A Crazy Approach to Improve Teen Writing

The only way I’ve found for students to really grow as writers is for them to write a lot and get meaningful feedback on their work. The reality, though, is there’s only one of me and 170+ of them, so my time with each student is limited. One way to maximize writing growth is a technique my students have dubbed, “Crazy Essay Week.”

Here’s how it works: In three days, students write three different in-class essays, which I collect at the end of each hour. On the fourth day, I randomly choose one of the three prompts and that’s the paper students clean up and turn in as their final draft. Basically, they write three and I grade one.


This routine started because of the pressure my juniors were facing out here in California with the required EAP essay at the end of the year. Students are given an agree/disagree topic and have 45 minutes to construct their response. To get them ready for this challenge, I decided to use a little academic strength training. On Monday, they might write about unhealthy competition among peers. On Tuesday, the prompt could deal with helicopter parents. On Wednesday, they’ll decide whether celebrity product endorsements should be banned. Then, on Thursday, it’s Topic Reveal Day, meaning I put all three topics into a sack and a brave student volunteer draws one to determine which topic’s first draft will be polished in class that day during a writers’ workshop session; the double-spaced handwritten final draft must be submitted to me by the end of the hour. On Friday, students collapse into their SSR books while I grade like a maniac. I finish the stack over the weekend and they get their scores and detailed feedback on Monday, the next class when I see them.

At first, students groan about the process. Teenagers who complain? What a surprise. In fact, each year at least one student has tried to switch out of my class when he/she realizes I’m going to fold in several Crazy Essay Week sessions throughout the year. (Thank you, counseling department, for always rejecting those requests.) But when paired with my codes and essay corrections, m-a-n-y students tell me at the end of the year that they appreciate the tangible growth in their writing skills and they feel completely prepared for their timed SAT and EAP essay exams.

A few things to keep in mind if you decide to give this a try:
• Students receive 10 completion points for each of the Monday through Wednesday first-draft essays. A completed essay earns full points. If a student doesn’t actually write an essay or tries to turn in just a few sentences, no points are given for that day’s effort AND the student gets the bonus of a visit from me during my prep period. I’ll go and pull that student out of, say, science class to chat about what happened on the previous day’s writing task and (um…lovingly) clarify my expectations for this next day’s effort.

• Make the final draft that you collect on Thursday worth the equivalent of a major essay score. You’ll get great buy-in because this essay counts, especially early in the semester when there aren’t as many points in the gradebook.

• Emphasize that this process is designed to help them. I use the analogy of being their coach – their writing coach. We’re doing the practice sessions (Monday through Wednesday) to get ready for the big game (Thursday). I also tell them that, like with weight training, there’s going to be some pain involved in this growth process.

• “Sell” it to them that Crazy Essay Week is great because there’s no homework during this week and they’ll be so much more prepared than their peers at other schools.

• I expect the first three days to be pin-drop silent as students write their first drafts, just as it would be in a testing environment. On Thursday, though, there’s a comfortable hum of activity during writers’ workshop, when students are allowed to ask me and their peers questions as they build their final drafts. Dictionaries are available, but no electronic helpers are allowed.

• During the writers’ workshop, I meet with lots of students as I circle the room, but I’ll answer only specific questions about specific passages, such as “Is this thesis clear?” or “Does a comma go here?” I won’t answer questions like, “Is this good?” or “Do you like this?” I also don’t read entire essays until they’ve been submitted for grading.

• I collect both the initial draft and the final draft at the end of class on Thursday. Students are welcome to change/add supporting details, but I expect the final draft to be clearly connected to what they wrote on the first day.

• Two nice benefits of using the lottery selection is that different periods will end up building final drafts on different topics. This means that I don’t get as fatigued with grading because the variety is refreshing and it means that afternoon classes can’t cheat by asking morning classes what topic will be chosen. It’s usually different for every period.

• Early in the year, I use the lottery approach on Topic Reveal Day. For our last session of the year, though, I usually let students individually choose whichever of the three they want to use as their final draft topic. I never tell them ahead of time about this free-choice option, though, because I want them to give a good effort on all three topics. (Shh…don’t let my future juniors know this little secret.)

