Essay writing is challenging for students nationwide and Texas is no exception. The scores on the writing portion of the STAAR test unfortunately bear this out. essaypop simplifies essay-writing by compartmentalizing the elemental parts of the academic paper into easy-to-comprehend frames that, when combined together, form smoothly-written, organized compositions. It also features an interactive environment called the Hive that allows teachers and students to collaborate and receive crowdsourced feedback and substantive advice.
The Problem – Students Are Not Being Taught How To Write Essays
Has traditional essay writing fallen out of fashion? By “traditional essay,” we refer to papers that begin with a focused claim or thesis, are followed by relevant evidence and insightful explanations, and then sum things up or put matters into perspective. These types of essays can be expressed in shorter, constructed responses or in longer multiple-paragraph essays. The well-known, five-paragraph essay is one such paper that falls into this category but certainly is not the only variation. A three, six, or even ten-paragraph, long-form paper would also qualify.
There are those who suggest that this type of writing is a quaint, but outdated skill; a held-over practice from a more conventional time when people actually put pen to paper. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Traditional essay writing is being emphasized more than ever before, and Texas has been at the forefront of making essential essay-writing skills a priority by carefully embedding them into the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) writing expectations and systematically testing students to ensure that they are mastering these skills.
The TEKS call for writing that exhibits structure, evidence, and coherence.
In their writing, students are expected to:
- (A) compose literary texts such as personal narratives, fiction, and poetry using genre characteristics and craft;
- (B) compose informational texts, including multi-paragraph essays that convey information about a topic, using a clear controlling idea or thesis statement and genre characteristics and craft;
- (C) compose multi-paragraph argumentative texts using genre characteristics and craft; and
- (D) compose correspondence that reflects an opinion, registers a complaint, or requests information in a business or friendly structure.
And as readers, students are expected to demonstrate key writing competencies as they:
- (E) analyze characteristics and structural elements of informational text, including:
- (i) the controlling idea or thesis with supporting evidence;
- (ii) features such as references or acknowledgments; and
- (iii) organizational patterns that support multiple topics, categories, and subcategories;
- (F) analyze characteristics and structures of argumentative text by:
- (i) identifying the claim;
- (ii) explaining how the author uses various types of evidence and consideration of alternatives to support the argument; and
- (iii) identifying the intended audience or reader
Some of the TEKS-informed, essay-scoring rubrics that we have seen in schools across the state in grades 6-12 require that “student responses have a clear and effective organizational structure, creating a sense of unity and completeness” and that “responses are fully sustained, and consistently and purposefully focused.”
These rubrics additionally ask that “student responses provide thorough and convincing evidence for the controlling idea and supporting idea(s) that includes the effective use of sources, facts, and details. These responses clearly and effectively elaborate ideas, using precise language.”
In short, students across the state are being asked to deploy a deep understanding of the underlying components of structured, evidence-based essays. But are today’s students prepared to tackle such high-level academic writing? The assessment results on the writing portion of the STAAR test consistently suggest that they are not.
It is not just a Texas problem; it’s a nationwide problem
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s (NAEP) most recent assessment, only about one-quarter of students, grades 8 through 12, perform at the Proficient level in writing. The Atlantic Monthly’s, Peg Tyre, writes that “based on the Nation’s Report Card only 1 percent of all students in the 12th grade nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-organized essay.” She goes on to comment that “high schools are still graduating large numbers of students whose writing skills better equip them to work on farms or in factories than in offices.” The research consistently shows that achievement rates in writing remain low, and this doesn’t change when students enter college.
Universities Are Concerned
Universities are perplexed by newly enrolled students’ inability to craft a basic written argument in their research-based, argumentative, and analytical essays. As Soheila Battaglia of Demand Media points out, “Even before students are accepted to universities, they have to be able to write essays as part of their applications. Once accepted, they continue to write essays in courses across the humanities. Essays are assigned by instructors as a method for measuring critical thinking skills, understanding of course material, and writing skills.” But many new college students simply aren’t prepared to produce these types of sustained and coherent compositions.
According to Daniel DeVise of the Washington Post, “more than 80 percent of freshmen have never written a formal five-page paper. Instead, they’ve churned out short essay after short essay after short essay. When asked to develop an idea or argument beyond two or three pages, they look dumbfounded.” Take a look at any college or university website and you will find style guides for basic, academic writing that, more or less, focus on the same things — a tightly constructed introductory paragraph with an unambiguous thesis statement, several focused body paragraphs that present some sort of evidence that is coherently explained by the writer, and a conclusion that revisits the essay’s main points and provides some sort of reflection or call to action. So why aren’t students able to write these kinds of papers?
