Margin Notes

Try This Tomorrow: How-To Writing


In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner describes the five-paragraph essay as “an artificial construct, a way to contain and control variables and keep students from wandering too far off track. All they need are the ideas to fill in the blanks. It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom.” He goes on to say that “by steering students toward the five-paragraph essay we are denying them the chance to practice real writing by confronting the choices writers must navigate.”

One of the best ways to move away from the fill-in-the-blanks writing that inevitably results from assigning five-paragraph essays and toward making students decision-makers about the best ways to organize their ideas to impact their audience is to provide them with models of what the kind of writing they are doing looks like in the world outside of school. Katie Wood Ray suggest in What You Know by Heart that teachers of writing read with two questions in mind: How is this written? How can my students write like this? The world is a mentor text and when we read it with these two questions in mind, we can see that the world is full of possibilities for writing curriculum. When we encourage students to read with these questions in mind, we are empowering them to find their own writing models so that they don’t feel the need to rely on prescriptive writing structures and formats. The New York Times Guides column is an example of something I found while reading with my writing-teacher lens activated. These examples show students that how-to writing doesn’t have to read like a list of steps introduced with first, then, next…instead, they combine images with text features such as subheadings, bulleted lists, and hyperlinks. For example:

-How to Be More Empathetic is organized into five categories set off with a bolded title. Within each, readers find sub-headings and bulleted lists of suggestions for taking action.

-How to Give a Great Gift demonstrates how to incorporate a question-answer structure.

-How to Read a Food Label uses bulleted lists to organize lots of detailed information so it is more manageable for the reader.

Students can read a selection of Guides on a variety of topics and generate a list of organizing strategies and craft moves they notice the writers using before they begin crafting their own versions. Their Guides can be based on an area of expertise they can teach to others about or a topic of curiosity they want to research first.

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