• The other two essays that weren’t chosen for final draft revision are simply tossed into the recycling bin. Sometimes, kids want to keep them and you could add those unmarked drafts to students’ writing portfolios, but I just toss them after class ends on Thursday afternoon. Word of warning: Don’t pitch the stacks in front of students. It hurts their hearts more that you’d think.

When former students visit the campus during their winter holidays, I love to ask if our school prepared them well for their college courses. They always say yes and they’ll often add that Crazy Essay Week was the thing they remember most as helping to sharpen their writing skills. When they make that admission in front of a group of my current students, it’s just sunshine and lollipops.

Click here to grab nine different EAP-based prompts you could use with your classes, enough for three rounds of Crazy Essay Week.

Looking for another way to keep kids writing without getting buried in papers to grade? You need to check out these Survive! Writing Competition materials. Tons of feedback for students and NO GRADING FOR YOU. Really.

Teach on, everyone!

45 thoughts on “A Crazy Approach to Improve Teen Writing

  1. Rebecca Price says:

    Hi Laura!
    First, I love reading your posts and am a fan of your products on TPT!
    I love this “crazy essay week!” How often do you do this? Would you do something similar with 8th or 9th graders?

  2. Nancy Holden-Nims says:

    Awesome idea as always! I am wanting to increase the amount and variety of writing my students do this coming school year. However, I teach on a block schedule and if I implement this crazy essay week it will, in reality, take two weeks. I would only want them writing one essay a day, so I don’t want to double up during a block. Any suggestions on what I could pair this writing with during the 85 min block?

  3. O… M… G…. THIS is awesome! What a way to “welcome” my freshmen to high school! =D

  4. This came at the perfect time! I’m so glad I subscribe to your blog.
    I just found out I will be teaching juniors next year (my first time 😅), and I’ve been searching for EAP resources like crazy! I might have to incorporate Crazy Essay Week next year!

  5. Hey Rebecca,
    Thanks so much! I use this once per quarter for the first three quarters of my junior-level class. The actual testing happens in May of the fourth quarter and, after three rounds, my kids are ready for it. I’ve also done this with my 9th graders, but I adjust the prompts and my expectations about what I can expect them to produce in just one period. I actually think this would work for 8th graders, too, but you’ll want to modify things a bit. Maybe make it just a full body paragraph instead of an entire essay for them?

    Thanks for reading!
    🙂 Laura

  6. From the moment I first saw your materials I was totally awed by your amazing work! I see you as a tough teacher, but always offering fun assignments in class! Oh, how I wish I had more advanced students in my EFL classes to be able to use more of this!!! Hopefully, I’ll get some advanced adult students who will rave working with this sort of resources! Keep up the great work!

  7. Hey Nancy H-N,
    Great question! Yes, the block can be tricky. I think I’d maybe just give the first 50-minutes or so of the block to the essay draft writing and then go back to business as usual with my regular curriculum for the remainder of the block. Eighty-five minutes is definitely too long to sustain that focus, especially for my kids. So, how about a writing session at the beginning of class and then 35 minutes (or so) of a short story or non-fiction activity, depending on where we are in the curriculum?

    Hope this helps!
    🙂 Laura

  8. Wow, this is some serious alignment of the stars, Nancy. Looks like you came to the right blog. 😉 So glad these materials will help lighten your prep load.

  9. Thanks, Carolyn. “Work hard, play hard” is definitely my aim in the classroom. So glad to have you here in the teacher tribe. Happy summering!

  10. Great idea! Would love to try some “essay boot-camp” with my niners.

    Soooo when are you going to write a book!?? 🙂

  11. Ooh…Essay Boot Camp. I like the sound of that, Kay! A book? Well, um…wow. No idea. 🙂

  12. Thanks so much, Debra! Glad to have you here as a reader. 🙂

  13. Love it! This seems like a great way for me to get my Honors 10 kiddos ready for some AP Lang and Lit writing in their following year.

  14. Indeed, Chelsey! Our AP teachers now use this approach, too, to prep for the exam. Your kids will hate it – and later love you for it. 🙂

  15. Okay, you are getting me excited about the new school year. I wish we had a quarterly grading system, but ours is every six weeks. So do you think once per six weeks would be too much? It would have to be the 5th week, I think.

    I was actually planning something like this only I was going to let them choose which essay to polish on Thu. I like the drawing idea so much more!

