If I could talk about literature all day, I would. Seriously, I would sit at a cafe with a chai for 8 hours and just talk books. Naturally, I was excited to start the Literary Essay (Argument) unit of the Units of Study in Writing program by Lucy Calkins. Having just finished the Investigative Journalism unit, the students were now familiar with the Writer’s Workshop format. While the overall experience was positive, there are some important notes for anyone tackling this unit for the first time.

  1. The common text: We had just finished reading the short story version of Flowers For Algernon, so I decided to use that. I don’t know how wise this was. By the end of the third essay, the students were sick of writing about it. First a thematic essay, then an author’s craft essay, then a comparative essay - over the span of about 8-9 weeks. It’s a little long to be spending with one piece for 8th graders. Next year, I might try to do use a different common text for each essay. That would mean probably one novel and two short stories. Choose wisely in Bend II, as there is a symbolism exercise!

  2. Homework: Often the homework would ask for the students to bring in an essay plan. They had no idea what that was, so I said, “You know, an outline.” Yeah, not so much. I recommend the first time you give this instruction to offer a template or examples on what this should specifically look like.

  3. E-notebook v. paper notebook: I was blessed with the introduction of Chromebooks this semester, so most people moved to a google doc notebook. This brings its own set of hiccups, but I found it best to stay out of technical conversations. I relied heavily on, “Find a friend to teach you how to do that.” Worked like magic!

  4. Counterargument: Here is where the controversial element comes in: Does the literary argument include counterargument? UoS says yes, most of my colleagues say no. The real issue: it is incredibly difficult to teach an 8th grade how to write a counterargument for a thematic statement.

  5. Checklists: The checklists are extremely complex for writers who are unfamiliar with this program. I parred down to only a few items per essay for them to focus on. I also had to help them unpack the language, since it was hard for my students to understand.

So we are in the home stretch! One more unit to go, which is Position Papers. My students love to argue, so this one should be fun.