Teaching Academic Writing is Not Easy, So Who is Teaching the Teachers?
Some say the reason behind the problem comes down to a lack of practice and that students just don’t spend very much time writing in middle school and high school, and when they do, it’s either creative writing, journaling, or short expressions of personal opinion or experience. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for English Language Arts and Reading (TEKS) were developed, in large part, as a reaction to this, explicitly requiring students to write substantial, evidence-based expository, narrative, and argumentative essays, not only in their English classes but in their history, science and math classes as well.
While well-meaning and carefully-constructed, the problem with these expectations is not the TEKS themselves, but, rather, the fact that teachers aren’t necessarily trained on how to teach them. As Natalie Wexler of the Washington Post points out, “the authors of writing standards across the nation focused just on the skills that students should have at each grade level, not on how to impart them. The fact is few teachers have been explicitly trained to teach writing.”
So, essentially, the TEKS for ELA are solid; they’re clear, comprehensive, and are what the universities and business community are asking for. What’s missing is the methodology, the pedagogy, and the teacher-training to ensure that these skills are being taught effectively. The teaching of academic writing is not explicitly covered in Bachelor of Arts programs, nor is it taught in secondary credential programs. And, ironically, when new teachers hit the classroom for the first time, it is assumed that they arrive with a certain set of pedagogical tools, one being the ability to teach kids how to write. Some teachers figure it out on their own, but not all do. Others are fortunate enough to receive informal mentorship from more-experienced teachers, but not all are fortunate enough to receive such support. The fact is, most teachers who we entrust to teach our kids how to write simply do not receive formal training on how to do so, and as a result, they don’t include essay-writing as a prominent part of their curriculum. This is not to fault the teacher and much has been written about the need to include writing-instruction pedagogy in credential programs nationwide.
The big textbook companies have given a nod to formal essay-writing instruction, but, really, they are more focused on reading development and standardized test preparation. Sure, they provide end-of-chapter questions and short-answer prompts, but they expect teachers will be able to expand upon these. But if the teachers don’t have the training to create writing experiences that produce substantive papers, then the cycle of not knowing how to teach the skills and not learning how to write is perpetuated.
What’s worse, even if teachers do discover a way to teach essay writing, they soon realize that with this success comes a grueling and unsustainable grading burden. The image of the dedicated English teacher loading crates of papers into the trunk of her car to take home for the weekend is not over-exaggerated. And this burden takes its toll. Many experienced teachers will tell you that, over time, they assign fewer and fewer long-form papers because there simply is not enough time to grade them. This is especially true in an era where it is not uncommon for class sizes to swell to 40 students per class or more. Imagine, having 200 students all produce a 750-word essay, once per week. That’s about 1,000 pages per week that need to be read, given feedback to and, of course, assessed — a Herculean task by any standard. It’s no wonder that even dedicated teachers back away from assigning essays to their students on a regular basis. And without regular writing instruction and practice for our students, writing proficiency (and STARR scores) will understandably continue to languish.
Essaypop is the Solution that Texas needs
essaypop is a cloud-based essay writing tool that allows beginning, developing, and accomplished writers to compose traditional essays, lab reports, news articles, and other types of academic writing on their computers, phones, or tablets.
The platform utilizes a uniform system of writing instruction that explicitly helps instructors teach students how to compose the types of essays that the TEKS require. It works equally well in traditional, hybrid, and remote-learning settings, and may be used independently by students who want to learn and write on their own as well. Essaypop takes the pressure off of teachers not only by giving them a comprehensive teaching method but by lessening their grading and assessment burden with our proprietary assessment tool. It is interactive, user-friendly, and responsive to the needs of students, teachers, parents, schools, and districts. And of course, it is accessible, equitable, and affordable.
essaypop is powered by four key components:
- The common-sense frame-writing method breaks academic papers down into their constituent parts, providing the “missing method” that makes writing easy to teach and easy to learn.
- The Hive is a social and interactive environment where writers, teachers, and guests gather together to collaborate and receive useful feedback from multiple sources. The Hive brings a sense of community to the classroom.
- The assessment/data collection tool cuts teacher grading-time in half and produces real-time, actionable data that can inform decision-making.
- The lesson library provides hundreds of rigorous, grade-level writing lessons that cover expository, literary analysis, narrative, and argumentative writing.
Frame Writing: The key to effective writing instruction is a uniform, easily-taught, and repeatable writing method.
