The Embarrassing Reason I Didn’t Finish My Grad Program

A woman, writing on a blank sheet of paper, looks like she needs templates for writing essays

And What I Learned About Writing Instruction

Like a lot of people who become teachers, I really liked school. I liked the predictable routines of reading a chapter, answering the questions and then taking a quiz. In college, I hit a few speed bumps, like papers I wrote at the last minute or an overwhelming volume of completely uninteresting reading but I came out of it with a degree. Even my master’s program was pretty comfortable, with lots of reading and writing, but nothing that really stumped me. Teachers frequently gave us templates for writing essays or reports, or examples from previous classes that gave us guidance as we planned our own writing.

But to advance in my teaching career, I needed to earn more credits after my master’s. I enrolled in a CAGS program (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study) at a local university and had the opportunity to choose my focus (literacy and special education) and select classes to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects. I took lots of classes on literacy development, the assessment of reading difficulties, and different approaches to teaching reading. So far, so good. But then it was time to plan my capstone project: a thesis or an action research project. That’s when I got stumped. 

Why are templates important?


The thesis process at that university goes like this: First, choose your topic and develop a proposal. Then, find a professor to serve as your advisor. After that, work with their guidance to complete the research and write the thesis. But when I submitted my annotated bibliography and the roughest sketch of a topic to my program advisor, they said I would need a LOT more before they could connect me with an advisor who knew my subject matter.

But a lot more of what? They didn’t say. I asked. They didn’t have a specific answer. They told me it needed to be “more developed.”

And that, dear reader, is when I quit.

I was pregnant with my second child and working full time, and as much as I wanted to finish this degree, I just couldn’t see how. I had spent hours Googling random combinations of words like “graduate thesis education,” “thesis proposal template,” and any other phrase I could think of that might give me some insight into what was missing from my proposal. And asking for help from my program advisor turned out to be a dead end. That person wasn’t in the same field as me and either I didn’t know how to ask or they didn’t know how to tell me what my submission was missing. 

My plan was to take some time off and then try again. And I did the first part, but never the second part. Oops.

Fortunately, I had started that program just before getting accepted for my Orton-Gillingham certification program. I found a lot of what I was looking for (how to teach reading, why some things work better than others) in that program. I will probably never finish that degree program, especially while I’m not teaching in a public school.

Should students get templates for writing essays?

Now imagine that instead of a thirty-something educator, I was a ninth grader, assigned my first high school essay. Or a middle schooler writing my first lab report. All that knowledge I had in my head about reading and education, and all the writing I had done in my life up to that point, didn’t prepare me to write this proposal because I didn’t really know what it was

It reminds me of The Great British Baking Show, where the characters are given just the vaguest outline of a recipe and they are supposed to use their knowledge of baking techniques to reproduce one of the famous hosts’ classic recipes. When you give vague directions, you can’t expect the product to turn out like you imagined. And the same is true of templates for writing essays. The more specific a teacher can be about what he is looking for in an essay, the more opportunities the students will have to succeed with those expectations!

If your middle or high school writer needs to strengthen their academic writing skills, check out our small group offerings. A new session of our paragraph writing course will be offered in Summer 2024. Contact us now to get on the list when enrollment opens.

What is a writing template?

Templates for writing essays are documents that lay out all the parts of the assignment, including models for what should be included in each part. For example, a simple template for a 5-paragraph essay would look like:

  • Introduction – include a thesis statement

  • Body paragraph 1
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation

  • Body paragraph 2
  • Quote 1 and explanation
  • Quote 2 and explanation

  • Body paragraph 3
    • Quote 1 and explanation
    • Quote 2 and explanation

  • Conclusion

Most students will need more detailed guidance, and would benefit from a paragraph-writing template. I like to use the TBEAR model for most middle school and high school writing. It looks like this:

  • T – thesis statement: This sentence makes an arguable claim that the writer will support with examples
  • B – brief explanation: A sentence or two (not much more) to give the reader background about the part of the text you will discuss. 
  • E – evidence: This sentence will either directly quote or paraphrase a sentence or phrase from the text that supports the thesis statement. (A good body paragraph usually has 2-3 pairs of evidence and analysis sentences.)
  • A – analysis: In a sentence or two, explain why the evidence above supports your thesis. Make the connection between your thesis and the quote clear.
  • R – relate: Show how your evidence relates to the big ideas of the reading. This could be relating the section you analyzed to the whole book, making a connection to real life or your own experience, or a connection back to the main thesis of the essay, depending on the exact assignment.

Why are templates important in writing?

Often, we show students examples of good writing and hope and expect that they’ll be able to produce something similar. But the problem is that weak writers don’t know enough about good writing to tell the difference between good and bad essays. They don’t know what to imitate because it’s not clear to them what makes the writing good. 

A template for essay writing goes further than just providing examples. Instead of “do what the author did here,” a template makes the instruction explicit. “Just like the example, your essay will have 3 body paragraphs, each with 2 pieces of evidence quoted from the text.” Now that is a direction students can take action on. 

And by writing, students become better writers! Once they have produced some essays, they will become better at recognizing good arguments and understanding the structure of other people’s writing. And that’s why templates are an essential part of good writing instruction for all developing writers.

If your middle school or high school student is struggling with essay writing, let me know. I’m looking forward to offering our paragraph writing class in the winter of 2023. If you are interested, drop your email in the contact form on that page and we’ll update you when the class is scheduled.

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