emissions (from reservoirs), Relocation, Failure Risks. Damms interrupts the flow of rivers and can harm local ecosystems, and building large dams and reservoirs often involves displacing people and wildlife.
It became clear quickly that it wasn't a cosmetic make-over needed; it was a whole reconstruction. So I quickly added a table to the bottom of the document and gave her instructions to copy and paste everything into the good or bad column. I told her to let me know when she was done.
Here is what she did:
After the table is what I wrote when she finished.
From there, I left her to write her paragraph.
Here is what she had done a few minutes later:
Hydroelectric water needed to run a power plant is plentiful and free both in rivers and lakes and through rainfall renewing the water in the reservoir. However, building a dam and power plant will interrupt the flows of rivers and can harm local ecosystems, and building extremely large dams and reservoirs often involves displacing people and wildlife because a large amount of land and river is needed. In a hydroelectric plant, fuel isn’t burned so there is little to no pollution or greenhouse gas emissions. But there is a risk to the environment when either high rainfall threatens to overflow and ravage the power plant, or drought will mean very little or no energy to keep the power plant running. Also, relatively small operation and maintenance costs and reliable technology are advantages that offset how expensive dams are to build. Hydroelectric power is worth considering for Ebarts’ energy needs.
That abstract tells me what she knows, what she's going to write about, and what her final position is. It also gave her some structure to help her write her body paragraphs. As a bonus, I didn't have to interrupt anyone else - the entire interaction was through Google Drive. And giving her time to work meant that I could read other students' work in the meantime.
And there is something I've NEVER had after only 45 minutes of work on an essay: EVERY STUDENT has shown me their arguments and conclusion, and has gotten feedback on those arguments and conclusions.
I'm cautiously optimistic that this is something worth doing again. Have you tried abstracts with your students when writing an essay? Any tips?