Students working on a writing assignment
For Teachers

Interesting Writing Assignments That Take Students Beyond the Essay

By Jennifer Gunn January 31, 2019

How many five-paragraph essays do students write in their school career? A lot. How many standardized tests require an essay? Most of them. How many essays will students need to write after college? Eh, probably not that many. Essays have their function, but they’re certainly not the only academically rigorous form of writing, nor are they the sole way students can demonstrate their learning, thinking, or writing skills. Shake things up for your students and try something new with these five writing assignments.

Learning to Write

Students need to learn how to write. That’s not debatable. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress for writing, 75% of both 12th- and eighth-graders lack proficiency in writing. The New York Times reported last year that “Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational, and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.” So with all of this incessant essay work, why are students still struggling? One reason, it could be argued, is that the over essay-ification of writing instruction has sucked the life out of writing practice and scaffolded the process so much that students can’t see beyond the rigid structure. When writing is taught as a formula, students fail to discover that their writing can truly engage readers,” says Tricia Ebarvia, an English educator in Pennsylvania. “And they have little chance to fall in love with writing, to feel how fun it can be, and to see how writing can help them solve problems and figure things out.” It sure seems like we can bring back some of the magic of writing without losing all the rigor. Let’s try.

Argument and Interpretation: Student Anthologies

Engage your students to become curators in creating their own anthologies. A popular staple of the Humanities, anthologies pull together collections of artwork, essays, poems, stories, etc., and students get to play editor, defending and explaining their choices. Anthologies can include typical book parts like a cover, title pages, table of contents, prologue, and epilogue. The Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching suggests that “Giving students guidance for their editorial responses to each selection is helpful. Some possibilities include the following:

  • Argue for its significance
  • Interpret its meaning
  • Describe its historical and cultural context
  • Write a biographical headnote using details most relevant to the selection
  • Explain how it illustrates an important disciplinary theory or concept.”

Format and Content: Rewriting an Article

Often students get saddled by having to not only create original content but manage to learn and imitate a format. Help your students practice informational writing by rewriting and building upon an existing article. ”By rearranging how facts are presented, using a different title, and even bringing in additional facts and quotations from further research, they’ll see how this reworking can significantly change the tone and give readers a different perspective on the same topic,” says Rebecca Alber, faculty at UCLA_CenterX.

Writing Construction: Structure and Sequence

John Warner, author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, notes that one of the best writing assignments he ever did was in third grade. His teacher asked the class to write a how-to on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then the class would try to make a sandwich live following the written instructions exactly word for word. Students, of course, would leave out things they expected would be obvious. For example, if they instructed their readers to spread peanut butter onto the bread, but didn’t mention a knife, things could get problematic. “That day, I learned that writers need to be careful with their words because if someone is asked to follow them, things can go very, very wrong.” says Warner. “Mrs. Goldman was teaching us a number of different things: genre awareness, audience, structure, and sequencing. None of it had anything to do with a standardized assessment. We were solving a writing-related problem. Most of all, we were absorbing the lesson that, above all, writing is done for audiences.” This is an especially useful assignment for English language learners!

Narrative Writing: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

In this exercise, students will go beyond the persuasive or narrative essay’s bland and formulaic construct to truly appeal to their reader. First, teach the basics. Chicago high school writing teacher Ray Salazar urges teachers to break down the rhetorical elements like this:

  • “Ethos: the speaker’s/writer’s credibility
  • Pathos: connecting with the audience’s emotions
  • Logos: presenting information to make the audience think”

Next, he suggests watching a few speeches, and perhaps reading along, to allow students to see how the speakers/writers appealed to their audiences. Then, it’s time to get students writing. Using the Common Application prompts, he asks students to consider how to appeal to their audience, engage in freewriting, and then add sensory elements and deepen their descriptions. The writing process deepens with each iteration.

Creative Writing: Get Outside and Observe

Good writing is in the details, right? And many writers struggle with showing, instead of telling. Bring your students outside of the classroom — the schoolyard or just outside will do! — and inspire them to report on what they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. “This outdoor writing activity is all about teaching your students how to describe things properly. Take a little walk with your students just outside the classroom. It doesn’t have to be far, but it should be somewhere that has plenty of different items for the students to choose from. Tell each student to pick one object and describe it in detail. Students should describe every curve, every scratch, every color, and every texture in their chosen item. Once the descriptions are written, have the students pair up. Then, have the students take turns guessing which object the other student wrote about based solely on the description. Read more on Outdoor Writing.

To dive deeper into the subject of writing and literacy, check out our Adolescent Literacy program.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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