We’re at the end of our first grading period this semester, and I want to share something I meant to post at the end of the last semester: my final writing project with my English 6 class. Day-to-day busy-ness has kept me from getting to it until now; it’s been a busy, busy semester in terms of teaching. I’m serving as the interim director of the language program, which means many new administrative responsibilities, and I’m also teaching two English 1 classes, in addition to working on with our organic garden project and our women’s leadership program. Working with beginning level students after teaching English 5 and 6 last semester is quite a difference, especially since one of the classes is all first-semester students who are still getting used to being in a university, living away from their families, etc. There’s a lot going on!
The final writing project that my English students completed in December, though, is one of my favorite teaching experiences from my time here in Carmen Pampa. Our essential question for the semester was, “How do we use language to show hospitality?” – my attempt to contextualize and lend a little depth and critical thinking to a textbook focused on communication within the service industry. As a final project to challenge students to think more about the essential question, and to put into practice the writing skills we’d developed throughout the semester, I decided to show the film Rent and ask the students to write a 5-paragraph essay about examples of hospitality in the movie.
The 5-paragraph essay is a common part of ESL and ELA instruction; in Minnesota, passing a writing exam in ninth grade is a requirement to graduate, and I’ve spent lots of time with colleagues brainstorming different strategies and techniques for teaching students how to write a 5-paragrah essay successfully. This time, with limited class hours and a format that was new to many of my students, I decided to try something I’ve thought about for a while, after seeing a presentation at a professional conference in Minnesota a couple of years ago: Presenting students with an essay template, and teaching them how to complete it.
I found the template to be very successful with this group of students. Although in some ways they were just “filling in the blanks,” giving them the template allowed them to focus more on expressing their own ideas than on the format, and it ensured that they were able to express their ideas more or less coherently. All of the students were very proud of their final products, and on an end-of-semester evaluation many listed this project as both the most challenging and the most enjoyable of the semester. I was amazed by the insights that students drew from the film – some examples of their essays are below, as well as the two handouts I gave to students to guide their work.
This is a format that I’d like to continue working with in the future. I think it might work well to start with a format like this at the beginning of the school year, and gradually remove elements of the scaffolding over the course of the year as students become more and more confident in their own ability to organize their ideas and focus their paragraphs. As a place to begin, I found that this worked very well: Students were able to really focus on understanding the film and developing their own thoughts and opinions, and their final essays were an authentic expression of their perspectives.
I’d love to hear from other teachers how you teach and scaffold extended writing projects for your students!