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Real Stories

                From Real Educators

Free-to-Formal Writing — Encouraging Students to Express Original Thought in Academic Writing

If you teach a course that involves academic writing, you’ve read too many paragraphs that look like this:

“My claim is ______________ because…”

“In the article it states…”

“This quote supports my claim because…”

I’m an English teacher, and this drives me insane. It shows that students understand the importance of citing evidence to defend themselves, but it is far from good writing. It’s short. Stilted. Formulaic. It shows no voice or depth of thought. My colleagues and I have observed that across the board, students have developed a sort of verbal laryngitis, relying on the same rudimentary language in every written piece, as though an essay is a mathematical equation in which one merely substitutes the right numbers. In fact, I daresay that this phrasing is a symptom of a larger problem - students are depending on quotes from sources just to have something to say. I’ve read so many essays composed of quotes and simple explanations of those quotes — paraphrasing in analysis’ clothing. It seems to me that young writers believe they must prove evidence to be true, not use evidence to prove their reasoning is true.

This led me to wonder — do my students simply not know how to write, or do they not know how to think? To answer this question, I developed a workshop model that, with practice, may work to develop students’ voices. It employs the basic writing process (prewriting → writing → revising), with an extra step. Using it gave me some insight into how my students see academic writing and how I can help that perspective evolve.

Free-to-Formal Writing Workshop

Step One: Free write

I started my unit on Lord of the Flies with a thematic study of evil. On the first day, I asked students to free write in response to the question, “What is evil?”

“What do you mean, evil?”

“What type of evil are you talking about, Miss?”

“I’m only 13, I have no idea what evil is!”

It took them a couple of minutes to get past these paralyzing concerns. I gave them five minutes to write a minimum of half of a page. Some students produced less, some more. Some took longer to start than others. By the end, most wrote a clear and eloquent definition of the term “evil,” or at the very least, a few examples of evil things and people. A few freewrites even read like poetry - fluid and creative, replete with original thought.

Step Two: Discuss

After finishing the freewrite, we had a brief share-out in which students shared their beliefs about evil. In some classes, the discussion stemming from their freewrites was rich and diverse; in others, I showed students a video that about different views of evil around the world to broaden their perspectives, which brought out a wide range of student responses. During both activities, students were asked to take notes. The goal was for them to have as many ideas to draw from as possible. You can also use pair-sharing, “Go Go Mo”, or another share-out method to broaden their idea bank.

Step Three: Write Formally

I then gave students their first formal writing assignment of the unit. I provided a quote from William Golding — “Look out - the evil is in us all” — and the following structure:

1) determine his point in your own words,

2) state whether you agree or disagree,

3) describe an example from personal experience, the news, a movie, etc. that proves your position, and

4) explain how that example proves your position, in 8-10 sentences.

We reviewed which parts of the paragraph would be considered the topic sentence and context, the evidence, and the analysis. They were required to finish their paragraph by the end of the period (ten or fifteen minutes).

The key is this — by writing without a textual source, students cannot depend on textual evidence to get the task done. They had to meet the minimum length requirement using only their own words. I encouraged students to draw from their freewrite and discussion notes for ideas.

At the end of the period, I collected the freewrites and the paragraphs. As I reviewed them, I was surprised that much of the material from their freewrites did not make it to their formal paragraphs, even though it would have helped. However, they met the requirements for the formal paragraph, so they did OK.

Step Four: Rewrite with Evidence

At the beginning of the following class, I returned the students’ work and asked them to read over the feedback I provided. During this session, we read an article from Psychology Today about the meaning of good and evil, then discussed as a class whether the author of this article would agree with Golding’s statement, identifying 3-4 specific lines from the text for support. In the last fifteen minutes, I asked students to rewrite their paragraphs - this time, they had to add a quote from the article as evidence.

Now, I cannot decide whether I’m disappointed or vindicated: In most of the rewrites, their original thought was lost. They ditched the content of the first draft and slipped right back into “A quote from the text is,” and “This quote proves my point because…” It boggled my mind, but it also showed me that students really do see academic writing as a formulaic task that leaves little room for originality. They certainly know how to think and have compelling ideas, but it seems they believe there is no place for it in the essays they write. They see academic writing as a formulaic act that leaves little room for originality.

It saddens me that this is my students’ understanding of an act that should be the ultimate expression of who they are. However, after this explicit practice, I feel much better about changing it.

Ideas? Questions? Suggestions? Constructive criticism? Please reach out to me at!

Melissa Balsamello teaches 9th grade English at Hudson High School of Learning Technologies, the home of the EDxEDNYC Conference

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