Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison, and I have been an educator and a teacher-trainer since 1991. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction. I also focus on critical thinking techniques, especially during the pre-writing and revision steps of the writing process.

I serve Northern Nevada for nine months of the year (August-May), and during summers and during our two-weeek breaks during the school year, I hire myself out to school districts and professional organizations around the country.

Summer of 2014 is all booked. If you would like to check my availability for the summer of 2015, please contact me at my e-mail address.

 

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Contact me through my e-mail address with questions/comments about this lesson: Corbett@CorbettHarrison.com

Here's one of my original essay-writing lessons. If you're like me, you are rarely satisfied with how a writing lesson runs, even when it goes really well. My favorite lessons are constantly in a state of revision, and my eighth graders regularly point out to me that I'm doing last year's lessons differently than I did for them when they were my seventh graders. I say to them, "I don't think I've ever taught the same lesson the same way twice," and that's kind of true.

For the past few years, I have been really trying to improve upon my expository writing assignments. You know, the dreaded essays. My final exam for both seventh and eighth grade is a critical analysis essay of a novel we've recently read, and few kids ever enjoy writing those. I often precede the serious writing assignments with a silly one. The lesson on this page is a silly essay assignment that sets my writers up to be more successful on their final essay for me, but we have a fun time doing it; essay organization and vocabulary are both reviewed, and the kids have a fun time writing these.

Like this lesson's big idea? Like my students' writing samples? Follow Me at Pinterest to access all my educational boards. I have a special board on mentor texts that gives quick access to all of my lessons of the month from the past that I have featured, including this one. You can also receive the free monthly writing lesson my joining the "Writing Lesson of the Month" Ning my wife and I sponsor with any proceeds we earn from this website.

This lesson in a nutshell: To review academic vocabulary, voice, and the organizational skills needed to write a critical analysis essay of a novel, my students write 'ridiculous essays.' My students purposely over-analyze a picture book by Dr. Seuss, then they work in pairs to write a three-paragraph fake-but-funny critical analysis essay, trying to use the voice they anticipate they'd have to use if they were analyzing literature in a college literature class. Because I have great student samples available, the essays my students write keep getting better and better each year. With the experience of writing these ridiculous essays in place, the quality of my students' actual critical analysis essays of real novels we have read improve greatly.

My nutty philosophy that drives this assignment: If you are required to write a genre you ultimately know most of your students won't enjoy writing, take a few days ahead of that assignment to let them write, using the same skills, but write using their silly senses of humor.


An Essay Assignment that will Tickle Your Kids' Funny Bones
Writing Ridiculous Critical Analysis Essays
Crafting Common Core-Worthy Analyses based on Silly Children's Stories
This lesson is dedicated to the memory of my fourth and fifth grade teacher--Michael Borilla--who encouraged me to perform dramatic readings of Dr. Seuss poems in front of our class. In fifth grade, I actually won an award at a public-speaking competition for my dramatic interpretation of "The Zax," which can be found in Seuss' book that has those Star-belly Sneetches on the cover. This silly "skill" of overly-dramatizing Dr. Seuss' poems nurtures my students' enthusiasm as we prepare to write "Ridiculous Essays." You can read about the great Mr. Borilla by clicking here. The picture below was snapped of me in 2013 dramatically interpreting "Green Eggs and Ham" for my eighth graders for the assignment on this page; Mr. Borilla would be proud to know he inspired this lesson.

My favorite teacher ever was Mr. Borilla; he was the first teacher to make me feel confident about writing, so he has a special place in my heart. He allowed me channel my "inner silly" during his classroom's reading and writing time, and he appreciated my sense of humor when I applied it to his writing assignments--except the expository reports. Oh my, no, we had to take those report assignments very seriously. In fourth grade--after deeply researching by half-heartedly reading from the encyclopedia--we each wrote and published a 'President Report'; we each drew a different president's name from Mr. Borilla's coffee can of choices, and I drew Thomas Jefferson, and my brain was no where developed enough to appreciate Jeffersonian philosophies. In fifth grade we wrote 'State Research Reports'; no coffee cans this time, as we were allowed to choose based on states that interested us. I chose Colorado because I'd recently visited my grandmother there. I wanted to be Dr. Seuss silly when writing those two reports, but Mr. Borilla wouldn't allow it. Essay or report writing is a very serious matter when you're in fourth grade. Am I right?.