    One more question: Those 3 quiet writing days sound like great grading time. Have you thought about staggering the crazy essay week so you’d have class time to grade? That sounds like it could be complicated to manage, however.

  16. I’m curious about your “codes and essay corrections” that you mentioned. I have a sheet of editing marks I give my students to use for peer revision and to translate my marks. What exactly are you marking? Thanks.

  17. Hi Dana,
    Thanks for checking in with me! I do think that once per six weeks is probably too frequent because this eats up a whole week of curriculum and there is a fatigue point where you’ll start to lose students. I end up doing this three times a year with my juniors, once per each of the first three quarters, In the fourth quarter, which includes the actual testing season, I don’t do the full Crazy Essay Week, but we just buff/polish/revisit those skills for a day or two right before the Big Test Day. Once per six weeks would be too much, my gut’s telling me.

    Definitely use the lottery approach instead of free choice. It builds great drama in the room and my neighbor teachers always know what day is writers’ workshop because of the howls and/or cheers they hear coming from my room at the beginning of class.

    And, yes, I ALWAYS stagger my Crazy Essay Weeks so that those three quiet days just so happen to coincide with days I have fresh stacks of freshman papers to wade through. I’m pretty crafty with calendar manipulation. 🙂

    Hope you give this routine a try. It’s been a winner in my room.

  18. Hey Amy,
    Thanks for being a reader! Instead of writing the same comments over and over again, I built a key that includes the 10 most common grammar errors that I’ve noticed teen writers make and the 10-12 most common content errors that they make on four modes of writing – expository/argumentative, lit. analysis, narrative, and informative. I use codes to mark those errors and then my students de-code my symbols as they hand-write their essay corrections.

    Using this system, students get incredibly targeted feedback, showing exactly what they need to fix in order to improve their writing. Now that I’ve memorized my codes, I no longer need to pause very long to give feedback and I’m able to grade a paper in just under five minutes. You can learn more about the system by hitting the “preview” button located on my 5-Minute Essay Grading System listing:

    Hope you check it out!
    🙂 Laura

  19. Do you think it might work when using this with 8th graders, to have them write full body paragraphs on the first three days, as you suggested, but then on the fourth day have them expand the one that is chosen into a full essay, or maybe just a 3 paragraph essay with an intro, body, and conclusion? We don’t have a separate state writing assessment, but we do have a writing component in our standardized state testing–I think this would be great practice for them!

  20. Hi Leah,
    I do think this would work with the body paragraph approach for your eighth graders. On the Thursday final draft day, my gut tells me to stick with the three paragraph essay, but only after modeling a 3-to-4 sentence intro paragraph structure and maybe just a three sentence concluding paragraph structure. Keep it simple so you don’t overwhelm them, especially in the fall semester.
    Happy writing!
    🙂 Laura

  21. What if you did a “wreck this journal” type activity with the essays that aren’t picked for rewrite? It would be cathartic for students!

  22. Love it, Kate! Or, now that you’ve got me thinking, maybe I use those drafts from my juniors as an essay starting spot for my freshmen, only they get to improve/dramatically alter the older kid’s paper. Names would be sliced off the juniors’ papers, of course. Oh, girl, now you’ve got my mental wheels spinning…

  23. Love this idea! How would you handle students who are absent on one of the writing days, especially if that specific day is the one that gets picked?

  24. Great question, Alexis! In those cases, I just override the topic chosen via lottery and would give that absent student one of the topics that he had been present to write as the final draft. In order to earn the 10 daily writing points, though, he’d still have to write a first draft essay on the topic he missed, even if that has to happen later. Practice makes perfect, right?

    Hope this helps,
    🙂 Laura

  25. Hey, Laura! Do you also use Crazy Essay Week for end-of-novel-unit essays? If so, what kind of prompts do you have students use so that they don’t have a hard time writing essays without the help of the Internet? Thanks! 🙂

  26. Also, do you use the same 3 prompts for all your classes?

  27. Great questions, Santos! I haven’t used this technique for end-of-novel-unit essays. For literature studies, I’ll just assign a one-and-done in-class lit. analysis essay. I always give them a menu of three essay prompts to choose from, but they only write one and it’s due at the end of the hour.

