The Book Fort

Instructional Ideas for Immediate Implementation

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Week Twenty Seven: Reviving the Essay

Switching gears entirely this week, I chose to re-visit Gretchen Bernabei's Reviving the Essay: How to Teach Structure without Formula (2005). This is not a newly published book, but I only discovered it two years ago. In it, Bernabei expertly shares instructional strategies for teaching writing that apply to grades 4 - 12, and arguably lower level college composition as well.

“Our students are bored with essays, as are we, because monologues just don’t exist in our real lives. Five-paragraph essays, and constraining, formulaic writing of all kinds, truly are an alien life form, nowhere to be found in the natural world” (89). Just think, for example, of the many blogs we read as educators and people that touch our hearts and engage our souls. There might be one or two that happen to be five paragraphs in length, but I am quite sure NONE of them are formulaic. We get scared, though, as educators when we have test scores looming over our heads. Gather your courage and teach writing friends! You will be assisting students in becoming better communicators and that is worth more than a test score. Bonus: students will write better for tests, also, so take a deep breath.

Bernabei, Gretchen. Reviving the essay: how to teach structure without formula. Discover Writing Press, 2005.

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Step One: Finding Your Message

“Victoria Young from the Texas Education Agency explained that an essay is more focused and coherent if its unifying theme is ‘one step away from the prompt’” (1). No matter how well-written, open-ended, or creative the writing prompt is, it is still a prompt and students tend to stick to re-stating it exactly to begin either their introductory paragraph, thesis statement, concluding paragraph, or (Lord forbid), all of the above. The result is almost always formulaic and surface-level writing that all assessors, be they teachers or standardized test graders, dislike reading. Taking a step away from the prompt means the following:

  • “Chew on the prompt, read and reread it, digest it, find the hard-won truth in it, or the paradox in it, or the human struggle within it” (1).

  • Locate and identify one true belief or passion within the prompt and go after it in the writing.

This approach is excellent for all extended writing prompts, from upper elementary to college level writing, including AP Language/Literature and Composition. One of the most common reasons students score lower on standardized writing prompts is that their writing lacks voice and coherence. Two strategies for teaching this are listed in this first chapter and are quite unique in their approach:

  • Teach truisms (2-9): choose a photo to accompany a writing prompt. Ask students to read the prompt and decide if it is “true.” Then, engage students in the consideration of how the photo connects to the prompt. Use a close viewing or OPTIC protocol to analyze what’s going on in the photo, what’s true about it. Try this a couple of times with a few prompt/photo combos. Last, give students about two minutes to generate truisms about the photos and connected prompts about the world or about people in general (the universal, the abstract, in other words). WOW! If we start this at 4th grade, imagine what the writing will be like by 12th!

  • Prompt Generator (10-11): work with students to develop their own arguable statements or prompts by first generating lists of thematic ideas or motifs from texts (either whole class or independent reading selections). Guide students through considering the good and bad sides of these abstract ideas, and ask them to create one statement for each “side” of the argument. Then, they will have multiple ideas about which to write that tie to a bigger idea that connects outside the text.

Step Two: Finding (or Inventing) Your Structure

Bernabei mentions Tom Romano in the first sentence of this chapter, and she made me laugh out loud when she quoted Romano’s label for the traditional, formulaic “five-paragraph you-know-what” (19). Trust me, I understand that students cling to structures and formulas, particularly those that struggle to write well. Sometimes we need to start there, but our crime is when we also end there. Students must try out various text structures to organize their writing, and they must be given multiple opportunities to test them out without fear of grades looming over their heads. Bernabei suggests varying the writing into three types: freewriting, timed/guided writing, and kernel essays. My favorite suggestion from this chapter, which I have tried many times, is below:

  • The Insight Garden: Growing Opinions from Art, Literature, and Life - Bernabei calls this exercise “mental gymnastics” and if implemented well, it really does push students in engaging ways. Students develop insights about life, an illustration from literature, an illustration from a movie, an illustration from their own personal lives, and an “I wonder…” The coolest way to do this is a timed, guided writing and it keeps students thinking critically for the entire allotted time. Check out the protocol in the image below and a teacher's take on how this worked here. #winning

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Step Three: Experimenting with Thick Description

“Everything means, is understood, as a part of a greater whole— there is a constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others...This dialogic imperative...insures that there can be no actual monologue” (89). Bernabei drops in this line from Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination at the beginning of this chapter and it sets the tone for expanding the teaching of writing to include rich descriptions that actually contribute to the writer’s intended message. Ethnographers call this “thick” description, or anecdotes, transcripts or reconstructed dialogue, writing samples, field notes, contextual details, etc. Bernabei also mentions the great Harvey Daniels here, who reminds us that engaging, effective writing, such as that in newspapers or published for real-time audiences does not fit neatly into cause/effect, pro/con, or some other nonfiction structure that we’ve all learned a hundred times over. Instead, it is rich with details, conversations between people and characters, sounds, images, and vignettes. Why do we rob our students of these techniques? Because it is too “hard” for them? Meh.

One interesting way to teach this is listed below:

  • Lullaby Weave (94-99): “Thick description woven into prose create something breathtaking.” In this activity, students are guided through the writing of two different pieces first, then a weaving of the two together into a third piece. The whole activity only takes 20 minutes and can push students to flex their imaginations a bit. Check out the image below for the protocol.

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Website of the Week

Discover Writing

As I began researching Gretchen Bernabei's work this week, I discovered the connection between Bernabei and the amazing Barry Lane. Since 1992, Barry has been working to encourage compassion and passion in students and teachers through literacy instruction and interactive workshops. If you've ever had the opportunity to hear him speak, you know how quickly you are reminded of the real reasons we all teach. On his website, you will find excellent writing resources, links to all of his books, and if you are able, contact info to bring him to your school. If you're in Kentucky, be on the lookout for the #KCTE19 announcement because he will be opening our next conference! Follow Barry on Twitter @barrylane and on Facebook for regular doses of hope.
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EdTech Tool of the Week


Looking for a fun way to spice up your PowerPoint presentations? Check out eMaze! There are templates for education and various subjects that take all the hard work out of designing and creating attention-getters, including animations, embedding videos & websites, and adding audio. The free version of eMaze does all of this and more, and the paid version allows collaboration between multiple users on one project. I utilized this feature with several of my interns so that we could work on our instructional sequences and presentations without being in the same room. Check out new applications on Twitter @emaze_tweets.
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What Students Are Reading

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Kristie Hofelich Ennis, NBCT

In an effort to systematically study relevant research and stay connected to the teachers I greatly respect and with whom I have worked for years to successfully implement independent reading, this newsletter came about. It will offer research and practical ideas for quick implementation and may prompt further discussion or study with your colleagues. I hope you'll find it useful and thought-provoking; I also hope you will stay in touch if you implement any of the ideas with your students. They are, after all, why I do what I do!