The Importance of Going Small

December 14, 2020: The Importance of Going Small

  • This pandemic has taken a social and emotional toll on all of us. We are tired. Students are tired. Parents are tired. How about we take some time to rest? How about we give ourselves some credit for getting through what we’re going through?

    Assign ¼ of the work you would normally assign. Yes – I’m talking about all of the work, but let’s stick to writing in particular.

    Over the break, how about assigning the student and the entire family the one-sentence-essay? Or, giving the assignment only to yourself and your own family first so you can work out the kinks?

    It’s better to teach students to write a few writing elements well --- writing tips that will stick to them rather than teach too much for them to remember.

    PROMPT:  Write one sentence that tells the reader exactly why you are on the planet? Write one sentence that describes your purpose for living (so far). Write it in 3rd person. It should be able to fit on a post-it note.


    1. She was the bringer of water to the thirsty and provider of rest for the weary.
    2. He lived to play music that stirred the human soul.
    3. She helped people think better so they could live and serve better.
    4. He gave more than he took.

    Yeah – it’s kind of like writing an obituary. And yes, that might be an evil word these days, but if you were to write one sentence that summed up your life after you’re gone, what is the smallest amount of words you could use to define your life for yourself and clarify your life for people who knew you?

    Why have a stranger try to sum up the life that you lived when you can do it yourself? You could write it now – and then start making sure that you are living the life that aligns with your values.

    Why not teach students that every breath is precious and each day that we have life is a gift to cherish? Why not teach them that we can design the life we want, despite our circumstances?

    She helped people think better so they could live and serve better.

    The purpose of the one-sentence essay is to help students find their purpose for the moment – the one they will live up to. It is also to teach them that purpose might change over time as life teaches us more lessons that align with what we truly believe and value.

    He was a daring skateboarder who made big leaps and solid landings…might become: He was brave; he tackled major challenges and worked to impact positive change.

    To find your purpose, think about the ways you want to help people. To write a good one-sentence purpose, ask yourself these questions:

    1. What are you known for? Cooking, skateboarding, good at Fortnite
    2. How do you want to be remembered? A serious gamer who made good food and jumped good ramps
    3. What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of? Beating my brother at video games and cooking the Thanksgiving turkey better than my mom
    4. What brings you joy? Seeing people eat and laugh
    5. What life lessons did you learn when you were younger? I learned to share
    6. What life lessons have you learned recently now that you are older?  I’ve learned to take care of myself first before I can take care of others
    7. What life lessons do you hope you would have learned in your old age? I hope to learn patience
    8. What three adjectives describe you? Smart, funny, brave
    9. Aside from school and work, what are the highlights of your life so far? I taught my sister to ride a bike

    Be sure to have a clear grading criterion for students to follow once they’ve written their purpose sentence:

    Sample Rubric:

    • Sentence is a purpose about helping others
    • Sentence has eliminated unnecessary words; the main idea is clear and precise
    • Sentence has significance; the reader understands the intent of the purpose
    • Sentence shows the mastery of the skill that has been taught: the sentence uses standard grammar, usage, and mechanics OR the sentence has a clear main idea

    Don’t grade everything – only grade the skill(s) you’ve taught up to the point of the assessment. Tell students exactly what you will be grading, and stick to those two to three items.

    You could go big: grade for main ideas and good selection of evidence and analysis or logical connections that connect ideas


    You could go small: run-ons, capital letters, punctuation at the end of sentences

    Whatever you do, be sure to narrow your grading focus:

    Only focus on what students are doing well and what they should improve. Don’t write any more than two to three comments. Comment on specific things you have taught. Don’t comment on everything you notice unless you see a pattern. Focus on MAJOR weaknesses, whether you have taught the skill or not.


    • “Your main idea in the introduction and the reiteration of it in the conclusion match. You’ve maintained your focus throughout the paper.”
    • “You use good transitions throughout the piece that help the reader move easily from one idea to the next.”
    • “Good use of precise language and specific word choices to describe the people, situation, and scene.”

    SAMPLE COMMENTS ON SKILLS you may or may not have taught: WEAKNESSES

    •  “You have a pattern of running sentences together. See the first two body paragraphs.”
    • "Be careful to define obscure terms or urban idioms so that a general reader can understand.”
    • “I don’t understand the logic you are using to make this statement.” 


    • "Where might you use end punctuations to avoid writing run-on sentences?”
    • “Do your introduction and conclusion make the similar statements?”
    • “What evidence supports this claim?”

    Bottom Line: Go Small
    Give yourself and your students small wins! You don’t have to assign a ton of writing or do a ton of grading to help your students become better writers. Take the small win. Assign shorter pieces of writing and grade smaller amounts of content. Focus on two things the student writer has done well – and one item that needs improvement. Make comments that elevate strengths. Ask questions about aspects of the writing that need improvement. Then either allow the student to revise – or allow the student extra points for the second essay that shows improvement from the first one. Go deep not wide. Design a writing life for your students that helps them improve their writing yet minimizes the time you spend grading. Small is good. Go small.




  • October 11, 2020: On Writing Headlines and Being Keepers of the Light for Our Children