I was a great creative writer and a lousy report writer back then. I earned B's on both big reports in Borilla's class because I tried to "joke them up." Essays, I learned, weren't allowed to be fun. Later on in my own schooling, I always cringed whenever a teacher said "essay" or "report" based on my memories of those burdensome, un-fun reports back in fourth and fifth grade.

Even before Common Core State Standards, I knew it was important to teach my sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to write analytic essays, and we wrote those long before CCSS, and we continue to write them now that we have so successfully implemented them in my district (tee-hee!), but my students can easily identify my least favorite writing genre--expository--based on the amount of energy (or lack thereof) I have given to my past essay lessons. Even so, by the time my students leave me in 8th grade, they have had plenty of experience with analyzing literary elements and writing essays on them. And my expository energy over the years has vastly improved, thanks in part to lessons like this one.

Inspired by Borilla, we take our reports and essays very seriously in Mr. Harrison's classroom. A lot of my kids expect to be Honors English-bound when they head to high school, and we talk very seriously about how students must be able to write a great-sounding, non-formulaic, unique essay. In middle school, we practice writing intelligently about our novels' themes, their authors' style of writing, and the contrasts between dynamic and static characters, because essays about literature in high school Honors English need to convey smart ideas in interesting ways; they can't rely on the lower-level-of-Blooms-taxonomy book report writing skills they mastered in fifth grade before they came to my class in sixth grade. My eighth graders leave me with the ability to write well about the books we read--the ones they liked and the ones they didn't like.

Mentor texts I have used teaching this lesson:



Become better with teaching expository! I set realistic teaching goals for myself every school year no matter what. At the time of posting revisions to this lesson write-up at my website (Spring 2014), I am finishing up my 24th year of teaching, and I am really good at what I do, which is teaching writing both authentically and in a way that is engaging to 95+% of my pupils, but I still want to be better. I take this profession of ours seriously, which is why I set goals for myself without fail every year; sadly, I know there are teachers in my own building who no longer set professional goals for themselves because they've been doing their jobs long enough to be able to run their classrooms on auto-pilot. I can't be that teacher. To enjoy my work, I need to have new goals for myself every year, and I have learned to love holding myself accountable by telling my students what my goals are every fall, explaining that I want them to give me feedback when we finish lessons I've created or revised to help me achieve my own goals. In the fall of 2012, I told my kiddos that we would be doing more expository and essay writing than we had in previous years, and that I wanted them to help me become at helping them to like and value writing the expository genre. They grumbled but agreed to give me honest feedback. In 2013, this lesson--by far--became my eighth graders' favorite for the year, and when I revised it for the spring of 2014, my current set of eighth graders agreed; additionally, in 2014, my seventh graders became involved with this assignment, which improved the lesson even further, as I will explain farther down on this page.

If you follow my work online at all, you know I believe in using mentor texts pretty much no matter what the teaching task. All of my great writing lessons have mentor texts attached to them; in addition to using them to design writing lessons, I use them when I am working on my own professional goals--like my goal to become better with teaching expository! For the two years I devoted to improving my ability to teach expository writing skills, I had the best mentor text. The Story of My Thinking: Expository Writing Activities for 13 Teaching Situations (by Gretchen Bernabei and Dottie Hall) is so worth having on your teaching bookshelf. It is so smartly written and teacher-friendly (like all of Gretchen's previous books have been), plus it comes with page after page of these fantastic organizing maps that student writers can use no matter what type of essay you've assigned them. Those thirty pages of maps make the entire book worth the $24.00 expense.

