We all know wrapping up a novel or unit doesn’t mean your students have to write formal essays every single time. So how can I asses student learning in meaningful ways that push them to think deeply? It’s easy to get stuck figuring out how to break the monotony of a traditional essay format, and engage students in fun and creative opportunities to write, speak, or innovate. That’s why I’m excited that I got to collaborate with some of my absolute favorite ELA teachers to share these twelve essay alternatives your students will love as much as you, even during distance learning!
1. Creating a Storybook based on Themes
Ashley Bible of Building Book Love’s favorite essay alternative is to replace a traditional theme analysis essay with the creative writing project of authoring a storybook. For example, after finishing Transcendentalism texts, she reads the children’s book Henry Hikes to Fitchburg to her high school students. Then, students take their favorite theme or life lesson from our unit and create a storybook that reveals this theme in a simple way so that even a child could understand it. She has used this same strategy with Shakepeare’s sonnets too, so is convinced this assignment can serve as an essay alternative for any text! Rather than write an essay about the themes they discover in a text (the analyze tier of Bloom’s taxonomy), students move all the way to the top creation tier by transforming their understanding into an original work. To make a storybook, students can use Story Jumper (free!), StoryBird (paid), PPT or Google Slides, or good o’ paper and crayons. You can find directions, rubric, and editable assignment here: Create a Storybook: A fun project for any text or any narrative goal!
2. A Choose Your Own Adventure Story
If you have the flexibility to allow for some narrative writing, Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching suggests trying a Choose Your Own Adventure Story with your students. The concept is exciting for kids: they remember reading these kinds of stories when they were younger, so from the start, engagement is high, not to mention, this easy to implement during distance learning OR in your traditional classroom, as both settings work brilliantly!
First, the class should agree on a spot in the novel where everyone should start. When we did this with Romeo and Juliet, we all started our new narrative endings at Act 3 Scene 3. Then, students outline two possible outcomes from that scene. And then, two more outcomes from those outcomes. With a clear outline, students are writing pages on pages of narrative and rolling in hysterics as they invent new ways for the story to fall apart. The beauty to all this? Students are writing on Google Slides and simply linking them together! Here’s the sample that I made for Of Mice and Men.
This is certainly a non-traditional way to assess a student’s understanding of their reading, but as they get deeper and deeper into the process, teachers will be able to ask, how did this thread develop? Does this seem like a reasonable outcome based on what you know about the characters? These types of questions are what truly demonstrate what learning has occurred. Sometimes, the unconventional approach reveals the most about what students have learned.
Tanesha Forman over at Love Tanesha uses Public Service Announcements as an alternative to argumentative writing. The focus of the activity is on using credible evidence and strong reasoning to support a claim about an issue. There is also an added layer of using information to get viewers to feel a specific emotion.
Tanesha presents different examples of PSAs before introducing the topic, and asks them to note what the different posters and files have in common. The key components that students pull out include that each PSA has a message, facts, and opinions. Tanesha engages students in the writing process as they brainstorm ideas, research their topics, and use their information to create a PSA using PowerPoint, Canva, or some other form of technology.
Some of the topics students have researched include, reparations, the impacts of bullying, access to clean water, and child labor. You can check out Tanesha’s materials here.
4. Giving a Speech
Lauralee of Language Arts Classroom uses a variety of public speaking activities as an alternative to the standard essay. You can meet many of the same writing standards with a speech. For instance when students write and produce a radio commercial, they will not only practice writing with a new format, but they will also practice writing in a succinct way.
The best part? Ask students to write a radio commercial for a nonprofit and bring in an authentic audience. With any speech activity, however, you can use goal sheets for students to set individual goals for improvement, a natural differentiation option.
You can find goal setting sheets, sample speeches, rubrics and other speech activities in the Public Speaking Unit.
5. Mock Trials
A mock trial is an engaging, authentic way to practice close reading, citing evidence, interpreting evidence, writing, speaking and listening, and persuasion/debate/argument skills. Abby from Write on With Miss G loves mock trials because they “trick students into learning.” A mock trial is structured similarly to a group essay assignment, but students won’t realize that because they’ll be so busy preparing their arguments and selecting evidence to deliver at the trial. Through the different roles (prosecution, defense, and jury, EVERY learner will be engaged. The best part is that this activity works for so many texts! If you teach any novel or short story with a potentially insane narrator, a death, a crime, or an ethical dilemma (aka almost all literature, then you can find a way to make this activity work in your classroom!
To learn more about why you should facilitate a mock trial in your ELA class, check out this blog post. If you’re interested in a video tutorial, access to Abby’s mock trial resources, and 29+ other instructional videos, check out the virtual Keeping the Wonder Workshop.
6. Creative Thinking Projects
Jenna Copper from Doc Cop Teaching loves assigning Creative Thinking Projects as an alternative to an essay or traditional book report. The goal of this project based assessment (PBA) is to get students to use their extended thinking skills (connect, critique, analyze, create, prove, design, etc.) to provide the class with a meaningful new perspective on their reading with a unique takeaway. Providing students with a list of higher-order thinking actions and sample project ideas, Jenna’s students have been doing this project paired with her choice reading unit for a few years now, and she is always impressed by the creativity and variety of the projects. As a bonus, these projects can be completed digitally as well. She even assigned these projects during distance learning! You can find out more and see student examples here.
7. Novel Engineering
Do you remember how sponsors sent tributes of The Hunger Games a little gift to help them through the games? Katniss received ointment to help her burns and broth to make her feel better. Novel engineering is kind of like that. Have your students imagine different products they can create specifically for a character in a novel! It’s a great way to incorporate problem-solving skills and creativity to wrap up a novel study. It requires students to think deeply about the conflicts characters face while also working through the design process to create a product that will benefit the character.
