Site icon ELA Brave and True by Marilyn Yung

How to get middle schoolers to write 16-page essays

Try “The 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation

Want to be impressed by your middle school ELA students? Want to see them rise to the writing occasion? Try this extended writing assignment that I call the 8th-Grade Human Rights Dissertation.

Sidenote: Obviously, this is not an assignment for distance learning. It's designed for a normal full-time schedule with in-class teacher support available at each stage of the assignment.

Pick three books, choose an overarching theme or topic those books all relate to (in my case that’s human rights) and write about it over the course of a school year.

And don’t let the word dissertation scare you because while this assignment might sound complicated, it’s not.

In fact, the only reason I call this extended writing project a dissertation is so kids understand the distinction between a regular essay and this particular assignment, which is actually a compilation of four individual five-paragraph essays.

As for length, each individual five-paragraph essay is three to four pages long. When the essays are combined, the resulting dissertation ranges from 15-17 pages, not including the title page, Works Cited page, and the Appendix.

The official title of the dissertation, when it’s all said and done, is “Humanity Revealed: Understanding Human Rights Through Literature.”

My eighth-graders completed this stamina-building project in my previous teaching position. After a couple of years, the dissertation turned into a sort of Language Arts rite of passage for students before they graduated from the K-8 school district.

But believe me, most kids weren’t too enthusiastic about it at first. In fact, at the beginning of the year, when I told my eighth-graders they would be writing a sixteen-page (or more) essay, they couldn’t believe how mean Mrs. Yung could be! (Haha)

However, after I explained that the paper would break down into manageable “bite-size” pieces over the next several months, they relaxed and ever so gradually seemed to look forward to tackling each part of the process and seeing the paper come together bit by bit.

Now that I’ve moved on to another English position at an area high school, I’ve decided to adapt it for my junior and senior English classes and plan to incorporate it for 2020-21. Sure, I’ll make a few changes for the older students. For example, they won’t be required to write traditional five-paragraph essays, and if they want to substitute another text they’ve read that fits with our overarching theme, that’s fine.

I developed this project over the course of four years, adjusting it from year to year to arrive at its current form, which I’ve tried my best to describe below.

There are three goals for this writing project:

1) to read and write about literature and non-fiction texts

2) to synthesize those readings into a study on human rights (or whatever overarching theme you choose to apply to your chosen texts)

3) to build students’ organizational and time management skills

Students essays stack up in March! I purchase these Avery folders for students because I like that they present the papers professionally.

To complete the dissertation, throughout the year students read various texts as a class, and write a five-paragraph essay about how each text connects to human rights. For example, for our study of New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, we read a book called Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin.

This historical account tells the story of the 146 garment workers who perished inside locked doors inside a factory without properly maintained fire escapes or other precautions. When we finish reading the book, we think about the human rights that the workers were denied, using the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the UDHR, it’s an internationally recognized document created by the United Nations in 1948 in response to the atrocities committed in World War Two. The UDHR designates and describes thirty non-negotiable rights granted freely to all humans. Students choose three human rights from the thirty listed that the young factory workers were denied (had the UDHR been in existence) and then discuss those three human rights in a five-paragraph essay. For example, a student might choose these three UDHR articles: 23, 20, and 12. Respectively, these human rights are: Workers’ Rights, Right to Public Assembly, and Right to Privacy.

Students follow this basic process for each of three different texts that they read in class from roughly September (right after my 9/11 unit) through February. Each text’s “human rights connection” essay eventually forms one portion of the dissertation.

Here’s a basic outline of the complete dissertation:


1. Human Rights Explained

2. Literature Connections: Flesh & Blood So Cheap

3. Literature Connections: To Kill A Mockingbird -or- Inside Out & Back Again

4. Literature Connections: Frederick Douglass’ Narrative


For my high school students next year, we will obviously read different texts. In addition, the topic we connect with those texts will likely not be human rights. I’m still working out the details on that and as my plans shape up, I will for sure keep you informed.

This photo shows the class handouts for the four individual essays that are eventually compiled and merged to create the human rights dissertation.

