Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Practicing Writing: The Ten-Minute Essay (1)

Question: How did I, RayS., help students eliminate mistakes in sentence structure, usage and punctuation?

Answer: The ten-minute essay.

What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, From Passive to Active in High School English.

My father told me about the ten-minute essay. He was a lawyer and when he was in law school, one of his professors assigned ten-minute essays at the beginning of class on the details of specific legal cases. The students were required to analyze and draw conclusions about the cases—in ten minutes. The professor would read the essays at night and return them corrected during the next class. He corrected everything, including grammar. My dad said “That’s where I learned to write.” Of course, the professor simply labeled the mistakes and the students were expected to understand why they were mistakes.

It was a great idea that I applied in my English classes. At first, I put quotes on the board and students responded to the quotes, usually explaining them. That was about all the time they would have. Later, I encouraged my students to choose their own topics.

At first, I just marked mistakes, labeling them, “sp.”  for spelling, “r.o.” for run-on sentences, “frag.” for sentence fragment and so on. But then I had an idea. What if I actually corrected their mistakes?. Students had often complained that they did not understand the labels on my corrections. I continued to label the mistakes, but in addition to “sp.” for spelling, I actually corrected the spelling. In addition to “r.o.” for “run-on sentences,” I actually corrected the run-on sentence. In addition to “frag.” for “sentence fragment,” I actually completed the sentence. I was demonstrating to them how to resolve those basic problems.

Two labels that students never seemed to understand were how to correct “awk.” and “clar.” Of course, “awk.” meant “awkward expression” and “clar.” meant expression that was not clear. For “awk.,” I smoothed the expression. For “clar.,” I clarified the meaning. In both cases I showed the students how I resolved the problem.

Students wrote their ten-minute essays every day. The ten-minute essays helped them form the habit of writing. I corrected them every night. The following day, I returned the ten-minute essays, students read my corrections and asked questions about any corrections they did not understand. That night, they rewrote their corrected essays in order to help them visualize their writing as correct writing.

Next blog: Questions I anticipate from my readers.

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