katie wood ray · personal essay · reflective practice · writing workshop

Pausing to Reflect: Personal Essays

personal essay
Fourth graders came to listen to my third graders share their personal essays.

Katie Wood Ray entitled one of her brilliant books: The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts). She was right about the hard parts! While I believe with all my heart in the power of writing workshop, there are days and particular units that feel really challenging.

My third graders are wrapping up their unit on personal essays. While some have grasped the structure and have articulated reasons and examples to support their argument, others have struggled to understand the concept of an essay. I want to take some time to think about what went right when teaching this unit and where the breakdowns occurred. Before rushing off to the next unit (and I’m all too aware I should already be in this unit, according to the curriculum map), here I will pause and reflect.

What went right:

  • Prior to the unit starting, the literacy coach and my third grade colleagues and I took time to write personal essays. This helped us understand the genre better and we had 5 instant mentor texts we could share with our students.
  • I consulted with one of the fourth grade teachers in my school who had been teaching personal essays for several years. She shared some of her strategies with me, including using a mini folder to organize the different components of the essay. We visited the 4th grade class as those students completed their essays and they read them aloud to my students, talking also about their writing process.
  • Students were taught to look through their notebook for ideas for personal essay- an entry about a day at an amusement park could lead to a personal essay about why a certain park is the best place to visit.
  • Students read mentor texts from the third grade teachers as a way to understand the parts of a personal essay.
  • Students all selected their own topics.
  • Students who wrote strong personal essays shared their work with the class and we charted what we noticed.
  • Students typed their essays in Google Docs and shared it with me, allowing for us to revise and edit digitally.
  • The fourth grade class visited us at the end of our unit and we shared common understandings about personal essays. My third graders read aloud their pieces to the fourth graders. The fourth graders, led by their fabulous teacher, shared positive things they noticed about the essays, including specific details and persuasive reasons. The fourth graders gave us a preview of literary essays and how these have similarities to personal essays.
  • The personal essays from my students will be compiled into a class book so everyone can have their own collection as a keepsake.
  • I wrote an opening letter to the class book, explaining the genre of personal essay for the families.
  • Students were asked to read 2 classmates’ personal essays and provide positive feedback to the writer. Students could also ask a respectful question if they were still wondering something after reading the piece.
  • I created a Writer’s Reflection for each student to complete after receiving the feedback from other readers.
I photocopied all the personal essays and put them together into books for each student.


Students wrote their thesis on the front cover. The inside covers were for the introduction and conclusion. The reasons were on separate sheets of paper inside the mini folder.

Questions I have:

  • Students who are really struggling with the structure of an essay and the stamina to write several paragraphs- is it okay to shorten their requirements? Can they just write one convincing paragraph? Dictate their ideas to the teacher while she types it up? What is the best way to help a struggling writer who might not be ready to write a personal essay?
  • Some students created paragraphs on the piece they brought to publication, but did not create paragraphs in their post on demand sample. How do I help them independently know when they need a new paragraph?
  • We know the “5 paragraph essay” is deadly, but how else do you show young children how an essay works? Do they need to know that structure so they can eventually outgrow it and write a compelling essay that doesn’t necessarily follow that format? If not, how do you help young children understand the parts of an essay?
  • Editing- How do you help students really slow down and make sure they have capital letters, punctuation, and sentences that make sense? My students use their editing checklist and tell me all is well and a partner has signed off on their work, only to find that there are many sentences without capital letters and other problems.
  • If we are teaching the writer, not the writing, what do you do when the writing is going to be published, the deadline has arrived, and the writing is still off track? Should the teacher revise and edit so the student can see what the appropriate model would look like? Or should the student read the work he/she created?
  • How do you handle it when students write about video games/ Pokemon and it all feels like an unfamiliar language?

Going forward, I know I need to do more work teaching my students how to edit more diligently. I also need to consider the idea of differentiation for students who might not be able to produce the end product we are working towards. How do you reflect at the end of a unit of study? Please share any thoughts or answers to the questions I posed as well!


6 thoughts on “Pausing to Reflect: Personal Essays

  1. Kathleen,
    I don’t have any answers for you, but I love your honesty and how thorough, thoughtful, and reflective your questions & reflections are. I appreciate your post- it makes me realize “it’s not just me.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re a teacher’s teacher, Kathleen!
    I love the way you looked at what went well first, prior to examining what questions you still have. Both are important, but looking at the positive first is always the way to go!

    I know personal essay has fallen out of some people’s good graces in the past few years. I continue to think it’s an important unit of study. I’m delighted to know you taught it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kathleen,
    Thanks so much for your descriptions of your process and your detailed thinking. Sometimes I wonder if the “didn’t dos” in writing overshadow the “did do” because they seem so glaring. Celebrate the growth. Still concerned? Ask your students why editing is hard in the on demands. See what they say as they reflect on their post on demands and consider setting new goals!

    I love that grade 3 standards in the production of writing say

    “With guidance and support from adults. . .”

    for standards 4, 5, and 6. There SHOULD be a difference between on demands and work produced in class because the on demand is Independent work and does show what literally stuck for eight and nine year olds!

    And consider allowing students to “speak” their work into text via technology. The goal is to produce writing. Students can accomplish that in multiple ways! ❤ ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a strong piece with so many good ideas from your recounting of all that went well in the unit and takeaways about the way it was structured. And many of your questions at the end, especially about students who are struggling, are the questions that come to me when working with student writers. Sometimes it is overwhelming to all the needs presented in one piece of writing.


  5. We are just about to start this unit. I share many of your issues with my third grade, particularly helping them get to a structure that works, and seeing how their punctuation helps or hinders the reader’s understanding. This year I’m hoping to use more mentor text examples to see if we can really discover what works. I like your min folder idea as well as having an authentic audience. Thanks.


  6. We are finishing our unit soon and your thinking resonates with me. I love the idea of starting with a grade 4 share. Your questions about transfer… share that too. It is hard to really understand/help students who are tackling topics that are new to me.


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