Establishing/Reviewing Academic Vocabulary: Another professional goal I have been working on lately is improving how I engage students in learning and using vocabulary words. The Common Core Standards documents are rife with academic vocabulary, and it's important to make sure your students have a handle on the "fancy" words that would help them in writing a critical analysis essay. By the way, if you've not yet used Fancy Nancy as a mentor text, add it to your list next year. The titular character in that series is very much into explaining her vocabulary words, and in her books she often says, "That's fancy way of saying [insert synonym here]." In class, we often (and you really have to use air quotes around the word fancy when having kids do this out loud in class) channel our inner Fancy Nancies and say, "Oh, that's a fancy way of saying [insert synonym here]" when the big words start coming out in our conversations about literature and writing.

One purpose of assigning the "ridiculous essay" is to review literary vocabulary words so that students can accurately use them in an essay that is fun for them to write. Below are fifteen words that I teach my kids over time and that might be helpful to learn/review right before teaching this lesson; these are literary terms my students become very familiar with during their two or three years in my classroom. I personally use this "ridiculous essay" lesson near the end of our school year; it's actually my big review activity before we began preparing to write our final exam essays, though I have been thinking that it could certainly be used as more of an introduction to critical analysis essays. When I teach this lesson, the words listed below are a review list for them, not a list of brand new words. If you are using the assignment as more of an introduction to critical analysis essays, you could probably use fewer words than the list I have included below.

Some Academic Vocabulary Your Students Might Use in their "Ridiculous Essays":
theme
setting
protagonist/antagonist
dynamic/static characters
plot
internal/external conflicts
climax
symbolism & metaphor
writing style
tone
first- or third-person point of view
allusion
foreshadowing
anaphora
alliteration

As I've said, my 8th graders already were pretty familiar with the fifteen literary terms above when I assigned the ridiculous essay in the spring, but it had been six weeks since our last Reader's Workshop Project, so they hadn't used many of these words much in classroom conversations with each other for over a month; therefore, we did take twenty or so minutes to review the words by playing a game with them. We played a variation of charades in small groups of four or five students. Students took turns drawing one of the words, written on index card, from an envelope I had prepared for each small group, and they had to pantomime the words' meaning in a literary context; stress the "literary context," especially for the unfortunate-but-warped child who might draw the word 'climax.' After playing for twelve to fifteen minutes in small groups, each group had to nominate the person from their group who had the best idea for pantomiming one these literary terms for the whole class. Fun was had by all! The charade game/review prepared them to use these words again when we started writing our ridiculous essays.

Next year, and I'm saying this in case you choose to do this lesson as an introduction to critical analysis essays (instead of as a review, as I did), I am planning to have students create "Word Art" drawings and explanations for all of these academic vocabulary words listed above, and I will save the students' work from that assignment in a folder, and bring that folder out for students to critique right before writing our essays; that would serve as just a good review as our charade game did this year. What's "Word art"? I am glad you asked. This spring, when I challenged my eighth graders to design and create new vocabulary activities they could teach my seventh graders to begin using, they came up with some good ones, and "Word Art" is one that I think would work well with academic vocabulary. Basically, the students have to illustrate/decorate the letters of a vocabulary word(s) so that each letter relates somehow to the meaning of the word, and then they have to create a three- to four-sentence explanation of the choices they have made when illustrating. Below are some of their excellent examples, which--true enough--are not for the academic words I listed above, but which show how the word art activity looks when it's done thoroughly and properly by my three different grade levels. I can totally see the students being able to illustrate/explain the word setting or tone using the same activity. Anyway, that's how I'll review the vocabulary next spring for this assignment when I attempt to make this good assignment even better: by having the students create "word art" examples for our literary terms that we can bring out and look at.

