Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Evolution of an Essay

Essays and fifth graders are not a natural combination. Unlike most of the forms of writing in the fifth grade curriculum, children have no experience with essays. No one sits their preschooler on their knee and reads them essays. No one is making picture books or children's movies of essays. In short, I'm asking them to write something for which they have no internal schema.

Earlier this year we made a few quick jabs at essays. In truth, they were more opinion pieces rather than essays. They were written in response to questions from the local newspaper, such as "What do you fear?" and "Who has it harder in life, children or adults?" A few of the more advanced writers understood what I mean by introduction, body and conclusion and made good beginner's efforts at including them. Most kids just wrote a few sentences.

After our environmental trip, I assigned them to write a real essay. I took them through all sorts of prewriting to generate ideas of what they learned on the trip. We did mapping exercises to discover ways to organize their ideas. We practiced writing introductions.

After all of that, we went to the lab and they wrote. What they wrote bore no resemblance to an essay. The first ones "done" wrote one informal paragraph with no apparent organization. The ones who took longer to finish wrote lovely travelogues that began when we boarded the bus and went straight through until they got off the bus back as school four days later.

I wasn't surprised to see that we had no essays. In the past I would have tried to conference with my students. However, as I've mentioned before, that hasn't worked well for me. The conferences rarely lead to real change, and the students who aren't in the conference at that moment are difficult to keep on task.

This time, I had them upload their essays into an assignment module in Moodle. I added a copy of the assignment rubric as a resource. As the projects came in, I was able to score them against the rubric, and then leave the children comments.

Before the class logged in to Moodle the next day, I discussed the difference between a travelogue and an essay. I assured them that we would keep their travelogues. They were worthwhile and a good way to remember the trip. The advantage of word processing was that we could save a copy of their travelogue and turn that into an essay without having to start again from scratch. We also revisited the rubric which to make more sense to them now that they had their writing in front of them. Students gamely logged in, read their comments and went about revising their work.

When I logged in that evening, I was amazed. The students were truly transforming their pieces into essays. They had introductions that introduced the topic and their main ideas. Each main idea had it's own paragraph with supporting details. Some students had even written a semblance of a conclusion. These are recapping conclusions, rather than "draw it all together and then make a further point" conclusions. But at this stage in the game, I'll take any conclusion I can get.

Of course not every student was at this point, but the majority of them were. This is much better success than I've ever had with face to face conferences. I'm not sure why this has been so successful. Is it that they can reread the comments? Maybe, but I'll wager that it is the combination of comments with an easy way to revise their writing without having to write it all by hand, again.

None of this is rocket science. I've seen for years that word processing generally makes fifth graders more willing to revise. But this Moodle conferencing has taken it all to a new level.

I'm excited for our next assignment; I'll set it up as a workshop instead of an assignment. Students will receive two other students' assignments to score and an attempt to score their own assignment. I'm hoping that evaluating other people's writing will be educational for them. This entire process is proving highly educational for me.