5 Steps to Essay Teaching Success

So, the new term is here. You’ve met your classes, prepped your room and (just about!) got used to those early alarms again, and now it’s time to get down to the serious business of lesson planning.

One of my absolute favorite topics to teach in the first term is essay writing. The 5-paragraph essay is an essential skill in English; teach it right at the beginning of the term and you set your students up to do well for the rest of the year. As an English teacher, it’s not often I use math, but a better essay technique = better grades + fewer corrections to mark each time. A win-win for every teacher out there who doesn’t still want to be correcting students’ uses of topic sentences and paragraphs come next June!

Teaching essay writing doesn’t need to be boring or time-consuming. You don’t need to spend hours preparing resources or scouring the internet for good example essays. And you definitely don’t need to take home stacks of marking at the end of the week!

The Essay Writing Scavenger Hunt pack has been designed to keep things as easy as possible. These are real, tried-and-tested resources used for essay writing every day in my classroom. Resources that I know work. Use them alongside the 5 steps and watch essay writing become a topic you love to teach too!

STEP 1: Teach the features

If you want students to structure their essays correctly, then first you must teach them what a good essay looks like. I like to start by giving students a list of the different features typically included in an essay:

The first step is for students to work out what these features actually mean! There are loads of different ways to do this. Got a really energetic class who loves to be active? Hand out a blank answer sheet and hide the printed definitions around the room. Then, ask students to find and match the definitions to the techniques on their sheet. You can make this more competitive by putting a countdown timer on the board; students enjoy the challenge of trying to finish first and in the time limit!

Do you have access to technology? This activity works really well as an independent research task- great for those lessons when you need a bit of quiet time (Friday afternoon lesson anyone?) Simply hand out the worksheet and ask students to research the different techniques. Save yourself even more time and get students to self-mark and extend their answers once finished using the official answer sheet.

For lower ability classes, hand out the glue sticks and get students to match the techniques to the correct definitions.  This is a great activity for reluctant writers too!

STEP 2: Crack out the colors!

Once students know what the features are, the next step is to see them in use.  

Is there any age group that doesn’t appreciate a bit of coloring-in time? Students follow the instructions on the worksheet to identify and color the different techniques in the example essays. No need to spend hours searching for the perfect model essays or writing out your own! This works great as an individual, paired or group activity, or can even be set as homework to reinforce the learning in class.

No colors in your classroom? No problem! Students can identify and write out examples of the different features instead.

STEP 3: Encourage students to argue (no, really!)

This part is my favorite! Now students know how to structure an essay, they need to choose an essay topic. Whether I’m teaching persuasive or argumentative essay writing, I always start with a discussion-based activity to get my students thinking. A good way to do this is to display on the board a number of controversial statements and ask students to argue their opinion in small groups.  

Pick your topics right and students get really into this! Some of the most successful discussions in the past have focused on the need for homework; whether football players are overpaid; whether the school curriculum should be remodeled; and whether it should be compulsory for everyone to give 10% of their earnings to charity. Hot topics of debate for sure!

With your students all riled up and passionate about changing the world, this is the time for them to choose and plan their own essay topics. I always like to give my classes a free rein on what they argue. Firstly, this means they are more passionate about a topic and work harder on constructing their argument and researching supporting evidence. Secondly, it helps me to get to know better my students and what really matters to them.

The rule in my classroom for planning is simple. Students can plan their ideas however they want to, but no writing takes place until they can explain clearly to somebody else in the room their three different supporting arguments, and what they will include in their introduction and conclusion to grab and hold the reader’s attention. If they can’t do that, they’re not ready to write!

Step 4: Writing the right way

In my classroom, we take writing seriously. Dim the lights, put on relaxing music, get out headphones, insist on silence…. do whatever you need to do to create a calm working environment.

The key to good essay writing is structure. What you don’t want at this point is for your students to get so passionate about getting their argument down on paper that they forget to include the features they’ve been taught!

A good way to avoid this is to make sure students have their plans with them as they write and a checklist of features that you want them to include.  Ticking off ideas and essay features as they include them in their writing means they should end up with a perfectly structured five-paragraph essay. You can grab a FREE copy of this Essay Editing Checklist, HERE!

If not, there’s always step number 5….

Step 5: Check and change

Final stop… editing. Rather than allowing students to hand in their essays as soon as they’ve finished, insist that they first check and improve their work. As teachers, we spend enough time marking; what’s the point in giving feedback on work that isn’t even the students’ best work?

Of course, this is easier said than done: we’ve all got students in our classroom who will give their work a cursory flick over and announce it’s perfect exactly as it is!

Peer-assessment using a checklist makes the process a whole lot easier. Using the same colors as before, students can color code the features used in their partners’ essays, making it easier to see if anything has been missed.This checklist is included in the Essay Writing Scavenger Hunt activity!

Once they’ve checked the accuracy of their writing and included any missing features, students are ready to hand in their work.