    Crazy Essay Week is definitely more of a tool for standardized-test essay practice. When I give an essay at the end of a novel, I’m looking to evaluate students’ writing but I’m also checking to see if they read the book and know what they’re talking about. With the SAT and EAP prompts, my assessment is more sharply focused on the writing.

    Whenever I have multiple sections of the same class, I scramble the prompts that I give to the different classes each day. I have a bunch of released EAP and SAT questions in my file cabinet, so I just grab whichever stack catches my eye. The “final” essay that’s chosen for buffing and polishing on Day 4 is always different in each class section because I use a lottery grab out of a bag to determine which of the week’s three topics will be chosen. The variety of topics also makes it a bit easier for me to grade because I don’t have to read 99 essays on the same topic; instead, I only need to read 33 on that topic before moving onto the other two essay stacks. Sweet relief! 🙂

  28. So, what kind of prompts do you use for end-of-novel-unit essays so that you are sure that students will be able to answer them by the end of the hour? And do you still give different prompts for each class for end-of-novel-unit essays? Thanks! 🙂

  29. For the end-of-novel-unit essays, Santos, I give the same sorts of theme or symbolism analysis prompts that are common in literary analysis writing, though I do lower my expectations on the amount of polish students will be able to produce on a single-draft experience. And, yes, whenever possible, I vary those prompts because my kids are just too chatty at the lunch table.

  30. Hi! Are you as strict with grammar codes during in-class timed writes as you are with take-home writing assignments/essays? Or are you more lenient during in-class timed writes? Thank you! 🙂

  31. Hi, Kelsi! I definitely treat those two writing situations differently since students don’t have as much time for editing/proof-reading in a timed, in-class writing situation. For those, I usually mark all of the 10 targeted grammar skills with my codes, but I make the total grammar score worth only 10- or 20-percent of the assignment total. Kids still have to complete all of the grammar corrections as usual, but the total penalty on their essay grading isn’t as great as it would be on a process, take-home piece where grammar counts for 50-percent of the total score.

    Definitely use your good judgment on what is right for your particular class and each particular writing assignment. I even use those codes on their short-answer homework assignments, but don’t take off points on the homework grades. After so many years of using the system, those codes are burned into my brain and the homework missteps become another opportunity for reinforcement of our grammar/writing rules. Codes run my writing world! 🙂

  32. Hi Laura, do you keep a timer on the screen for students as they write so they can see how much time they have left?

    And also, this may sound sort of random, but do you:
    (a) have your students staple the prompts in front of their essays, or
    (b) have them just place the prompts in the recycling bin?


  33. Hi Kelsi,
    I definitely like the idea of the timer, but I was told not to use a projection of one because it eats through too much bulb time on the LCD projector/SmartBoard. Apparently, those bulbs cost a few hundred dollars. Who knew? So, no, I don’t use a projected timer, but I will write things like, “5 minutes remaining,” on the white board as I keep the official time. Some kids see it and some don’t. Still, I figure it’s a nice thing to do and helps them resist the urge to touch their phones that are face-down under their desks during exams/in-class essays/speeches.

    As for your random question, I don’t mind at all – I can be a random kind of gal! Yes, I do have kids staple the prompt to the front of the essay when they submit it. I want them to be able to refer back to it while their making their essay corrections and we keep writing samples from all four years in students’ writing portfolios. The folders follow the students from teacher to teacher and it’s helpful for future teachers to see what the topic was when evaluating a student’s past work and growth. This does mean that I regularly change my essay prompts, but that’s no big deal and helps keep the stacks fresh for me, too.

    Hope you’re having a beautiful summer!

  34. So, when you have students turn in the final draft, along with the initial draft and the prompt, do you have them staple (from top/front to bottom/back) the final draft, then the prompt, then the initial draft?

  35. Also, how many different prompts do you print out for each of the first three days of Crazy Essay Week? And do you assign the prompts beforehand, or do you just randomly choose right before you give out the prompts? Thanks again! 🙂

  36. And do you allow (or, perhaps, require) your students write on their initial drafts (i.e. proofread them) with a different colored pen so that they can see their edits as they rewrite their essays onto the new sheet of paper?