The essaypop writing method provides teachers with a uniform and systematic approach to academic-writing instruction that breaks complex essays into their constituent parts. Students compose their essays one color-coded frame at a time. Important essay elements such as thesis statements, evidence, analysis, counterargument, and rebuttal are taught and practiced independently, then integrated into organized essays that make sense to young writers. Academic writing is taught, learned, and mastered one step at a time and students internalize the structures that these frames teach. Soon, they are writing this way on their own, even when they are not using essaypop.
This “partitioning off” of essay elements makes the larger essay quite approachable for students who have traditionally struggled with this type of writing. Young writers, emerging writers, and English language learners nationwide have all found the frame-writing approach to be a comfortable way to ease into the process.
Essaypop is a template-based system, and students soon learn that different templates are more suited to different types of writing. The narrative template differs from the argumentative template, and the structure for creating a how-to or process piece is not the same as the one used to craft a letter of complaint. What’s more, these templates can be modified by teachers and students; writing frames can be added to, arranged, and rearranged to create template variations. So while the approach is very structured, it is also quite flexible. In addition to this, no one is locked into the structures that essaypop provides. Teachers can create their own customized templates, terminology, and rubrics within the system; it’s quite open-ended.
The Hive: The social, collaborative, and interactive heart of the essaypop system.
Writing is, first and foremost, a human endeavor. It is an interactive and organic exercise. The best writing ideas come through discussion and the interplay of ideas. It is a conversation with other thinkers and writers who are perhaps trying to solve the same problem as you. Accomplished writers do not write in a vacuum, and they tend to seek advice and even criticism from their peers.
Think of a writer’s room in Hollywood where different writers are gathered together around a large conference table in front of a whiteboard. Ideas for an upcoming production are written down and concepts are submitted, negotiated, blended together, argued over, and eventually accepted or ruled out.
This type of interactivity is a process that young writers crave, and it’s a process that can be assisted with technology to a degree, but because the act of writing is such an organic endeavor, it cannot be digitally replicated entirely. Artificial intelligence, for example, is fantastic, and it has shown promise in terms of helping kids address issues of spelling, grammar, syntax, and the overall organization of academic papers. What AI has fallen short on, however, is identifying conceptual depth, humor, figurative comparisons, subtleties, satire, nuance, and shades of gray, all things that accomplished writers utilize as a matter of course, and which emerging writers should be learning and developing in their essays.
Certainly, essaypop is educational technology; we’ve built a digital platform. However, what makes our system different is that it leverages technology to facilitate the social, human, and organic nature of writing and the writing process. The Hive organizes students into interactive clusters where conversations and connections can occur. It is a teacher-controlled environment that can be configured for any group, size, or purpose. It allows students to receive multiple perspectives about their writing and provides an opportunity for students to crowdsource feedback, suggestions, and advice.
Additionally, the Hive is not merely social; it actually shows kids how to give substantive and meaningful feedback by providing sentence stems and builders that students use to craft useful remarks and suggestions that are on par with the teacher. Our development team is currently working on features that will provide incentives and awards for students who provide useful feedback to their peers. It is also working on gamification features that will make providing others with substantive advice a delightful endeavor for all involved. By valuing and incentivizing peer-to-peer feedback, essaypop is not only helping to create proficient writers but is providing students with the tools to become sophisticated mentors and coaches as well.
The Hive environment also allows the writing process to continue outside of the classroom and the school day. Even at home, students have access to the clusters in which they are grouped and they can continue connecting and interacting as they create outside of the classroom. Because of this, The Hive is also a perfect vehicle for remote and hybrid learning.
The Assessment / Data Collection Tool
As mentioned earlier, the grading/assessment burden for teachers, especially ELA teachers, is immense. As teachers ourselves, we knew that we would have to address this if teachers were going to consistently use the platform. We also knew that in an increasingly data-driven educational environment, we would have to develop a data collection and management system that teachers, schools, and districts could use to make informed decisions about lesson strengths and weaknesses, curriculum modifications, and professional development.
In building our assessment tool, we took into account a method that teachers have been using for years to make writing assessment more efficient. Teachers who have over a hundred papers to grade tend to skim these papers, spot-checking elements that they want to focus on. On one essay, a teacher might focus on their students’ use of text-evidence; on another, she might zero in on analysis and elaboration. That selected element(s) is quickly assessed, a score is given, and the teacher moves on to the next paper. It’s frankly a method invented out of necessity to save time (and teacher sanity). Over time and multiple papers, it is hoped that students and teachers begin to get an overall picture of writing proficiency.
