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The Half-Essay (aka Interrupted Essay)

The half-essay was born around my 20th year of teaching (eight years ago, now). 

As an AP literature teacher, I have always started the year with a poetry unit that focuses on explicating the kinds of challenging poetry that appears on the AP lit exam. Naturally this explication begins with a focus on discussion and applying various strategies for navigating through these challenging poems. But about a week into the process we begin to focus on turning these explications into essays. 


This year we began the poetry unit by working our way through three sonnets (a form that often appears on AP multiple-choice exams, as well as the free response section of the exam). As I prepared for our first essay, I gave students a sample 9 essay (the highest score an essay can receive on the AP scale) written in response to the sonnet "Thou Blind Man's Bluff," by Sir Philip Sidney. Over a 45-minute period, they studied and discussed this essay in detail (independently, in silent discussion, and then in whole-class debrief). 


As this was a block period (106 minutes), I was able to move directly into the half-essay process. (They knew from the beginning of the period that this was coming.) The instructions for the half-essay went like this:



  1. Select one of the other sonnets we have been studying (not "Thou Blind Man's Mark"). 
  2. You have 25 minutes to write.
  3. Write a brief introduction and thesis statement.
  4. Analyze the first eight lines of whichever sonnet you have chosen (probably one or two body paragraphs).
  5. Do not write a conclusion. 
  6. Emulate the qualities of the 9 essay we have been studying today.
As this is our first writing assignment--and their first exposure to the half-essay--I always open the floor for questions. Without the fail, the first question is: "How will this be graded?" It's a great question, of course. 

I read these half-essays, giving feedback and assigning a score on the 9-point AP scale. As I am reading, I watch for two or three trends--weaknesses that occur repeatedly throughout the stacks of essays. Then I design a lesson or two that addresses these weaknesses. Finally, I return the half-essays and give them another 25 minutes to write. They do not revise the half they had already written. Instead they use this time to finish the essay, presumably applying the feedback from the first half of the essay, as well as the skills we targeted in our additional lessons. They get another score on the 9-point scale, this one based solely on the second half of the essay, and this becomes the actual grade for the assignment.

My takeaways:
  1. I get to give feedback in the middle of an essay, which, it seems to me, increases the chances students will read and apply that feedback.
  2. I get to give instruction in the middle of an essay, which makes the first half of the essay an effective formative assessment.
  3. I can grade half-essays faster that full essays, so the feedback (and the chance to apply it) comes more quickly.
  4. The protocol is pretty simple, and I think it could easily be adapted to other grade levels, other writing modes, and even disciplines other than ELA.


(My brilliant friend Rhonda Urquidi has done a version of this assignment, and I believe she coined the term "interrupted essay," which I think is really cool way to think of this process.)

Comments

  1. Keep telling your story. It's an important one!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, Mac. I love that you have my back.

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