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Cohesive Writing: Why Concept Is Not Enough 2002 - an organized, coherent method that works by offering clear and complete guidelines for the most common types of writing: informational and persuasive writing, narrative writing, and writing about literature.

Getting Started

Many students seem to consider getting started to be the most difficult part of writing. Jago introduces this difficulty by referring to Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, in which a young boy is discouraged because he waited until the last minute to begin a lengthy report on birds. The boy's father encourages him to start and helps him not to feel overwhelmed by breaking the report into smaller tasks and explains that the boy should "Just take it bird by bird." (Jago, p 8). Jago goes on to explain that we should help our students to break down larger, intimidating tasks into smaller, easy to handle tasks in order to jump-start the writing process.

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Jago suggests that once students have tackled the task of starting to write, then the concept of inertia takes over and helps students to continue writing. In order to find this inertia, Jago asks her students to free-write and to write question papers in order to reach a better understanding of what they will be writing. Jago favors question papers for literary responses and asks her students to write about the questions that arise in their minds while reading the literary piece. She encourages them to formulate questions that will help the students to analyze the literary work and suggests the following openers to be especially helpful:

  • I wonder...
  • How?
  • Why?
  • Maybe...
  • It's possible that...
(Jago, p11)

After allowing the students to write question papers, Jago brings the class together to discuss what the students wrote about, how it has improved their understanding of the literary work and tries to help the students see how question papers as a pre-writing exercise can help to produce higher quality literary response essays. Jago explains, "I hope they gain an approach for getting started on a paper. Usually they do." and then shares a conversation she had with two students about whether this exercise would help them to begin if she were to hypothetically assign an essay on the same topic as the question paper. While the students are happy to learn that there is no assigned essay, I can't help but wonder if the lesson would be more affective if a coordinating essay was assigned. It is one thing to have the students imagine that the question paper exercise would help them to start an essay and quite another to have them follow through after the in-class pre-writing to produce an actual essay. Beyond my suggestion, I would be curious to learn if Jago has any further strategies for convincing students of the usefulness of such pre-writing exercises.

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Improving Our Prompts to Improve Student Writing

Next, Jago addresses the struggles students face while working on their first drafts and suggests that teachers can improve their students' writing by providing quality writing prompts. She explains that teachers must find the balance between giving students too much choice and too little freedom within the writing prompt. Jago gives several examples of poorly constructed prompts and makes suggestions for improvement. Jago shares the questions she asks herself in order to create more clear, concise prompts:

  • Does the question invite reflection and analysis or have I simply asked students to retell the story?
  • Does the prompt invite many possible responses or does there seem to be only one correct answer?
  • Does the prompt send students back to the text for evidence?
  • Have I indulged in my own multiple interpretations of the text and written so many questions that students have no idea where to begin?

After suggesting the use of The College Board's AP Language and AP Literature prompts for models, Jago explains that in her own classroom she often will create prompts for specific students in order to help them write a more focused paper. She acknowledges that this isn't always possible due to the amount of time and additional work this would require of a teacher, but explains that personalized prompts help many students to improve their writing skills.

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In Chapter 2, "Teaching Informal and Persuasive Writing," Jago focuses on the use of NAEP prompts from 8th and 12th grade

  • Write a letter to your school board either in favor of or against lengthening the school year (8th).
  • Persuade one of two friends who disagree about registering to vote to either register or not (12th).

The focus of these prompts seems to be on letter writing and formulating opinions. While this is important, it is also very informal. I wonder how she teaches structure, voice and counter-argument in student writing. When does higher level thinking come into play? Moreover, most standardized writing prompts require completion in a timed setting. Does she eventually get to the step where students are timed? Is there a rubric that she uses? Here are the guidelines for students that she supplies in "General Characteristics of Writing by Mode: Persuasive:"

  • Understands the persuasive purpose
  • Takes and retains position
  • Supports and develops a position through examples, details, statistics, and supporting evidence
  • Has coherent and logical audience
  • Gives attention to audience
  • Uses language level appropriate to the topic and voice desired by the writing
  • Demonstrates control of mechanics

Jago prefers one-on-one conferencing with students to help improve their writing. Specifically, she says, "Ten minutes spent with a student writer on a draft in a short writing conference is worth an hour spent correcting their final copy." (Jago, 34) I wonder how she addresses these standards and sets goals for each student effectively and makes them aware of the standards based curriculum in California where her classroom is located. Since persuasive thought and writing is such an important part of every day life and a massive chunk of the ACT/MME (Michigan Merit Exam), I want to know more about how to make students efficient processors and how she relates these examples to the test.

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Why Write Essays and What Should They Look Like?

Carol Jago shares that she often finds that students have no idea why anyone would decide to write an essay (outside of graded classroom assignments). She finds it useful to share with students her own experiences in writing in order to help them understand that essay-writing can be an effective form of self exploration and discovery.

Jago asserts the importance of incorporating professional essays in the classroom since students are regularly asked to write essays, but so rarely see any examples of essay-style writing. To get her students to go beyond simply reading model essays, Jago offers her students several essays to choose from, asks them to form groups and then to identify the thesis and evidence to support the thesis. This seems like a simple, yet very effective way to expose students to a variety of quality essays and requires students to examine what strengthens an essay.
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Not Your Average Assignment... What I find most impressive about many of the lessons and assignments in Cohesive Writing, is the way that Jago is always aware of what students will need to know for standardized tests, but that she recognizes the shortcomings of those tests and finds ways to help her students succeed on those tests and to develop the abilities that students need beyond those tests. She takes creative approaches like asking students to clip articles from newspapers to help them choose topics for persuasive essays or asking students to practice narrative writing skills through inner dialogue or through specific smells. I was especially inspired by the entire section devoted to “Culminating Assignments that Don’t Feel Like Hard Work,” which is full of assignment ideas that ask students to respond to literature in unique ways. She has excellent methods for provoking student thought and getting them to put their ideas down on paper.

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Constantly Adapting Classroom Plans While I agree with Jago that there is no single method that will work on all students, the suggestions and sample assignments she shares in this book will help any writing teacher to freshen up his/her lesson plans and to inspire higher quality work from students. She admits herself that, "I don't believe there is any one perfect model or single, step-by-step process that teaches all students how to write well, guaranteed." (Jago, 85) But, she offers the following beliefs that keep her focused when creating new lesson plans:

  • In order to learn to write, one must write.
  • Authentic tasks and topics generate the most cohesive student writing.
  • Students need both supportive and critical feedback.
  • There is no cohesive writing without revision.
(Jago, p85)
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Cohesive Writing - The Product

At the end of this book, Jago provides helpful documents to help teachers develop their own methods. Included are:
  • The Grammar Crime Hot Sheet
    • An alternative to leaving cryptic messages on student work
  • A Five Day Writing Plan
    • Breaks down student and teacher expectations for a single writing assignment
    • Gives suggestions for compare/contrast essays
  • A Peer Response Sheet
    • Guidelines for peer revision
  • A Self Evaluation of Revision
    • Asks students important questions at which to aim their reflective eye
    • Gives the students a chance to be candid with the teacher before grading takes place
  • Several Sample Student Essays and many more surprises!

Submitted by
Patricia Witten
Western Michigan University

Submitted by
William Lapham
Teacher at Battle Creek Central High School
Student at Western Michigan University