  37. Hi again, Kelsi,
    I’ll answer all three of your questions in this one post, just to keep thing tidy. Okay, here we go…

    • When they turn in their papers, I always have them staple in this order – rubric, final draft, any rough drafts and/or peer editing sheets (those are for process papers, no time for peer editing sheets with Crazy Essay Week papers), and then the prompt last.

    • Kids don’t know the prompts ahead of time and I choose three for that week, usually on Sunday night as I’m planning the week ahead. At this point in my career, I have a file folder stuffed full of released prompts. I pick three that I feel like reading about or that have especially timely hooks based on current events.

    • For Crazy Essay Week, there really isn’t time on that 4th day for an official round of editing. I hand back the rough draft they wrote earlier in the week and then they have 45 min. to revise/polish as they please before submitting the final draft by the end of the hour. I’ll have them staple the rough draft behind the final draft, but I usually only glance at those. Students are allowed to make major revisions, especially if they’ve thought of better supporting examples. For longer process essays, the drafts are all typed and the edits are done in handwriting, so the ink color doesn’t matter.

    Hope this helps!

  38. Hello again, Laura,
    So, when you have three stacks of prompts for the entire week, do you switch them around each day for each period?

    How would you deal with having four periods working on the same three prompts? Would you add more prompts to the set of prompts you’re going to be handing out so that you could hopefully get different prompts from each class by Thursday?

    Also, has it ever happened that all your classes in one day had to turn in essays on the same prompt because the student volunteers just so happened to grab the same topic from the topic lottery?

    Thanks again! 🙂 🙂

  39. You’ve got it, Kelsi. I vary the topics even on the same day I’m handing them out to different class periods because my morning kids will blab about the topic to their friends in the afternoon classes. Therefore, I scramble the order of the topics and sometimes use three entirely different topics with the morning classes than the afternoon classes. Since all of the topics were previously used by the College Board or EAP test writers, they’re pretty leveled.

    Whenever I have a lot of periods of the same prep, I always vary the topics. I can read one set of essays on a topic – no problem. Even two sets on the same topic is okay. That third set on the same topic, though, becomes a mental death march. I know other teachers don’t have a problem reading 100+ essays on the same topic. To me, variety helps keep my interest and grading stamina going.

    Finally, you can manipulate the topics and lottery selection however you like to make the grading load work for you. I haven’t ever had, say, three sections of juniors pull the exact same topic. If I did, I’d be honest with my last section that day and say, “Hey, periods 3 and 4 both pulled Topic A in the lottery. For my sanity, I can’t deal with another set of Topic A essays, so let’s just put Topic B and C in your class lottery. I’ll be a much happier human when I’m grading if we do that.” Kids aren’t dumb; they want us to be happy, particularly when we’re grading their major writing pieces.

    Thanks for all of the questions! Sounds like you’re getting your fall plans together today. 🙂

  40. Hey Laura! I was just wondering as I was reading this, (just to clarify) do you require your students to REWRITE their drafts onto a new piece of paper on Day 4, or do you allow them to just edit their rough draft and then turn it in? If you require your students to rewrite their drafts, why do you do that? If not, why not? Thanks! 😀

  41. Hi Heather,
    Yes, Day 4 is always a writers’ workshop day where students write a fresh final copy of the draft they turned in earlier in the week – think of it as final draft creation day. On Day 4 of Crazy Essay Week, there’s a hum of activity, as students confer with one another and ask me specific questions about content or even nit-picky grammar. I encourage them to smooth out their sentence flow and add more examples if they see more in the prompt/article/text than they did on the first day they worked on their piece. The final drafts are due at the end of the hour and are submitted along with the first drafts. Some kids make a lot of changes; others just improve their chicken-scratch handwriting and fix a few commas. Either way, I’m given a polished draft which helps me move more quickly through the stacks as I mark papers. I always love Day 4 because I get to hear kids talking, and sometimes even arguing, about writing. To me, that’s heaven in the classroom! 🙂

  42. Awesome! By the way, on Day 4 of Crazy Essay Week on a block schedule day, do you give them the entire period to revise their essay or do you only give a set amount of time for them to revise?

  43. I suppose it depends on the length of your block and how much time the kids need, Heather. Our Day 4 final draft round usually takes my juniors 50 minutes or so. Hope this helps with your planning. 🙂

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