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Writing Prompts and Writing Them Well


Dear Dr. Louis,

I need help with prompt writing, please!

Eileen V.

Dear Eileen,

Well, the first step is asking for help!

When I first started teaching eleventh grade English Language Arts, I would become discouraged as I began scoring the 180-200 essays that I had assigned to my students. “Why weren’t they getting it?” I would ask myself as I sat at my dining room table, scoring one after another until the wee hours of the morning. Their responses were just not in sync with what I had wanted. Why? What was wrong with these kids? The next day, with little sleep and not a great attitude, my kids would arrive, and I when the bell rang, I would shake the stack of papers at them, saying “Y’all weren’t listening! I’m the only one working around here! We’re going to have to start all over again!”

Well, that was a long time ago, and I’ve gained some wisdom and a little humility since then (getting a divorce and fumbling with technology helped). I realized that when class sets of papers are not up to par, the problem is not the students; it's the prompt; and, more importantly, the prompter.

I set forth on a mission to discover what elements are included in a prompt that would yield essays of which my students and I could be proud. I discovered that an effective prompt has three components: one or several background sentences; a trigger sentence; a task. Background Sentences: These are opening statements in a prompt that serve several purposes. First, they are there to engage the students, pique their interest. Gilgamesh is the first superhero text. Or If we didn’t have photosynthesis, we all would be dead! Background sentences provide students with what Aristotle would call the occasion. In other words, what motivates this piece of writing? If it’s understanding symbolism, then perhaps I give the definition of symbolism first. Perhaps I then give an example from the story, providing the students with insight into the significance of the symbol. A symbol is a tangible object that represents an abstract idea. During the first half of the 19th century, known as the Romantic Era, one important symbol was nature. It was such an important symbol that authors would sometimes capitalize it, personifying it with the status equal to that of an actual character in a literary work. Trigger Sentence: As I continued my research while teaching my eleventh graders, I studied Advanced Placement® prompts. Their prompts would include the following statement: Read the passage carefully. I asked myself, “Why in the world would they say that? What were the students going to do – Read the passage haphazardly?” Then it dawned on me that this was a trigger sentence, designed to separate the background sentences from the task, the third element of an effective prompt. The trigger sentence was there to say to the students, “Everything above me is designed to help you, to give you insight into the content, to set the tone. Everything below me is what you are supposed to do.”

Read Chapter 19 in The Scarlet Letter.

Task: The task gives the students the specifications of what should be in the essay.

Then, in a well-developed multiparagraph essay, trace the Nature motif and explain its significance. You might consider the tone that is created when Nature is present and how it contributes to the meaning of the text. Once I learned how to write effective prompts, scoring essays did not seem as burdensome. My students understood what I wanted and did their best to show me their understanding. We all felt more successful. I realized that receiving good essays from my students begins with me and my ability to create good writing prompts.

Here are a couple more prompts that I’ve been working on with teachers of late: A Long Walk to Water Writing

Prompt: The orphaned boys from Sudan have come to be called “Lost Boys.” This is a reference to the book Peter Pan by JM Barrie. In Peter Pan, the Lost Boys are a group of young orphans who join in Peter’s adventures, fighting pirates, and saving an Indian Princess. Despite the fun and the freedom they enjoy, the Lost Boys choose to leave Neverland at the end of the story to find families.  Please read the attached Peter Pan excerpt.   Then, in a well-developed one- to two-chunk paragraph (1:2+), interpret why "lost boys" is an appropriate name to give to boys like Salva.

Tangerine Writing Prompt:

In Edward Bloor’s Tangerine, the narrator portrays two communities: Lake Windsor Downs and Tangerine. Though these two communities share many similarities, they are also very different from one another.  Read the novel, carefully, annotating the similarities and differences of these two communities. In a well-developed two paragraph literary analysis (1:2+), compare and contrast Paul’s community (Lake Windsor Downs) with Victor’s community (Tangerine). The first paragraph will be how the communities are alike, and the second paragraph will be how the communities are different. Be sure to focus on the residents, their behaviors and attitudes, family relationships, and economic differences.

Keep reading and writing,

Dr. Louis

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