When was the last time you wrote an essay? Mmmm…thought so. Knowing the pitfalls and needs of your students is hard if you haven’t walked the walk for a while. What’s that defensive line teens deliver when they’re asked to do something they don’t want to, or when we try to rally them along with the old, “It’s all good! You’ve totally got this!” comment? It’s, “Well, you do it then!” They’ve got a point actually. Here’s why we need to complete the same task we want our students to … before they have to.
Let’s focus on the essay. I was never one of those high school students that could produce a brilliantly structured, thought-provoking masterpiece right off the bat. I had no idea what an essay was let alone how they should be structured, what to put in them, or what the purpose of them was. Perhaps something to be said for teaching methods in the 80s, it wasn’t until I got to university and had to teach myself how to write an essay that I realised what I needed - tools and instructions to help me turn a frustrating ‘flat pack’ into a chest of drawers. Seems obvious right?
I’ve always been one of those teachers keen to find a more strategic, logical, tool that takes the fear and mystery out of writing essays. (Scarred for life by my history teacher who wrote “WAFFLE!” through my paragraphs but never provided a ‘tool’ to walk me through how to avoid that.) Some might argue that the tools I provide students - templates, recipe-like steps, checklists and the like - limit students, confining them to contrived productions and stodgy, formulaic thoughts. Whatever. If students can write a solid essay at the end of it, that’s a win. And if they aren’t stressed out by the experience, even better. The more capable ones can still stretch themselves from there. So that argument in a cop-out. I am irked by the ironic scoffing at the expense of the Science or PE teacher who, “needs to understand he’s got to teach them how to write his essays,” by English teachers who expect their students to produce essays as if by magic, believing that cryptic feedback such as, “think critically” or “develop your ideas” somehow helps.
Bar the exceptional few, students need scaffolding. It’s hard to know how to do this if you haven’t tried the task yourself. I cannot stress this enough: if you want professional learning that’s going to give you bang for your buck, do the task you’re expecting your students to do! Here’s how I came to believe this... For my Year 9 and 10 students I often wrote exemplar essays. I easily managed to PEE on the page three or four times. I would show them my planning page and provide them with colour-coded exemplars to illustrate the Point, Example, Explanation. I’d even differentiate for the more capable students with SEXE – Statement, Explanation, Example, Evaluation. My students didn’t just have the right allen key for the job, they had a whole set! And they had colour-coded fully labeled instructions too. But I tripped up with my seniors. I gave them SEXE, I gave them NZQA exemplars, we talked about thinking critically. They had screeds of notes on the text they were to write about. Unfortunately, I neglected the obvious tactic. I did not actually write an essay. So my students had a few tools, but not a range of tools to suit their different needs, and not necessarily ones that truly connected with the frustrations of writing an essay. Not only that, I couldn’t really empathise with their plight. So, frustrated by poor results (and a cold, rainy weekend) I finally plucked up the courage to write one myself. If ever there was a proverbial slap in the face, that was it. I struggled! Cue one of those, “OMG I … am … a … FRAUD!” moments!
I had to work and learn faster than my students – fast enough to write a decent essay, then come back to help them navigate their way through. With my new less-than-comfortable-but-so-blimmin’-valuable experience, I realised, for example, that:
- It was frustrating to begin the third paragraph only to find the quotation that would’ve been perfect there was already in the first paragraph.
- Critical thinking was actually hard if stuff didn’t naturally pop into your head.
- It’s really easy to fall into a directionless discussion, forgetting to answer the question or respond specifically to the statement.
By the end of that week, my students had four key tools to help them with essays:
1. A list of critical thinking strategies.
2. A comprehensive planning sheet that showed them how to plan, as well as actually do it.
3. Colour-coded and labelled exemplars.
4. Checklists to show what was needed in an introduction, each paragraph and conclusion.
Please don’t think I’m telling you to suck eggs, but when was the last time you wrote a Year 12 essay? We know the importance of empathy in teaching, but how many of us really practice this when it comes to setting tasks? This doesn’t mean thinking, “poor buggers, it must be so stressful, their workloads are huge…” It means walking the walk by doing it first. So go ahead, keeping the achievement criteria in mind:
· Write that essay, choosing from the questions you’ll give your students.
· Make a speech in front of an audience you’re terrified of.
· Create a static image or a visual-verbal piece.
· Conduct an inquiry…
I’ve picked on English activities in my list above, but if you’re from another curriculum area, what things does your department expect students to do?
Finally, respond to the things you realised would have been helpful, such as clearer instructions, photos, a wee video explanation, a graphic organiser, a checklist… Here’s a challenge: how about everyone in your department doing just one thing, then discussing the process, pitfalls and needs at the next department meeting? Even better, share the resources you’ve created as a result of completing the task, explaining why they’re helpful.
Raise this thought with your department. Share this post with the Heads of other departments in your school. Share it with SLT and ask them if some Professional Learning time can be dedicated to this process. Share your ‘less-than-comfortable-but-so-blimmin’-valuable experience’ with your students – be honest about how you found it. Make it your inquiry for the year because it’s the most authentic and useful professional learning ever!