Here’s a more in-depth description of the individual essays that make up the dissertation with a brief explanation of each essay:

  1. Human Rights Dissertation Part 1, otherwise known as HR1
    • Students write a first draft of an informative essay about the history and origins of the concept of human rights. I supply students with some basic articles from the United Nations website to use to support a thesis statement for this essay, which we work on together as a class.
    • This is the thesis statement we developed together a year ago: An explanation of human rights, including their history and evolution, as well as the thirty provisions of the UDHR provides a foundation of human rights knowledge.
    • Students also digest some informative materials, including videos, that I find online from various sources, including the United Nations. One important note: Avoid the very professional materials available from the Church of Scientology’s front organization, Youth for Human Rights International. Here’s an article I wrote that discusses how Scientology influences classrooms by aligning itself with human rights, despite its own human rights violations. To find alternative human rights materials, read this post.
  2. Human Rights Dissertation Part 2, otherwise known as HR2
    • HR2 follows the same basic procedure for HR1 except students write an essay that connects three articles from the UDHR with the book, Flesh & Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin (see above for more about the book).
  3. Human Rights Dissertation Part 3, otherwise known as HR3
    • HR3 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 except the text changes. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR to their choice of one of the following texts: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Inside Out & Back Again by Thannha Lai. They again choose three human rights addressed in the book and explain how the characters are deprived (or not) of those rights during the course of the narrative.
  4. Human Rights Dissertation Part 4, otherwise known as HR4
    • HR4 follows the same basic procedure for HR2 and HR3 except the text changes again. Students write an essay that connects the UDHR with my favorite book of all time, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
  5. The Remaining Essential Components
    • These include important additions necessary to combine and weave the individual HR essays into one cohesive essay. These include the following:
    • a title page (Even though MLA style doesn’t require a separate title page, we make one anyway so the finished product looks better.)
    • a Works Cited page
    • an introduction that leads the entire paper and precedes HR1
    • a conclusion that follows HR4 and brings the entire paper to a close, and
    • transitional sentences and paragraphs at the end of HR1-4 that cause the individual essays to flow together conceptually or hold hands, if you will.
    • an appendix that’s actually a PDF of the UDHR simply inserted into the paper
I’ve underlined in red an area where a former student worked to join her HR 1 to her HR 4 on Frederick Douglass. (And by the way, students can arrange their essays however they wish. This student chose to discuss Douglass’ narrative immediately after the human rights background essay instead of the essay on the Triangle Fire.)

In fact, these transitional sentences and paragraphs are one of my favorite instructional aspects of this assignment.

I think it’s important to teach kids that their sentences need to “hold hands.” This metaphor, which I discovered while reading the college text They Say, I Say, illustrates how each sentence’s meaning should flow from sentence to sentence, i.e. each sentence should grow conceptually out of the preceding sentence.

Yes, transition words will help with linking to some extent, but adding transition ideas (such as repeated words or ideas from one essay to the next) will link the individual essays together even more solidly to build a cohesive dissertation. After all, for the dissertation to achieve cohesion, each essay within it must grow out of the one before it.

And fortunately, kids usually understand the need for transitions words and ideas between the individual essays. In fact, by the time that March rolls around, they often bring up this topic themselves. At this stage of the dissertation game, various kids have asked me over the years,

“Don’t we have to do something so all these essays fit together?”

When middle schoolers ask this, I praise them for noticing the need for these transitions. It’s such a good feeling to know that they have figured out — on their own — that they need to make the essays “hold hands.”

Students complete these final essential components at their own pace during the final two to three weeks of revision, editing, and assembly of the dissertations. I provide a final “To Do Checklist” that they work on for two to three weeks as they finish up.

Here I’ve included photos of a Works Cited Page guide, a final TO DO EDITING CHECKLIST, and an example of the title page structure that students use.

Here are the materials I supply to students:

—an instruction sheet for each individual essay (HR 1-4)

—a five-paragraph essay outline that I require students to fill out prior to starting their first drafts

—paper copies of the articles that they will cite in their essay

—timelines and To-Do checklists

this Avery presentation folder

—All these materials are provided on paper and in Google Classroom.

Here’s a variety of materials I provide for students. The sheet in the front is an article from the United Nations for those students without internet access at home. Students include a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights page in their dissertations as an Appendix These are available from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA. The Human Rights Toolkit is available from the The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, MN.

How I grade the individual essays:

After students turn in their first and second drafts, I methodically read each essay word for word. As I read, I ask myself: Does the essay have a clear thesis statement? Does the paper stay focused on that thesis? Do the ideas ramble? Is the paper backed up with the textual evidence?

Those first drafts mainly contain my notes and suggestions for better idea development. At this point, it’s not about commas and punctuation, it’s about ideas. And to be honest, I don’t focus on editing in any first draft of any assignment actually. (Well, okay, I do hand back work that contains a three or more K-6 errors… y’know, those silly mistakes, such as basic capitalization rules and the dreaded lower case i that students should know about by the time they reach middle school.)