This project works well with any novel or even short story that has a tangible conflict that characters face. This unique ELA and STEAM integration will surely make your students think outside the box and can be paired with prompts that require them to advertise, explain, or justify their products! If you’re looking for a quick set of templates to get your students thinking, you can download the FREE Novel Engineering Digital Handouts here.
8. Digital Choice Boards
If you’re tired of grading the same thing over and over again, Shana Ramin from Hello, Teacher Lady suggests utilizing digital choice boards and interactive learning menus. She notes that giving students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in different ways can be extremely fun and rewarding. It’s also a great way to introduce new tools & technology in a non-threatening way. You can learn more about a few of Shana’s favorite tech tools for publishing here: Creative student publishing: 3 engaging tech tools to try this year.
If you’re wondering how to create your own interactive choice board, click here to learn how Shana uses the internal linking feature in Google Slides to set up her menu. You can also accomplish something similar with the internal linking in Google Docs — click here to learn more about that. And lastly, if you’re short on time and want to grab a couple pre-made templates for the road, you can download Shana’s FREE interactive templates here.
9. Writing Makerspace
Emily Aierstok, from Read it. Write it. Learn it. empowers her middle school writers by using a writing makerspace as a traditional essay alternative.
A writing makerspace is a workshop space with all of the tools writers need to work through the writing process independently. Writing process checklists and writing tools are provided upfront. Students are encouraged to take risks and try alternatives when they get stuck. The key to makerspace work is to experiment with writing and approach writing as more of a hands on building process.
Writing makerspaces can be created in the classroom by providing students with mentor texts, brainstorming, drafting, editing, and revising tools. Emily decided to create her makerspace in digital form. The upfront prep work requires teachers to gather everything students might need ahead of time, but the goal is that once the work is started, teachers slip into more of a facilitator/coaching role providing guidance and feedback.
To create a digital writing makerspace, Emily created one makerspace in Google Slides for each of the major genres her 7th grade students were required to write: informative, argument, narrative, and research. She created a slide deck for each genre with links to mentor texts and brainstorming, drafting, editing, and revising tools. Students simply work their way through the slides at their own pace. Emily does set benchmark deadlines for each step and provides students with a checklist for each genre, but students are welcome to work ahead of the class.
You can download Emily’s FREE narrative writing makerspace here.
10. One Pagers
Melissa from Reading and Writing Haven suggests that one pagers are a perfect way to assess reading and writing skills for a nontraditional and engaging assessment.
In a one pager, students analyze a text from a variety of viewpoints – usually around a theme, essential question, or main idea. Students incorporate quotes, connections, associations, analysis, personal responses, and more — all on one page!
One pagers allow teachers to gather valuable information about students as readers because we can directly align one pager content to standards and skills we want to assess. Text structure? Figurative language? Character analysis?
When students complete one pagers, they can be done both digitally or with paper and art supplies, which allows for flexibility. Students can select the text they would like to creatively and concisely analyze.
An important tip when assigning one pager is to provide specific structure for students who aren’t quite sure where to start with a blank paper. Structure can come in the form of a menu, choice board, or template.
Structure can also come from chunking the expectations so that the task is manageable for students. This also provides teachers with time to give valuable feedback students can apply to the next stage of their one pager.
You can find all of Melissa’s scaffolded one pagers for literature and informational texts in this time-saving bundle. This resource includes PDF, Google Slides, and editable versions so that you can alter the assignments to fit your students’ unique learning needs.
11. Graphic Essay with Tech
Christina, The Daring English Teacher, loves incorporating technology and essential essay writing skills together. That is why the graphic essay is such a robust and exciting project for students. A graphic essay is a visual essay that combines traditional essay writing elements with pictures, graphics, and stand-out text.
One of the best things about assigning a graphic essay is that the project still highlights students’ writing skills while also incorporating career and college readiness skills.
To assign your students a graphic essay, first plan out what writing skills you want to assess. Perhaps you want your students to write a strong thesis statement and a couple of supporting reasons. If so, make those essay elements required in the graphic essay. From there, determine how many pictures and graphics you want your students to include. Have your students brainstorm and write all of their content first, and then let the fun part begin. Students will practice their computer and design skills as they assemble the final product. Don’t worry, though. There are lots of useful websites students can use to make graphic design a breeze.
The Daring English Teacher offers her graphic essay assignment as a traditional PDF and Google Docs option, so you can adjust the assignment to fit your students’ unique needs.
12. Crime/Mystery Activities
When we write essays, a lot of times our focus is on citing evidence and structure, two elements many of our students struggle with. Staci, The Engaging Station, is a huge fan of all things mystery, so much so that she incorporates that novelty into her classroom every year.
How does it work? Simply provide your students with some vague clues about a mystery that happened. In the traditional setting, you might “transform” your room to make it look like a crime scene. In the digital classroom, you might provide them with pictures (or a portfolio) of clues. Then, turn it over to them to act as the leading detectives and determine the who, what, when, where, why, and how. They will literally cite the evidence from the crime scene to produce their writing piece, and before you know it, they’ll have an essay-length writing assignment completed, and it won’t even feel like an essay! Meanwhile, they have cited evidence and worked on structure.
You can see some in-action examples here and a classroom video tour here.
You can grab Staci’s crime/mystery writing activities and start having your students create their own stories! There are digital versions included to make it easy for digital and distance learning implementation