And voila! As promised, in 5 easy steps, you’ve got yourself a class set of beautifully structured, checked and improved five-paragraph essays ready for marking. No hours of preparation or resource-hunting required.

Whether you’re teaching essay writing for the first time to your students, or refreshing what they’ve learned in previous years, I hope these tips help to make the process both fun and hassle-free. Let me know in the comments any other tips you’d like to share!

5 Classroom Escape Room Tips & Puzzle Ideas

Do you use escape rooms in your classroom? Are you reluctant because of the time it may take to prepare the materials? Have no fear, the answers are here! I have been using escape rooms in my classroom for about a year now and I have come up with several fun, low-prep solutions, and tips so that escape rooms can easily be incorporated into your classroom. All of the escape rooms that I have created have the teacher in mind (at all times!) Teachers have enough on their plates. I understand this because I'm a teacher, too!

Yes, escape rooms can be intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of one, you (and your students) won't be able to get enough of them! They are a fun learning tool and serve as an excellent team-building activity. They are great to use during back-to-school, before holidays or at the end-of-the-year, when students are full of energy!

You don't necessarily NEED to use locks, but it is sometimes fun to use the lock as an introductory activity to the escape room itself. For example, I give each group one lock and a bunch of possible lock codes. You can give as many or as little as you'd like, depending on the time available.  In order for the teams to gain access to the contents of the first escape room, they have to select that right combination and bring me the unlocked device! Once they do that, I hand them their first task and they are on their way. I use my escape rooms as races, so students are pretty frantic when they are unlocking their device. It's pretty funny to see them get excited about these activities, especially high school students. Sometimes it takes them a few tries, even if they selected the right combination, because they are in such a panic to get it open! Grab this FREE (Editable) Lock Challenge HERE!

*Don't go out and buy the locks if you don't need to! Check with your school secretary first and use the extra locks that the school may already provide for the students!*
Examples of the unlock code handouts I gave each group!

While the escape room concept is typically designed for small groups, there is nothing to say that a student couldn't complete the activity individually or in pairs. I have given students an escape challenge if they are finished their work early, as a homework activity, and even as bonus work for a fun, critical-thinking assignment. Students are always happy to be working on something if they have nothing else to do, providing it is fun and engaging! Escape rooms created for classroom use are learning tools, so while students may be working on puzzles and games, they are still LEARNING!

Perhaps the best part about escape rooms is that you do not have to grade them! Why? Because the activities in the challenge are aimed to promote collaboration amongst peers. Saying that, should you or your administration require that these activities be graded, you can easily give each participant this FREE Escape Room Participation Rubric for their efforts. This way, you can still hold students accountable for their work ethic. On a side note, if you're tech-savvy, you can definitely create Google Forms to make the answer checking even faster.

Teachers, this one is especially for you! (But don't tell your students!) 😃 If you're not wanting to start anything new before a holiday break or you are trying to keep your classes under control with an impending holiday around the corner, check out these Holiday Escape Room activities.  The best part? These are not content-specific, so these can easily be incorporated into any class where time could be filled. In addition, you can mix and match the challenges depending on the time available, so if you can't get through all of the challenges included, you can pick which ones will work best for students and save the rest for another year (or class).

Holiday Escape Room Sanity Savers

Anxious for the chaos that comes along with students before Christmas break, spring break, end-of-the-year, etc.? No problem! I've got you covered, in addition to several other holidays through the year! Check out all of my escape rooms, (including the ones pictured above) HERE! These fun activities and puzzles will help to calm the chaos (and help YOU keep you sanity) during those exciting times of the year.

Students have to review for their tests anyway, so why not ultilize classtime effectively for this review? I create escape rooms for a variety of the units I teach. It takes a TON OF TIME, but it's a really effective way to see where your students' skills and/or abilities are at. For example, I wanted to see how much my students knew about the basics of a 5-paragraph essay, so I created an escape room that covered various elements about essays. This gave me an idea of what experience students had writing essays, as well, it serves as a good reminder of the important elements of an essay, which were the expectations and requirements of their upcoming assignment.

This Essay Writing Escape Room reviews the following topics: (a) Types of Essays, (b) Parts of an Essay, (c) Essay Trivia, (d) 5 Paragraph Essay Format, (e) Thesis Statements, and (f) Essay Terminology. Students are not only learning more about the essay writing process, but also getting a refresher on what they may have previously learned.

I hope some of these tips and tricks will give you a better idea about how you can incorporate escape room activities into your classrooms! Trust me, once you do one, they will want to do more!


