Anchor Papers: A Journey Toward Better Student Papers

anchor

I’ve recently had an ah-ha moment about teaching writing at all levels using anchor papers.  Anchor papers are basically a set of papers that each represent the characteristics of a particular grade range. For example, given a writing prompt about Native American mythology, I could have a set of anchor papers in which 1-2 papers are solid As, 1-2 papers are solid Bs, 1-2 papers are solid Cs, 1-2 papers are solid Ds, and 1-2 papers are Fs.  When we are finished with our literature unit on Native American mythology, I can have students write on the prompt with a clear rubric.  When the papers are complete, I can give students the unmarked anchor papers to categorize and grade based on the rubric.  After we have discussed which papers received which grades and for what reasons, students can self-assess their own papers with clarity. Then I could use a similar rubric with the next paper on Puritan literature, allowing students to self-assess without anchor papers before they turn it in for my grading.

Anchor paper strategies are common in the test prep world, but I think they can be just as helpful in our regular curriculum.  I teach  juniors, so at the beginning of the year, we do the Score Write activity from college board and I have seen a marked improvement in their SAT essay style writing as a result of the anchor paper technique.  Preparing anchor papers for ourselves can be a daunting task, but I think the long-term results will be well worth it.  Below I am sharing reasons to try anchor papers and tips for preparing them.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!

Reasons to use anchor papers:

  • Anchor papers elevate the concept of modeling. Instead of just modeling unattainable perfection, anchor papers help students at all levels see the range of essay skills.
  • Anchor papers show that there is more than one way to achieve a rhetorical purpose. Showing students papers from a variety of writers with multiple perspectives, helps students see that good writing comes in many forms and realize that their unique voice is valuable.
  • Anchor papers clarify the directions. Anchor papers can help students grasp MLA, paragraph formatting, and other directions and help students pay closer attention to the rubric.
  • Anchor papers develop metacognition skills. Metacognition and self-assessment are incredibly important skills for students to learn. Anchor papers force students to pay attention to the way that they think about the topic and the rubric without just throwing something on paper and letting the teacher sort it out.

Tips for Preparing to Use Anchor Papers:

  • Embrace the process. It may take you a year to gather anchor papers to be used next year.  You may have to dig through old portfolios.  Don’t pressure yourself to have it all together  immediately.  Make a goal and stick with it to see long-term results.
  • Consider getting permission and taking names off papers. Personally, I like to get permission from previous students before I use their paper as a model or anchor and even with permission I take their name off to avoid any awkwardness from current students who know previous students.
  • Creating a range is important. I’ve heard arguments for showing only the top papers, but I think that students learn a lot from seeing what doesn’t work in addition to what does.
  • Set up an atmosphere of respect.  Be sure to have a game plan to preface the anchor paper grading activity, so that students know how to grade on the rubric with objective, appropriate language.
  • Authenticity is best. I don’t know if any teacher in the world has time to write 5-10 anchor papers for a prompt, but even if you do have that kind of time and energy, I think authentic papers will work better.

What do you think?   Need more resources for teaching writing?  Check out Essay Architect!

Grammarly Review and Video Tutorial

The kind folks over at Grammarly recently let me try out their service with my high school English classes.  The service offers to help students continue to develop writing skills through automated instructional feedback in grammar and word choice, as well as plagiarism tracking.  I tried out the teacher/student version, which you can learn more about at Grammarly.com/edu.  Check out the video tutorial below and the pros and cons list.  Please let me know if you have questions or comments and remember to check back weekly for more teacher tips, tutorials, and tirades. ;)

 Grammarly Pros and Cons from my perspective:

Pros:

  • Students can submit their papers multiple times to receive maximum automated input that is more effective than a simple word processor grammar check.
  • The grammar checker saves time for me as it catches many mistakes. I am all about saving time as we all know that English teachers have enough on our plate already!
  • Grammar explanations give students clear guidelines.
  • Plagiarism checker prevents unintentional plagiarism and takes away the excuse of ignorance that students sometimes claim.
  • There is a blackboard option and convenient roll out instructions.

Cons:

  • Unless you have school and department support, the price can be limiting.  (Check out pricing here)
  • Some grammar suggestions misunderstand student intention, which can confuse the paper further.
  • The teacher side of the website is limited in information.  I could see how many times a paper was checked, but I couldn’t see the actual mistakes or plagiarism to tell whether they were valid or not. I had to have students print their reports for me, which seemed like a lot of paper.
  • The plagiarism tracker is limited to online sources and is not the key component to this service (as opposed to services like turnitin.com).

Tips for Teaching The Research Paper

research paper

At my school, 3rd quarter in the English department means one thing: research paper time.  We do our best to build on the process every year so that seniors graduate with confidence and a working knowledge of writing research papers and I do think that in this case departmental support is important to effective teaching. Whether you are just starting the daunting task of planning the paper or are looking for a fresh take, I highly recommend the research paper resource product from Secondary Solutions, which can be purchased as part of the Essay Architect system or separately from TeachersPayTeachers.  This Common Core Standards Based (ELA: Writing) product on teaching research papers is full of everything you need to help students grasp the concept of completing research, plagiarism, organizing their sources, using source information, MLA format, deciphering credible Internet sources, and more!  In addition to the notes, handouts, and activities included in that resource, I would like to share a couple of my tips for teaching the research paper.

1. Think through the types of sources you want students using. We cannot reasonably expect students to decipher sources for credibility and usefulness unless we teach them where to start.  I usually require that my junior students use a variety of 4-7 sources, including a minimum of one encyclopedia, one book, and one credible online source. In my experience, if I don’t put this requirement out right at the beginning, students wait until the absolute last minute and then use less than optimal sources.  Check out this post for more info on teaching students how to determine the credibility of online sources.

2. Break it down into steps.  Procrastination is a serious sport in my high school and sometimes my students want to give up before they even start because the task seems to overwhelming.  Smaller steps help with accountability and attitude.  Depending on the level I am teaching I break down my due dates into something like this:

  • Week 1: Verification of sources
  • Week 2: Thesis and working bibliography
  • Week 3 or 4: Draft
  • Week 5 or 6: Final Paper Due Date

3. Be sure that students ask themselves, “So what?”. In the information age, it is no longer important to simply find the facts.  Students need to look into the causes, effects, or importance of their topics.  Right now, my juniors are writing about topics related to The Great Gatsby and the 1920s. I let each of them pick a different topic from a list I created so they don’t feel like they are all writing the same paper.  I  emphasize the importance of discussing more than timelines, dates, and facts.  I want them to take a critical view of the lasting cultural impact of their topic.  I also have students present their research after the paper deadline, which gives them more incentive to bring out the relevance of their topic, otherwise we will sit through presentation after presentation of dates and places…

4. Explicitly discuss plagiarism in all its many forms. I used to have a line in my research paper prompt that informed students of my zero tolerance for plagiarism policy and I left it at that. However, I’ve learned over the past few years that students don’t always know (or at least feign ignorance of) the definition of plagiarism.  Some students think that the only plagiarism is buying an essay or copying/pasting 100%.  We talk ad nauseam about issues of paraphrasing too closely and taking other people’s ideas.

5. Include time for peer critique, editing, and revisions.  After weeks of struggling through the research process it is so tempting to just collect those suckers and break out the red pen, but if we really want students to improve their writing we need to slog on until the very end with lots of instruction on the process that takes place AFTER the complete paper has been written.  PS Did I mention that this resource also has a peer editing checklist?  ;)

What are your research paper challenges, tips, or ideas?  What are your students researching this year?

 

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