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Exemplars, Sentence Templates, and Checks for Understanding

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Exemplars, sentence templates, and checks for understanding have two important things in common:

  1. They improve the quality of our students' writing, and
  2. They don't require a moment of out-of-class grading.

Exemplars show our kids what we mean by a clear topic sentence, a defensible thesis, a blended quote, and the like. It is one thing to teach these skills in isolation; it is another to read through an exemplar paragraph as a class while pointing these things out, having students take notes as appropriate. In an exemplar, our students experience a real piece of writing that does the things we want all of our students to do.

Producing exemplars takes some planning time — we have to either write them ourselves or find good examples in our students' work — but the time is minuscule compared to how long it takes to give feedback on a set of student work.

Sentence templates serve a similar function but at the sentence level. When we provide our students with scaffolding pieces like the templates provided in Graff and Birkenstein‘s They Say, I Say, we let our students “in” on what great writers do. Our students bring the ideas, and with sentence templates we bring the means through which they might best express them.

And finally, as our students are writing — be it readable or polished work — we can walk around and check for understanding. The insights we gain from looking over the shoulder of five random students per class inform our instructive efforts, and these in turn give our students a chance to improve before we ever get out the feedback pen.

When I look at how my world history writers improve each year, it's most likely due to these efforts — not the quick, written feedback I occasionally and purposefully provide. Written feedback is certainly called for, but we're leaving a lot of improvement (and sanity!) on the table when we don't use these time-saving efforts, too.

Thank you to Mike Schmoker, whose classic “Write More, Grade Less” article has taught me so much.

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