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A Paragraph About Paragraph Assignments

In February 2016 we had a flurry of students visiting the center, all working on the same assignment: They had to write an essay using a Schaffer paragraph structure. (The tutors and I had to google what it means.) Often we see students who are asked to write a cause-and-effect paragraph or a descriptive paragraph. Sometimes students ask: “How long should my paragraph be?” or “How many sentences does a paragraph have to have?” They struggle to find something to say to fulfill the requirement for a certain number of sentences in a certain sequence, and we wonder if the structure of the paragraph is really the problem. We begin by asking students, “What are you writing about?” “Why are you interested in this topic?” “Who else might be interested in it?” “What do you want to say?”— questions that tap into their curiosity, help them connect with what they care about and what they want to say. Having a conversation with students allows us to redirect their attention from just completing an assignment and pleasing the instructor towards their ideas. Once they know what they want to say and why, they care more about how they want to say it. They become more purposeful about their choices in organizing their piece of writing. The problem of paragraph structure and number of sentences becomes less of a problem. As authors, we decide what we want to convey to an audience, letting our ideas determine the structure and length of a piece of writing, not the other way around.

Tatiana Glushko