An Original Activity created by the Vocabulary-Loving Brains of my Students: Word Art
The Original Example/Rubric
6th Grade Example
7th Grade Example
8th Grade Example
My 8th graders' created this example and rubric to teach my 7th graders this activity they dreamt up for them. Click to enlarge.
My 6th graders wanted to try this new vocabulary activity too. Hannah shows the activity with a 6th grade perspective.
7th grader Anna may look like she's forgotten to all-important explanation of the illustration, but click the image to see it.
8th grader Audrey did a really interesting version of the activity for the word taut. With practice comes sophistication.
I'm going to humbly say that my students write amazing things with their vocabulary-collecting activities, as I think is clearly demonstrated with these four examples above. If you haven't checked out my vocabulary expectations/resources, use this link to do so. You'll be further impressed.

Establishing a RAFT after sharing some student samples of past 'ridiculous essays.' When I first did this assignment back in the spring of 2013 with my eighth graders, the children's book we over-analyzed to write our ridiculous essays about was "Green Eggs and Ham" by--of course--Dr. Seuss. My students were tickled with my incredibly over-dramatic read-aloud, and they talked about it for weeks afterwards. I was a good actor back in high school and college, and I feigned so much anger when I was reading the narrator's lines--the character who does not like green eggs & ham or Sam-I-Am--that I accidentally tore one of the pages when I flipped it. My 2014 eighth graders (who had "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" as their Dr. Seuss book to over-analyze) confessed to me after I had read the book that they were disappointed I hadn't ripped a page when I read it to them; they had all heard from the previous year's eighth graders, like Natalie, who actually entered the Mr. Stick cartoon at right as a contender in my Mr. Stick of the Week extra credit contest I host every Friday. Students--in their notebooks--have to write about something that happened that week (or about an idea that occurred to them) and make a Mr. Stick cartoon to illustrate the writing. The Mr. Stick of the Week contest is just one more way I try to get my students to take care of and put pride into their writer's notebooks. Most entries in this weekly contest are hand-drawn and hand-written, but Natalie wanted to do hers on the computer, which was an impressive feat, if you ask me. Learn more about Mr. Stick here, or click here to see some of the Mr. Stick entries I have photographed and posted at Pinterest when students win. Having a Pinterest board, I find, is a great motivator for my students, and it allows me to keep an amazing online gallery of student samples.

Once you have shared the children's book you want your students to over-analyze, explain to them the task at hand: they are going to work with a partner and--together--create a fairly short essay that does at least three things: 1) introduce the book using excellent literary vocabulary words; 2) analyze the picture book's theme; 3) analyze the author's writing style. We call these "Ridiculous Essays" because no one would really over-analyze Dr. Seuss to write an essay like the one I'm about to ask them to pen. It's their job to make the essay sound like it's the type of critical essay of literature one would expect to write in college or high school Honors classes; that means they have to use their "smart kid" words, and I refer them back to my list of vocabulary. I call this type of assignment a RAFTS prompt, and here is what I show the kids so that they understand their purpose and their audience:

Role
Audience
Format
Topic
Strong Verb
A highly intelligent college freshman... An incredibly smart English professor.. The first three (or four, if they have time) paragraphs of a literary analysis essay... Theme, writing style, and any other elements from a Dr. Seuss story Convince your professor that you can analyze a simple text and sound smart doing it...

My students thrive when they can read and discuss another students' writing sample for an assignment, and the beauty of doing a lesson a second time (and using a different Seuss book when doing it) is that they can read a sample about a totally different book, understand their task at hand a bit better by seeing someone else's previous attempt, but have no solid ideas to directly copy from. "Green Eggs and Ham," which I saved two fun samples from last year, is a radically different story than "One Fish, Two Fish..." In its second year, the discussions my kids had about the previous year's student essays set them up for so much more success when they prepared to write about "One Fish, Two Fish...".

So here are the two samples of the writing task I am assigning my students; these samples were inspired by "Green Eggs and Ham." The first discussion question for my writers was "Who sounded smarter with their essay, and what did they do specifically to sound smarter than the other essay?"

