Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Little Modeling Goes a Long Way

Mrs. Essenburg, I was just going to ask you why you had given me the low grade of a B on my last essay, and then you gave us this model essay, and I realized I should just be thankful I got a B.

As an INFP for whom conflict feels toxic, this comment alone--actually made in my classroom this week Wednesday--is reason enough to make me a devotee of using model papers. And what’s more, now that I’m reading the rough drafts students wrote after analyzing the model paper--an essay from a previous year by a real 10th grader in response to the same prompt--I’m finding they are the best set I’ve ever had. 

The principle is if you want to help students write better nonfiction, have them read some nonfiction. The closer you can make the reading-writing connection, the better. Professional models are good: Here’s a personal narrative; now you write a personal narrative. Excellent responses of past students to the same prompt current students will be writing on are also good. 

And a protocol for analyzing the writing is even better. With the personal narrative sample, have students look for examples of specific actions, vivid sensory descriptions, and dialogue or internal monologue. Last year I handed out the model student essay--and students oohed and aahed, and then wrote essays very similar to previous years. This year I had them read it using the following protocol:

Read the model paper. 
  1. Identify parts of the intro: the hook (to what extent does it hook you? why/why not?), thesis with preview of points (Number the points. Is there an inherent logic of development?), analogy.
  2. Highlight topic sentences. Number with corresponding point. To what extent does the topic sentence (a) connect to the thesis, (b) summarize the paragraph, (c) transition logically and smoothly from the previous paragraph. What organizing principle did the author use for putting the aspects of identity in this order? Does it work?
  3. Balance of sources and commentary: Draw a box around quotations/cited ideas. How many different ways are they integrated? Underline commentary/explanation/personal examples. To what extent does this person stand out as an individual, or could the paper apply to anyone with the same personality type?
  4. Conclusion: To what extent does the conclusion leave you with a satisfying sense of closure? How does it do that? (How much summary? Any new information? If so, is it distracting, or does it help to tie up what you’ve already read?)
  5. Sentence fluency: Draw a star next to one cool sentence.
  6. Diction: Circle one great example of word choice (individual word or a phrase)
  7. Overall: To what extent did this piece accomplish the goal of clarifying the author’s identity for himself and, in the process, communicating the importance of anyone doing the same? What aids or hinders the accomplishment of this goal? Any suggestions?  
It just makes sense. If you want to be a good tennis player, in addition to endless hours of practice, you also watch good tennis, looking for tips to pick up. If you want to be a good pianist, in addition to endless hours of practice, you also watch and listen to good pianists, looking for tips to pick up. Watching lacrosse in order to become a better wrestler makes about as much sense as reading Huck Finn in order to write better research papers. Unless, of course, it’s a research paper on Samuel Clemens. Sure, there’s some crossover--especially for the gifted--but for those of us who are just slogging it out, looking for a little help, some really obvious signposts help.

The 3 benefits I've found to using model papers are (1) raising awareness of what the bar of good writing is, (2) better student writing as a result, and just possibly (3) lifelong habits of reading like a writer.

Friday a colleague also used model student essays with a protocol for analysis. She sounded pretty excited afterward. I'm not sure why it took me this long, but I think we might be on to something here.

P.S. If you want to know more about using model papers of all sorts--professional sources, your own, as well as your students’, read Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts.

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