The beginning of the school year is an important time to assess the writing skill levels of new students in our English classes. One way to do this is to assign a diagnostic essay in order to "diagnose" each student's writing level. Diagnostic essays can take on various forms. Some English teachers use the diagnostic essay to simultaneously assess summer reading by giving timed writings modeled after AP exams; other teachers assign personal narratives, and still other teachers give open-ended, reader-response type assignments. I have tried all of the above.
One year in particular, I decided to be "Super Teacher" (sans the red cape) and tailor my feedback to each student, so I created a list of targeted writing skills and checked off the skills each student needed to work on throughout the year. This sounded like a super plan for the "Super Teacher." However, I learned the hard way (after MANY hours of marking essays) that my students all performed relatively at the same level-- with few exceptions. There were some writers who blew me away, and there were some writers who were below level. But the vast majority of students needed to improve upon the exact same skills: commentary, sentence structure, vocabulary, and rhetoric. In the end, taking the time to give each student individualized feedback proved to be a waste of my time, which was only exacerbated by the fact that students didn't really look over my comments because they didn't really care.
I knew I had to do something different and something they hadn't done before in order to catch their attention at the beginning of the year while making diagnostic writing more meaningful.
THE WORST ESSAY
One of the most interesting assignments that I picked up from my step-brother who is a Creative Writing professor at UC Boulder and a famous published horror writer is to have students write their worst stories ever. The basic premise is to have students write the worst stories they have ever written and have ever read in their entire lives. So students set out to create a story full of clichés and stereotypes that absolutely no one would ever enjoy or would ever want to read. But that isn't the real point of the writing assignment. The real point is to get students to think consciously about the craft of writing and to get them thinking about what makes up "good" writing and "bad" writing. I thought it was such a brilliant technique that I began using it not only my creative writing classes but also in my English classes.
To apply the same concept to teaching English Language Arts, I have my students write the worst essays they've ever written in their entire lives. The goal in writing this type of "diagnostic" essay is to break every single rule of essay writing that they have ever been taught. But this is only half of the assignment. After students draft this horrible essay, they take turns sharing it and discussing the rules that they've broken. The reflection component is crucial because it encourages students to think about the "rules" of writing, the writing process, and everything they've ever learned about writing in their previous English classes-- all while having FUN and laughing at their awful essays!
This is a way to allow students to generate lists of important skills for writing instead of teachers telling them what it is they need to work on, or the teacher telling them what's important. When students are able to generate their own lists of important skills, it involves them in the learning process in a way that engages them more and is more meaningful in the long run.
As the new school year approaches with every passing day, think about ways to "diagnose" your writing students at the beginning of the year, and consider having them write the worst essays of their entire lives (on purpose). Starting the year with a laugh and a student-driven writing activity will hook their interest from the start! Give it a try! What kind of diagnostic writing assignments do you like to give at the beginning of the school year? Share with us in the comments below!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA. She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas. Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.