Who Sounded Smarter with their "Ridiculous Essay"?

Abby and Wonje's Ridiculous Essay
a partner-write from two of my eighth graders in 2013

Kristopher and Hunter's Ridiculous Essay
a partner-write from two of my eighth graders in 2013

The timeless story, "Green Eggs and Ham," written by Dr. Seuss, shares the story of an unnamed character and his confrontation with Sam-I-Am. The plot unfolds as Sam-I-Am offers the un-named main character a platter of green eggs and ham. The main character rejects the offer and becomes increasingly upset with Sam-I-Am, who seems adamant in refusing to allow the main character to pass up such an opportunity and a delicacy.

As the story progresses, the protagonist develops, and it becomes clear that this un-named narrator is—in fact—a very dynamic character. The narrator becomes a much more animated character, and in his rage is prone to repeating the same statements over and over again. This is a great change from his original polite refusal to accept the green eggs and ham. In contrast, Sam-I-Am changes little, other than revealing new situations in which green eggs and ham eating would be ideal. He does not seem to register the anger or irritation of the un-named narrator.

A major theme throughout the novel is that judgment should be withheld until a situation is fully understood. The un-named narrator shows a wonderful demonstration of the consequences of not following the precept of this theme. Judging the green eggs and ham without tasting them, our narrator only allows himself to be goaded into situations that are more and more out of hand.

Seuss’ writing style is very unique in that his tale is told only using dialogue. The choice of repetition in this dialogue is crucial to developing the rage of the main character, and it results in well-planned idea development. As a whole, the sentence fluency suffers, as all the sentences share nearly identical sentence patterns, which keeps the writing almost too simplistic.

The story "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss shares a simple plot, in which two characters debate whether or not the closed-minded, un-named narrator will enjoy green eggs and ham if he simply tries them. Sam-I-Am, the presenter of the green eggs and ham and this story’s antagonist, attempts--through multiple scenarios in which green eggs and ham may be enjoyed--to make the un-named narrator eat green eggs and ham.

Our un-named narrator is decidedly dynamic inasmuch as he is stubbornly prejudiced against green eggs, ham, and Sam-I-Am, but ultimately he discovers that all objects of prejudice are, in fact, not as bad as he previously viewed them. Sam-I-Am, on the complete opposite side of the character scale, is very static in his persistence that our un-named narrator should try green eggs and ham. Despite the un-named narrator’s repeated refusals to try green eggs and ham anywhere Sam suggests eating them, such as in a box or with a fox, Sam-I-Am maintains unflinching optimism and persistence, achieving his goal in the end as the narrator agrees to try that which he has shown prejudice.

As the short narrative progresses and the un-named narrator’s stubbornness begin to dissipate, a theme emerges. It is clear that perseverance is the key to Sam-I-Am’s success; we can, therefore, declare one of the themes of Dr. Seuss’s masterpiece, "Green Eggs and Ham," is that if you persevere and refuse to give up, you can accomplish your goals in the end.

Printable version of these two essays with my initial discussion prompt.

Rubric discussion prompt. "Which essay sounds smarter?" is a pretty subjective discussion prompt, which I start with on purpose. Whenever there's time, I actually want my students to read other students' samples twice--once for comprehension, a second time for the purpose of analysis--, so I give them a more objective prompt for their second read of the two essays. "Here is a rubric," I say. "Read it over carefully, then re-read the two essays knowing what the rubric is specifically looking for. Which of the essays would score better using this rubric? Be prepared to defend your ideas by citing words, phrases, and sentences from the essay or the rubric."

Who wrote the better essay...if you were using this rubric to assess it?
 
