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Essay Assignments That Actually Engage High School Writers

Cookie-cutter essays may reflect students’ attitude toward the assignment, not their writing ability. Here’s a way to make that stack of grading more rewarding.

March 18, 2021
Teenage girl sitting on floor at home doing homework with laptop and books
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Have you ever been three papers into reading a stack of essays and realized that they were all pretty much the same? Years ago, after reading the 100th cookie-cutter essay on characterization in Of Mice and Men, I realized that the agonizingly boring essays were not really my students’ fault—they were the predictable result of the assignment that I had given them. Ever since then, I’ve striven to prepare students to produce writing that I truly enjoy reading. It took me some time and experimentation, but here are the keys I’ve discovered to getting students engaged and creating writing that is a joy to read.

Connecting Readings to Students’ Lives

After 25 years of teaching, I’m still having epiphanies about how to engage students. One such realization is that if I want students to dig into anything I’m teaching in my classroom, I must find a way to help them connect it to something else they already know or care about.

It was my husband, Joe, a history instructor at a local community college, who helped me realize this with an assignment he gives, aptly named the Connections Paper. He gives students a handful of documents, both primary and secondary, and asks them to discuss how the documents relate to each other, how the documents help them make sense of the past, and how the documents help them make sense of the present.

This deceptively simple task prompts students to connect seemingly distant events to their own world and gives these events richer dimension and meaning. I became determined to replicate this connection with my students in my high school English classes.

Providing Real-Life Models and Choices

In Writing With Mentors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell detail how to use “the work of real writers and the real reading you do every day” to support student writing. One of the projects that excites my students the most is our podcast unit, and one reason it works so well is that students use writing produced for real audiences—not just their teacher—to guide their own writing about a topic of their choice.

The mentor text method consists of students breaking down the structure and techniques used by the writer in a particular piece of writing, and employing some of what they find to create their own original pieces. Although we use podcast scripts in this particular assignment, this method has possibilities limited only by the mentor texts you can find. From résumés to lab reports to poetry to video game reviews, students can learn to write anything, and the fact that they are using writing produced by people outside of classrooms is incredibly engaging for them—and for teachers as well.

Another reason mentor texts are so engaging and effective is that they provide students with choices in how they will develop their writing—they can choose which of the writer’s moves to use in their own writing. After sharing and analyzing some carefully selected podcasts with my students, I encourage them to bring in ones that tie into subjects that they are particularly interested in. They not only learn more techniques for creating their podcast but also see the diversity of topics and formats that current podcasters use.

Finding Different Approaches to the Research Paper

There are many other ways to build choice into writing, and I use some of them in my Education Synthesis paper with my American Literature students. We begin with an essential question: What is the purpose of education, and how well is the U.S. fulfilling that purpose? Students read several pieces of writing that touch on that topic and take notes on anything they notice that answers the question.

Some of the texts I’ve used in the past include essays, short stories, poetry, videos, comics, and articles:

  • “School Is Hell” cartoons by Matt Groenig
  • “Superman and Me,” an essay by Sherman Alexie
  • “Changing Educational Paradigms,” a TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson
  • “The Bees,” a poem by Audre Lorde
  • “Learning Like a Jungle Tiger,” a video by Trevor Ragan
  • “Shoulders,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance,” a poem by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
  • “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” an essay by David Sedaris
  • “A Talk to Teachers,” a speech by James Baldwin
  • “James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil,” an article by Clint Smith

After reading the texts I provide with the essential question in mind, students begin to formulate an answer, which will become the claim in their argumentative essay. They then branch out on their own, seeking more research to support their argument, and occasionally adjusting their claim as they discover more evidence.

The instructions for the final paper are simple. It must include:

  • a thesis in the introduction that answers the essential question: What is wrong with our educational system, and what changes can we make to improve it?,
  • evidence in the body paragraphs to support their claim from multiple sources, including the ones we read as a class and ones they found on their own, and
  • students’ own commentary explaining how the evidence supports their argumentative claim.

The resulting papers are refreshingly full of students’ own ideas and reasoning and free of the stilted repetition of facts, summaries, and half-page quotes that I used to dread when collecting essays. When given the opportunity to make real-life connections and choose what they will write about, my students astound me with their engagement in and ownership of the writing process, and reading their work is now a whole lot more rewarding.

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  • Literacy
  • Student Engagement
  • Student Voice
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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