Published Online: January 29, 2014

Acculturating Students to Time-Limited Writing

So much of teaching is in the branding. "ODWA," for example, sounds much more mysterious and potentially fun to students than "extended response," "paired-passage essay," or "in-class essay."

I became a convert to this obscure acronym—which stands for "on-demand writing assessments"—after years of reading my students' essay responses on mock state tests.

I'd spend ample time on teaching brainstorming, outlining, evidence-gathering, claim-writing, and explanation skills as students worked on longer process pieces.

The trouble: My students didn't apply these skills when they had limited writing time. Instead, they panicked, answering a prompt's questions in a humongous paragraph, without any sense of organization. All methodology went out the window.

My students needed to learn how to respond to on-demand prompts, time constraints and all. Yes, I wanted them to perform well on state tests, but I also knew that a great deal of 21st-century workplace writing is short-form and composed on the fly.

So how do I balance my desire to prepare students for the state tests and to provide them with useful 21st-century skills? I assign ODWAs about once every two weeks.

Here's my how-to guide:

Design Prompts That Connect to Your Unit

What kind of prompts should you use? The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (one of the common-core assessment consortia) has insinuated that extended responses may someday include finishing narratives or writing opinion-driven persuasive pieces. But at this point, my state (New York) has given little indication of straying from the traditional essay format. So my prompts often involve real-world application of a concept from a fiction text or analysis of how two different texts might interact.

I pull prompts from a variety of sources, including fiction, nonfiction, and film, that relate thematically to our unit text or topic. (See the sidebar for examples.)

Scaffold Students' Abilities to Tackle Prompts Independently

Toward the beginning of the year, we read and annotate the prompt altogether before students begin writing.

Sample On-Demand Writing Prompts

Used With 5th graders:

Both Richard Turere from Kenya and Matisse Reid from New Zealand have gained worldwide recognition for their amazing ways of dealing with challenges in their lives. Write a well-organized essay in which you compare and contrast the ways in which these two young adults responded to their challenges.

In your response, be sure to:

  • Summarize the challenges of both Turere and Reid.
  • Explain the similarities in Turere's and Reid's challenges and solutions.
  • Explain the differences in Turere's and Reid's challenges and solutions.
  • Use details from both texts.

Write your response in complete sentences.

For 5th graders:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is considered a classic fantasy, but what if it were somewhat scientific? "Short Cuts" discusses the science behind wormholes, and the author explains that wormholes are not all science fiction. Using details from both passages, discuss whether or not the well in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland fits the concept of a wormhole.

In your response, be sure to:

  • Describe what wormholes are and how they could be used as short cuts.
  • Describe Alice's experiences falling down the well.
  • Explain whether or not Alice's well could be a wormhole.
  • Use details from both texts.

Write your response in complete sentences.

Used With 7th graders:

In Jonas's world in The Giver, the Committee of Elders has significant power over how the Community is run. They select Assignments for the Twelves, and all rules are approved and adjusted by them. While some of us may find some of their rules unnecessary, the Elders have their reasons. Similarly, in our real world, some countries' governments have passed certain laws that we may find unfair for their own reasons. After reading about how China plans to change their one-child policy that began in 1979, think about what rules in Jonas's society should be changed. In a well-organized response, consider why the rules in each of these societies were originally put into place, and why those rules were (or could be) considered unfair.

In your multi-paragraph response, be sure to:

  • Explain why the one-child policy was started.
  • Discuss why the one-child policy is being changed.
  • Identify an "unfair" rule or rules in Jonas's society as well as why they exist.
  • Use evidence from both texts.

Write your response in complete sentences.

Used With 7th graders:

Throughout time, many men and women have been accused of witchcraft, yet their sad stories involve no broomsticks, black cats, or Halloween candy. In fact, innocent men and women were often killed in "witch hunts." Read to learn about a famous witch-hunt that occurred in a Massachusetts village during the 17th century. Then, construct a well-organized response that explains the major group discussed in both texts as well as the two lenses, or perspectives, that are being used to describe this group.

In your response, be sure to:

  • Identify the major group discussed in both texts.
  • Identify the two lenses, or perspectives, that come up in these texts around this group.
  • Explain how these lenses, or perspectives, are different and which one is more fair.
  • Use evidence from both texts.

Write your response in complete sentences.

As students gain confidence, shared planning and writing of a portion of the ODWA can help everyone get started. For example, a few weeks ago, most of my students wrote only one or two paragraphs in response to a prompt that certainly called for more than that.

So when we presented the next ODWA, my co-teacher and I took more time to review the prompt and discuss how this essay could be organized into multiple paragraphs in at least two different, logical ways.

Provide Limited Feedback Around Mechanics and Writing Conventions

My co-teacher and I mark no more than three spelling and three grammar errors with color-coded highlighters. These are the students’ “spelling and grammar demons,” a concept derived from Kelly Gallagher’s work.

Most students benefit more from individualized grammar instruction than from whole-class exercises. At the same time, individuals can best process and learn from their errors when they are limited in scope.

Students edit their spelling and grammar demons directly on their papers. I have found that most students can fix their own errors independently or with the help of a partner without much assistance.

If a word is highlighted pink, they know it’s spelled wrong, and if a phrase is green, there is something wrong grammatically, or there is missing punctuation.

Set Aside Regular Opportunities for Students to Reflect on Their Writing

The ODWA rubric that I have designed has a tracking sheet on the reverse side for students to account for their scores over the course of several ODWAs.

Because the rubric domains are constant, students learn what elements of claim-based writing they can improve upon. More evidence, more explanation, clearer topic sentences, etc.

Beneath the row of scores in each category, I provide a space for students to reflect upon how their writing has improved since the last ODWA, as well as what work has yet to be done.

Real-World Writing

At first when I embarked on this journey of regular on-demand writing, I felt somewhat guilty for what some teachers may consider bowing to test-prep sensationalism.

But, if we're being honest with ourselves, more "real world" writing is of an on-demand nature anyways. Even setting aside standardized tests, most people do not do multiple drafts of emails, text messages, Facebook updates, or blog posts. Perhaps they should, but the reality is that they don't. More jobs require proficiency in writing skills and include writing exercises as part of the interview process. A recent article on today's writing culture by Clive Thompson in Wired magazine gets further at what I'm talking about. Thompson notes:

Every day, we collectively produce millions of books' worth of writing. Globally we send 154.6 billion emails, more than 400 million tweets, and over 1 million blog posts and around 2 million blog comments on WordPress. On Facebook, we post about 16 billion words. Altogether, we compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media—the equivalent of 36 million books. (The entire U.S. Library of Congress, by comparison, holds around 23 million books.)

So now I think the ODWAs are a gift. They teach students to learn how to think on their toes—and they promote greater confidence around writing skills as students see incremental, regular growth. The sheer act of writing a lot and more often helps students become better writers, faster… readying them for the pace of 21st-century workplaces.

Furthermore, I have found that the regularity of our ODWA experiences have promoted greater student confidence around writing skills in general, and while students may roll their eyes at the prospect of another ODWA prompt, the predictability of our routine makes the whole process feel safer. Sporadic writing assignments do not build students' confidence in their abilities, and I would argue that the sheer act of writing a lot and more often helps students become better writers, faster.

Working laboriously on one literary analysis essay over several weeks may feel like an ELA mainstay, but it’s not the only way to learn to write. If you crave assignments that will increase students’ agility and confidence, give ODWAs a try.

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