Exceeds standards (4)
Meets standards (3)
Does not meet standards (2 or 1)
Content/Academic Vocabulary This short essay makes very strong, accurate observations about the story, accurately applying at least three of the literary terms within the essay draft. This short essay makes somewhat strong, accurate observations about the story, accurately applying at least two of the literary terms within the essay draft. This short essay makes more-silly-than-accurate observations about the story, though the writers do apply at least one of the literary terms to the essay draft well.
Organization/Transitions Each paragraph has a definitive purpose, starts off with an interesting sentence, and a transition word or phrase has been seamlessly used at the beginning of the second, third and (possibly) fourth paragraph. Each paragraph has a noticeable-but-weak purpose, starts off with a somewhat interesting sentence, and a transition word or phrase has been used competently at the beginning of the second, third and (possibly) fourth paragraph. The paragraphs' purpose are not clear, they don't start off very interestingly, and a transitions seem reckless or non-existent between paragraphs.
Conventions/Sentence Fluency This is a rough draft, so there can be some minor mistakes, but the writer has taken noticeable care to keep the spelling and punctuation errors at a minimum; also, there is an obvious mixture of simple and complex sentences. The writer has taken a small amount off care to keep the spelling and punctuation errors at a minimum; also, there is a small mixture of simple and complex sentences. The writer has taken a small amount off care to keep the spelling and punctuation errors at a minimum; also, there is a minimal mixture of simple and complex sentences.
Printable version of this rubric.

How "partner writing" tasks work. I have become a real believer in what I call "partner writes." That means--when it's appropriate--that two kids write a short piece of writing together, passing the pencil back and forth so that every other sentence is in their own handwriting. Before a sentence is written, they are required to talk about it, shaping its exact wording while they practice their negotiating skills with each other. It's a great technique, especially if you're doing a fun piece of writing that relatively short.

Why partner writers? So many of my kids are interpersonal learners, which means they learn better when they can talk about a task while they're doing it. Writing an essay--in most classrooms I visit--logically means quiet writing time. When it's a state test or an essay final or you're summatively assessing a writing skill we've been working on, then don't use partner writers. But if they're practicing smaller writing skills, which they totally are with this ridiculous essay assignment , I find they do a pretty great job writing together. In the partnership, they practice and negotiate those smaller writing skills to craft the best-sounding sentences they can. Later, they will write alone (in this case, these ridiculous essays were practice for our final exam essay, which was a critical analysis essay on a real piece of literature), and I find that having that experience in place helps them all do better. Heck, I even allow them to have their partner essays out as a resource they can consult when they come in to write the final, real essay, which they write completely on their own in a quiet classroom. During the discussions and the negotiations that come with partner-writes, however, learning is happening. Just make sure they pass the pencil.

A warning from an experienced teacher: you will have students who pass the pencil and the rough draft page to their partners, and they'll try to get away with not talking about the next sentence before it's written. They secretly agree that "I'll just write the next one. We don't have to talk about it." Eliminate that possibility right from the start. See my story in the box below.

A funny, true story from the memory banks of Corbett Harrison, former-actor and present-day teacher: A few years back, I knew I had numerous kids in one class who would most-likely try to get away with silently writing during "partner write" time, because--you know--some kids think they are too good to have to talk to each other and negotiate; they just want to be left alone to do the bare minimum. I wasn't sure which students would try to get away with it first, so I cheaply "hired" (for two small pieces of chocolate) a pair of my good kids from that class. They were told to pretend they were not discussing before writing, and for about six minutes they--indeed--pretended that they were trying to get away a no-talk partner-write. I let them get to their fourth or fifth sentence before I--in my best acting voice--loudly called them out for not talking before writing. I grabbed their partner-write essay and dramatically ripped it in half, telling them to "Start over! And this time follow my rules! I expect one whole minute of talking--and that's the minimum!--before you even put down the first word of your essay's next sentence." Three of us acted for the class that day, it cost me two mere pieces of chocolate, but I ended up with one class that really became good discuss-ers and negotiators during partner-writes.