10 End of the Year Ideas and Resources for Secondary ELA

1. Assign a course evaluation. Ask students to reflect on what they have learned. When I first began teaching, I was always hesitant to read the survey results, but I had to get over that. Would some students write rude things? A couple, but the benefit of the sincere feedback I gleaned from the majority of the class was invaluable. At the end of the year, I ask students to think about what lessons were most memorable, how they grew as readers and writers, and what suggestions they had for improving the course. While not every response was earth-shattering, I have gained important insights from this reflective activity. These insights have improved my teaching. Click HERE for an End of the Semester Course Reflection and Evaluation for Secondary ELA. (RWH)


2. Plan for next year. How? Is that even possible during this time of year? Yes, it is! Now, I am not talking about during exam prep, but perhaps during the last few weeks when you can see the light! Take a break during that exam marking. You need it. Your head needs it and your eyes need it, too! During these brief 'refreshment breaks,' I take a few minutes to read blog posts from other teachers, complete preliminary research on up and coming YA books that my students might enjoy next year, and even scroll through some social media posts from other teachers' accounts to see what some of their favorite lessons were over the year that I might like to try! (TCS)

3. Purge. I used to have file cabinets full of student work, example projects, art supplies and extra copies. Eventually, I saw a pattern. Many of the art supplies would dry out over the summer. Once in a while, I'd use an example of a project from a previous year, but most of the time, they would collect dust. As for the extra copies, well, I'm continually changing and tweaking what I do, so those just began to fill up the file cabinets. Purging is important because when you return at the beginning of the next school year, the lack of clutter will make you feel energized. If you feel overwhelmed by the task in May, have students help you. Give everyone a job. Organization, responsibility, and community are important life skills that students can learn during this time. Plus, they love helping. (RWH)

4. Practice Public Speaking. By the end of the year, most students are more comfortable with their peers after spending months together in a classroom. This is a good time to practice public speaking skills. Use topics that they are familiar with or have a strong opinion about. You might want to complete a short unit on this or just spend a few minutes at the start of every class to talk about issues that are important to them, new events occurring nationally or internationally, or even pop-culture happenings! You may also want to ask students to write a few topics down on a piece of paper, then at the start of each class (or over a few class periods) pull out a new topic and see what everyone has to say about it! (TCS)

5. Try something new. When I have extra time in May, I want to fill it with meaningful content. If you haven't tried an escape room, scaffolding a one-pager, flipping a lesson, asking students to teach an activity, using stations, project-based learning, or jigsaws (just to name a few), now is the time! Students will appreciate the fresh teaching approaches, and you will learn what works best and what doesn't so that you feel more confident about incorporating those activities as part of your standard curriculum. (RWH)

6. Have some fun! I don't know about you, but I love to end the year off with a bang! I need a break and the students do too, but more importantly, I want my students to leave my classes with fun memories because they will remember these for years to come. So, I created an End of the Year Escape Room, where students have to work collaboratively to solve various trivia puzzles (activities or tasks they would technically have to do at the end of the year!) For example, return library books, clean out their desks and lockers, apply for a summer job, pick up their yearbooks and finally, pass the exam! This activity is a win-win for all. Your students can enjoy a bit of friendly competition and you can enjoy watching them having fun and working together. The best part? NO GRADING! You may choose to assign marks for participation, but I do not anticipate you will have too many issues with students not wanting to take part! 😃 (TCS)


7. Teach Kindness. The end of the school year is the perfect time to engage in meaningful activities that apply to real life. Standardized testing is over, the bulk of the curriculum is taught, and the weather is warm. Students appreciate meaningful discussions, and the end of the school year is often a time where some teens begin to demonstrate more maturity. Teachers can show movies like Wonder, read and discuss novels like Tuesdays with Morrie, or even teach students how to use kindness emails to encourage others. (RWH)

8. Change up the decor. This is a good time to freshen up your bulletin boards and posters that you might have hanging around your room. Add a burst of color to your classroom by using tissue paper as a background. It's both easy and very affordable! Also, a fun way to add a burst of color to your whiteboards would be to add magnetic strips (or tape) to the back of your borders and simply apply those to the perimeter. It's also a great way to organize different sections on a whiteboard. For example, a homework area. (TCS)

9. Encourage reading. At the end of the school year, one of my goals is to get students to make a summer reading list. I want them talking about books. I want them making book recommendations, reflecting on how they have grown as a reader, and analyzing what aspects of books they enjoy most. Take students to the public library. Let them peruse the shelves. Invite your librarian to do book talks. Have students record book commercials and post them on a class website that they can access over the summer. Host discussion groups so students can share their favorite texts from the school year. Coordinate with the teachers who your students will have the following year to organize a summer reading program. Do whatever it takes to ignite their passion for reading. (RWH)

10. Set goals. This is an activity that can be done by both students and teachers. What are some things that you did well this year? What do you hope to do the same or change next year? Start with making a bucket list of things that you wish to do over the summer break, which will help you prepare for the fall. Whether it's reading, writing or working towards an athletic goal, setting your sights on new things will encourage you to strive harder to reach your goals. So, grab a notebook and get writing!(TCS)

Thanks for reading our post! We hope that we have given you a few ideas to wrap up the next few weeks!

What are a few things that you do at the end of the year?

The Classroom Sparrow & Reading and Writing Haven