It seems that I’m still deciding exactly how I want to assess this project. This is a simple rubric I used a year ago. I have used more involved versions, including one where students filled out their own grades before me, but that one didn’t work as well as I hoped. I’ll probably go with this simple approach again. Of course, I write comments on these sheets off to the side.

Because those first drafts are just that—first drafts—they are evaluated with a grade that’s akin to a participation grade. As long as the student fills out and turns in their outline, plus a first draft (either typed or handwritten) that contains a beginning, middle, and end (and, therefore, the major parts of a five-paragraph essay) students receive a successful grade.

Still, many co-workers often see the student’s final dissertations and lament to me how time-consuming it must be to grade all those 16-page and longer essays. But really, because I limit my “grading” to the first draft that I mark up, a second draft that I compare to the first draft (to confirm that students made the needed changes), and a final draft that I skim just before binding, this project doesn’t require an unreasonable amount of time to assess.

And since the project extends throughout the year, I get my eyes on their individual essays frequently enough that we revise and repair it as we go multiple times during conferencing. As a result, by the time March rolls around, I am thoroughly familiar with each student’s essay.

In addition, after students compile and merge their essays into one document and add the essential components, they assemble into four-person groups to peer review. This allows another yet stage of revision. When all is said and done, most students’ essays undergo three to four drafts, and maybe even five.

How my students stay on track during the year with this project:

This is a long project and I know that. And yes, it might seem daunting for middle school students to stay organized with an assignment that stretches across several months.

Here are two vital tricks:

1) Students store their drafts in a classroom file cabinet. In fact, I write KEEP in big letters across the top of every draft that needs to be filed. I even tell those who are really disorganized, “See the word KEEP at the top of the page? That means don’t lose it. File it away right now.” Middle school kids are fun, but they sometimes just need me to be as direct as possible.

2) Students put stickers on the giant progress chart posted at the front of the room. Each essay in the dissertation has spaces for two stickers, one for the first draft and one for the second draft, which is generated at least a month after the first draft. (I think it’s important for a good amount of time to pass between these two drafts so kids can look at it with fresh eyes.) The giant sticker chart is actually a big deal to students; it keeps them aware of their progress.

I jokingly tell kids that our progress chart might be the last time, sadly, that they ever get stickers in school.

Plus, the chart is a quick way for me to see who I need to help on any essay they may be struggling with. I do my best to help kids manage their time and stay on track as the project is just too big to complete all at once at the last minute.

And that time management idea brings me to the last reason I like these the eighth-grade dissertation:

Students learn that they can be successful with any big project, in school or in life, if they break it into manageable steps.

I think this is such an important lesson for eighth-graders to learn as they approach high school. It should carry that same message next year for my high school students as they look ahead to college or their career.

This is a schedule or “tentative timeline” I give students as we near the time to compile and merge the various essays they have completed over the school year. This also shows a slip that provides directions for adding page numbers in Google Docs in MLA style.

Disclaimer: Yes, I realize that in the eyes of many in academia and in more progressive high schools, the five-paragraph essay is being disregarded and shunned even for its formulaic and staid structure and style. And while I agree to some point with this thinking, I also know that students — especially those in middle school and some in high school — need the structure of a five-paragraph essay to achieve cohesion in the organization of their thoughts. That’s why I believe the five-paragraph essay definitely has a place in my writing instruction.

However, I am also an advocate for more creative approaches to writing. I feel that when teachers focus too much on academic writing, they stifle the student’s personal expression and originality and actually turn kids off to writing. Balance is needed.

The dissertation gives me that balance. It allows me to teach students academic writing and its more formal organization and structure on an on-going basis throughout the year. This then frees up more time for creative writing pursuits such as poetry, presentations, memoir writing, creative contests, blogging, graphic essays, and headline poetry.

Another dissertation is completed! Happy day!

In closing, next year I plan to adapt the dissertation project for both my high school juniors (who read American Literature) and my seniors (who read British Literature). I’m excited to return to this project!

I know that I definitely missed including it in my curriculum this year.

Thanks for reading again this week!

What kinds of extended writing projects do you tackle with your students? Let me know in the comments or on my Contact Page and make sure to become a follower to catch more posts from my high school ELA classroom.

Photos: Student photos used with parental permission.

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