If my kids only knew what a good actor and manipulator I am! Shhhh. Don't tell them. Gosh, I hope they're not reading this!


So after the class analyzed last year's eighth grade writing samples based on "Green Eggs & Ham," here's how it all went down with this year's eighth graders and this year's partner-write:

  • I read (quite dramatically, thank-you very much!) "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" to my very amused (and kind of confused...it's a weird Dr. Seuss story) eighth graders.
  • I handed out printed copies of the Seuss text, which I conveniently found posted at someone's blog. I believe I had to edit a little. If that blog gets taken down for any reason, try this Google search to see if you can find another typed up version (or have your student aide type it, which is more often how I end up with so many typed-up versions of my favorite picture books.) I got lucky with finding the blog post this time. Students also had copies of the 8th graders' "Green Eggs and Ham" essays on their desks for additional support.
  • Partners were established, and the rules of partner-writes were reviewed.
  • I reviewed some basic organization of an essay about literature:
      • Paragraph 1: Introduce us to the basic storyline of book and build a thesis statement. Use literary terms correctly.
      • Paragraph 2: Discuss theme or writing style, using examples from the text to support your claims. Use literary terms correctly.
      • Paragraph 3: Discuss theme or writing style, whichever one you didn't cover in previous paragraph. Use literary terms correctly
      • Paragraph 4: Optional, but if they rush through this and finish early, they are required to write a conclusion or explore a third, literary topic (like setting or plot structure or...?)
  • I set the timer for 25 minutes, and they were off and writing. Both my classes--at the twenty-minute check-in mark--said they'd need about ten more minutes, and they were granted that time because they were being productive. Not everyone had made it all the way through the three required paragraphs, but most were close enough.
  • Partners teamed up with another set of partners, and they shared their essays out loud with each other.
  • Partners found another set of partners again, and they shared their essays again.
  • I took nominations for "most intelligent-sounding ridiculous essays," and the next day in class, my aide started typing those up for me.

Piquing my seventh graders' interest while preparing everyone for their final essay assignment: I have taught writing to all grade levels (K-16), but I currently have sixth, seventh and eighth graders. All my kids write daily in their writer's notebooks. All collect vocabulary as their regular weekly homework task from me. By the time they're eighth graders with me, they are very good at these two routine tasks. Very, very good. If you're ever amazed by the quality of my students' samples, please understand why; I have many of those poor kids for three years, and they get good over those three years.

My end-of-year final for both my seventh and eighth graders is the same task: write an intelligent-sounding critical analysis essay of the final book(s) we've read together as a class. We prepare to write the essay in the three weeks before the final exam happens--through Socratic discussions or partner-writing tasks like the ridiculous essays, among other tricks I have up my sleeve--but they aren't allowed to even start writing their essays until the day of the final. It's a rough draft essay that I expect them to take great care with when composing it, but they know I'm less interested in their conventions and more interested in their academic voices and their unique ideas that they can back up with text evidence.

If you happen to care what challenging books Common Core has me assigning my kiddos, my 8th graders end our school year with a "World War" novel study; they have one of three books they can pick from. Their essays must intelligently analyze theme, writing style, and one other literary element that intrigued them from one of these novels:

  • Choice 1: A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway. It's a classic, though not his best work I warn them before they choose, but it's always nice to have a classic under your belt if you're going to pursue Honors English in high school. Also, I tell them it's a story about a guy who gets his arms shot off in the war, and seriously, I have kids who choose it for that reason...even when I retract that fact a few days later.
  • Choice 2: A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It's probably the best-written of the three novels they can choose from for this final literature study. As sixth graders, they read Animal Farm with me, and I teach the concept of allegory pretty well. When I tell them this novel has allegorical qualities, that encourages a lot of them decide to read this book instead of the others
  • Choice 3: I Have Lived 1000 Years by Livia Bitton Jackson. An interesting, sad but uplifting read. It's written in present tense, which annoys me a little, but it's a fascinating, different glimpse of the Holocaust, which is an event many of my kiddos have a lot of interest in, thanks to our team's amazing social studies teacher, Ms. Clewell.