We’ve simply taken this strategy and digitally automated it so that teachers can quickly dial-up or filter through the elements they would like to assess on a particular essay. Because the elements are composed in frames, it is quite easy to select elements for assessment. To make the work even easier, we’ve created pre-made rubrics for every essay component, so that when an element is selected, the rubric automatically appears in the assessment area so that the teacher can quickly mark the score and move on to the next student. Once an “assessment flow” is established by the teacher, the grading occurs quite quickly, and over time, these scores start to tell a story — and this story is stowed away in our proprietary data tool.
The data collection tool stores all rubric scores (as well as teacher comments) and displays them in a variety of views and reports that students, teachers, schools, and districts can take in in real-time and over time. We have built different portals to view the data which include an admin portal and a parent portal so that all stakeholders can have access to the data.
The essaypop Lesson Library
Teachers, tutors, and coaches have access to a comprehensive library of engaging, challenging, and age-appropriate writing lessons created by some of the best teachers in the country, including Texas. The lessons are quite detailed, and cover all major writing domains from argument and persuasion to literary analysis; from exposition and research to narrative storytelling. The amount of time teachers and tutors will save by having access to this grab-and-go content cannot be underestimated. There is plenty here to simulate and prepare for what students will see on the STAAR test. And, of course, students can create lessons with our proprietary lesson-creation wizard, and these too are stored in the lesson library.
Essaypop is perfectly set up to flex between traditional, hybrid, and distance learning.
In the traditional classroom, learning is, more or less, synchronous as students engage in the same tasks and learning at the same time. With distance and hybrid learning, students tend to begin their work at different times during the day or evening, depending on their work and sleep schedules. And while this asynchronous approach was initially a source of frustration at the outset of the pandemic, teachers and students soon adapted to realities and new possibilities. Many experts agree that while a return to the classroom is undeniably welcome, some of the more-useful practices from the shut-down will remain in place. As Texas students return to campuses, it is likely that some of these practices learned in asynchronous settings will naturally carry over to the “new normal”.
Essaypop and the Hive environment is uniquely set up to be “open for business” 24/7 so that teachers and students can interact from anywhere and at any time during the day. Additionally, essaypop’s clever scheduling system and asynchronous timers allow teachers to create work windows and to assign timed-writing events that students can initiate when they are ready to begin. The fact is, the perfect teaching tool for our times must be highly effective regardless of the setting or model of education being practiced. And it is essaypop’s flexibility that makes it the perfect tool for any type of learning.
According to essaypop founder, Michael Hicks, “Essaypop was not originally designed as a distance-learning tool. It just so happens when the health crisis forced us all to stay at home, essaypop had the features and whizbangs to keep kids learning and writing and staying in contact with their teachers and peers. We grew rapidly beginning last March, primarily because of the interactive capabilities of the Hive. We learned a lot during a difficult time, and now we’re building capacity for all types of learning because districts are insisting on it.”
Students in Los Angeles using essaypop in a traditional classroom setting.
What Teachers, Students, and Parents Think About essaypop
Teachers are rapidly adopting essaypop as a regular classroom tool across the country. Many users have pointed out that the system has actual utility and is not just another esoteric or gimmicky educational widget soon to be shelved and forgotten. They appreciate how the platform guides students through essays, one step at a time in a way that is completely scaffolded. They’ve reported that the Hive’s social and interactive possibilities engage students and make writing fun. The assessment tool has been a game-changer and is causing users to actually assign more essays to their students. They also appreciate how easily it integrates with Google Classroom and other LMSs.
Students who have used essaypop have expressed an enthusiasm for a kid-friendly interface that’s intuitive, attractive, customizable, and fun. They appreciate the simple, step-by-step approach to essay writing that removes the naturally intimidating prospect of staring at a blank piece of paper or composing a longer piece of writing. They enjoy approaching essay-writing without the pervasive fear of writer’s block.
Parents have noticed that their childrens’ writing skills are improving demonstrably. They’ve pointed out that they appreciate a system that works in conjunction with direct teacher instruction, but that is not teacher-dependent. They’ve also reported that their children are more engaged in their writing due to the social and interactive nature of the platform.
Essaypop is a writing platform with real utility, and the frame-writing method that smartly guides students through complex, academic papers one step at a time is a common-sense approach that works. It is a sound and scaffolded approach to learning that student users find highly engaging and that teachers are embracing nationwide because they find that it not only works, but it saves them time. essaypop is digital software that, at its heart, embraces the human and organic side of the writing-creation process. It is a solution built for teachers by teachers and one that is perfectly suited to support the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for writing.