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Essay Triage

May 7, 2012

Teacher musings:
I recently had to take a test that gave me various scenarios I might face as an English teacher and asked me how I would respond.  I can’t say too much about the test itself, but one of the prompts was all too familiar and brought back harrowing memories of my first few years teaching.  I remember the essays so well (and shudder at the thought).  We would have read a book as a class, discussed the book as a class, etc.  Then, it would be time to write the essay about the book as a class.  I would have students develop a thesis in response to a prompt, then go back into the book to find examples and evidence to support the thesis.  This usually resulted in lots of class time being spent with students asking me “where is that part where . . .” followed by me frantically looking up the”parts” they were asking about.  Students would write a first draft, go through some sort of peer revising process and then write their final drafts.  Eventually, I would collect all 160 final essays to grade (no way I could read first drafts of all those essays!).  And I would grade them.  And despair.  Because, except for a few anomalies the essays were pretty, pretty bad.

As a whole the essays were repetitive.  They all said the same basic thing, they all used the same basic examples.  And, reading most of them, it became very clear that most of my students had not read the book, and instead were parroting back topics and examples that had come up (often from me) in class discussion.  Once I realized this on essay #20, the next 140 became very painful.

The range of “not-reading” that happened in my room was wide.  Some students read parts of the book and understood them, but never developed ideas about the book as a whole.  Some students read every word, but understood (and therefore retained) little.  Some students just followed along in class and never opened the book outside of class.  The range of writing varied as well.  Some students wrote clear, complete sentences with transitions that sounded good, until you realized the students were saying nothing of any substance whatsoever.  Some students were nonsensical, but if you tried you could see that they had a germ of an idea that could have been teased out.

But let’s be real.  Most of the essays royally sucked.

When I had this happen in my class I sometimes tried to perform essay triage.  I would try to have students revise their essays again, or try to help them fix their essays earlier in the writing process next time.  But as time wore on I realized that the root of the problem was their READING.  Any essay about a book they hadn’t read was probably going to lack substance.  So, how to get them to read, and THINK about what they were reading?  That is when I started my transition to reading logs (and minimizing the role of the “essay-about-the-book” assignment – but more about that in a future post).  The reading logs get students to read and analyze text as we go, and give them (and me) opportunities to see how their ideas about the book and themes in the book develop as they read.  It’s not a perfect solution, and I have a lot more work to do, but I haven’t performed essay triage in a couple of years.  And I don’t miss it one bit.

Yummy Stuff:
Lentils of all kinds are my go to for easy meals.  Unlike beans they don’t need to be soaked and pre-cooked, and they are crazy cheap.  We have red, green and french lentils on hand as well as yellow split peas.  This following recipe is from a dear friend who made it for us when I had my first child.  It is a fantastic meal, super easy, and amazing when served with coconut brown rice!

Yellow Lentil Stew

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 onion, diced
2 TB minced ginger
1 TB minced garlic
1 TB brown mustard seeds
1 TB turmeric
1 TB ground coriander
1 TB ground cumin
1 lb of yellow split peas
1 can coconut milk
14oz can diced tomatoes

1) Saute the onion in olive oil or water (over medium heat) for about 5 minutes.
2) Add the garlic, ginger and spices and saute for 2 minutes, until fragrant.
3) Add the split peas and 4 cups of water.  Simmer 45 minutes until split peas are tender
4) Add tomatoes and coconut milk and stir to combine.  Cook until heated through and serve!

  1. I also used reading logs when teaching upper elementary. This was especially useful in the Reading Workshop model with each student reading different books.

    I love cooking with lentils.

    • Thanks Dan. I totally agree – as I move more and more towards a secondary Reading Workshop model with more student choice I have found various reading log forms to be super useful!

      And thanks for sharing lentil love 😉

  2. We’re teaching a youth travel blogging mentorship program, and I am surprised at some of the assignments coming in. Thanks for offering an alternative – and a great recipe!

  3. Thanks so much for the comments! My reading log assignment is constantly evolving (as most things do in teaching). I look forward to checking out your site to get ideas for myself!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Reading Modes and the Pluses and Pitfalls of an Analysis Focus in the English Classroom | English Teachin' Vegan
  2. Literature-focused Document Based Questions (for Othello!) | English Teachin' Vegan
  3. Teaching Writing: The Top Five | English Teachin' Vegan

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