Now my still-energetic sev-vies (that's my nickname for our seventh graders), to prepare for their final essay, they have to navigate through two Steinbeck novellas: The Pearl and The Red Pony. Their job is to write a comparison/contrast essay about the two novellas, which also must include a discussion of theme, writing style, and a third literary element of their choosing.

This year, I selfishly-but-wisely made great use of my 8th graders' best, freshly-written "ridiculous essays" to show my sev-vies what smart-sounding critical analysis essays sound like. I explain how the eighth graders are practicing their essay writing skills by composing smart-sounding analyses of silly books. I explain to them that in a year's time they will all be at a point where they--too--can write really smart-sounding essays, even if the book they're writing about doesn't feel like it should have a smart-sounding essay written about it. "Please," my seventh graders whine, "please read 'One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish' to us too, Mr. Harrison."

"Next year," I reply, though I will definitely have a different Seuss for them to analyze next year because these seventh graders had the task of over-analyzing the 8th graders' "One Fish, Two Fish..." essays. Sharing the 8th graders' essays had some positive benefits:

  • The 8th graders--when they found out their essays were typed up and shared with the sev-vies--oh man, were they cocks of the walk that day. I actually had a pair of my eighth graders ask, "If we rewrote ours so it was better, would you share it with the seventh graders then?" When kids write and they know their writing is being seen by someone besides just the teacher, the attitude about writing and the effort they start showing goes up tremendously.
  • The 7th graders are totally excited about my ridiculous essay assignment one year before I even assign it to them. That's so powerful to me that they want to do the fun things that eighth graders do, so I told them, "You have to earn the right to do it then. I expect to see amazing effort from all of you so that you can write critical analysis essays just as well as this year's 8th graders do. Because the 8th graders have learned this so well, we get to have fun with it as we prepare for the final." Our 7th grade Steinbeck analysis is only the second literature-based essay they've now written for me, and next year we start with them and do one per quarter.
  • The 7th graders (and even some 6th graders) asked to come in at lunch at read my copy of "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" to each other based on the interesting, often hysterical things my eighth graders were including in their ridiculous essays. As I said up above, it's a weird little book, and it was fascinating to hear my sev-vies share it with each other.

So...below I share the eight essays that were nominated by this year's eighth graders to be typed, read, and analyzed by this year's seventh graders. I presented them on two different days as my sev-vies prepped for their own Steinbeck essay finals. They became great discussion tools. They honored my eighth grade writers who really tried to show off their "smart essay voices." They not only intrigued my seventh graders to want to read the Seuss book, but they also to want to write their own Steinbeck essays to match the intelligent voice the 8th graders were showing off with a fun writing assignment.

All-in-all, "Ridiculous Essays" were a great way to end my school year, and they totally did what they were supposed to: prep my kids to write a genuine critical analysis essay that proves to me they can find intelligent things to say in assigned books that aren't necessarily easy reads.

The first set of essays I showed my seventh graders
The second set of essays I showed my seventh graders

Click here to print this two-page handout to share with your students.

The discussion prompt that went with this handout: "Rank these four essays--from first place to fourth place--based on who sounded the smartest in their discussion of theme. Then, rank these four essays--from first place to fourth place--based on who sounded the smartest in their discussion of writing style."

Click here to print this two-page handout to share with your students.

The discussion prompt that went with this handout: "After reading all four essays, you and your partner choose any two that you want to offer the writer advice for on how to improve the essays. Write down two pieces of detailed, intelligent advice on how the authors might make their writing come across as even smarter."

 

If your students write a wonderful "ridiculous analysis essay" inspired by Dr. Seuss or another children's story, I invite you to post at the Writing Lesson of the Month ning where thousands of other teachers will be able to use it as a discussion tool in their own classrooms.