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Sunday, January 22, 2017

I have a theory.

I have a theory about paragraphs.

At the start of the year, my students hated my theory.

As the year has progressed, it has started to become less onerous.

Here is my theory.

A paragraph, particularly a single paragraph response, should be the same number of sentences a student has been in school.

So back in middle school, 6-8 sentences might have been enough to satisfy.

But this is 9th grade.

In ninth grade, 9-12 sentences should be enough...probably.

Now I am not saying every paragraph need be super lengthy.

I'm saying every short answer essay, every constructed response, every single paragraph response needs to be at least 9 sentences.

The breakdown is simple:

1-2 sentences restating the prompt and making a clear and complete claim.

1-2 sentences providing EACH of THREE or more examples/evidence (2 x 3 = 6)

1-2 sentences explaining how each of the three or more examples/evidence prove the claim (2 x 3 = 6)

1-2 sentences stating a conclusion with the impact of the claim.

That total is between 8 sentences (very hard to do) and 16 sentences (also sometimes hard to do).

It sounds barbaric.

That's because it kind of is.

The thing is, though, kids need building blocks to write well.

Just like math has formulas, so does writing.

To really write well, you have to master the formulas and then disrupt the heck out of 'em.

Its the mastering the formulas part that sucks.

It really just does.

There is nothing fun about formulaic paragraph writing.

On the other hand, there is something deeply satisfying about being able to quickly and precisely churn out an answer that will showcases your thinking, earns you a good grade, and doesn't make you want to claw your eyes out.

All this means that we spend time writing a bazillion constructed response paragraphs.

We are starting slow. Our first few attempts take between forty five minutes and an hour.

By the end of next month, almost every student will be able to produce an adequate paragraph in under 20 minutes.

The best part is because of NaNoWriMo, there is very little complaining.

I guess after being forced to spend an entire month writing incessantly, a paragraph doesn't seem so terrible.

Plus, I freely acknowledge that it isn't fun writing.

Instead we talk about why it is important.

How you can use Claim, Evidence, Reasoning, Impact to write a paragraph, a five paragraph essay, a multi-page paper, or even a powerful narrative.

We use a three column scoring guide that includes instructions, grades, and transitions and sentence starters.

The last year I really focused on this, we called it PEEL: Point, evidence, explanation, link.

Now we use CERI to match the middle school instruction.

I doubt it really matters which acronym one uses.

The important part is focusing on those building blocks.

I wish I were better about making this type of writing...ok, any type of writing, more of a priority each year.

I always seem to get distracted by test prep and reading requirements and learning targets and ad infinitum.

But I am learning and getting better.

Occasionally, I wander into other English classrooms and mention my theory.

Upperclassman always balk, pause, then nod thoughtfully.

It always makes me smile.

I guess that is a good thing.

Definitely, seeing students make an effort to write, to follow directions, to write well, is a very good thing.

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