“What do you need more of?” I queried. Within minutes, more than a dozen post-its on my board read:
“A mini-lesson on conclusions!”
“Conclusions — I don’t know what to do! Help!”
And these were my IB seniors, still convinced at the end of their K-12 careers that they couldn’t successfully wrap up their essays.
But they aren’t alone. Writing the conclusion causes anxiety in all of the young writers I have met. They innately know that simply regurgitating their big ideas isn’t enough (and, even if it were enough, it wouldn’t be interesting, and as Allison reminds us, all writers want their words to matter.) However, they are devoid of better tools to deploy.
I started to think about how I wanted to articulate the qualities of a good conclusion. A conclusion should do some reminding and recapping. It should link those ideas together, creating a drumroll beneath the text, culminating in a trumpeted ta da! The grand conclusion. The bigger point. The ultimate moment of persuasion. The zoomed-out larger significance.
Now, where to find the mentor text to show this in concrete terms? I immediately thought of the source of consistently epic conclusions that cause jaws to drop: Law and Order.
I often reference courtrooms when teaching analytical and persuasive writing. Mentally playing the part of attorney helps students (most of whom are very familiar with TV courtroom crime procedurals) make claims and present and explain evidence. The attorney’s opening and closing argument parallel a writer’s introduction and conclusion. And who better to persuade in that closing argument than Jack McCoy?
For this lesson, you could use just about any closing argument from Law and Order (just search YouTube!), but this is my favorite. Its plot features high school students and a particularly entertaining guest-starring role by Kathleen Turner as the misguided defense attorney.
I tell students to watch the clip carefully, follow our hero, Prosecuter Jack McCoy, and to notice what he includes in his conclusion. There will be a recap of his major claims and evidence … but then what? We watch the clip, sometimes twice for a closer read, and then students share their findings. In his closing argument, McCoy
Connects his pieces of evidence together, showing how they build on one another
Uses a tone of authority
Broadens his argument past this single defendant and pushes toward more global significance — not why this one trial matters, but why the outcome of this trial matters to society, too.
After we talk about it, students try to mimic the ta-da. Some reach for the closest tool and literally mimic the mentor text by connecting the ideas of their paper to their implications in society. And often this doesn’t work seamlessly. Not every text is meant for this treatment, making for another great teachable moment when we share. Other students make the leap to greater relevant significance immediately. We share the ones that work and troubleshoot the ones that aren’t quite there yet.
Here is one student’s “closing argument” for her essay on Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs:
She did it! She synthesized her major arguments, zoomed out toward something broader, and then came to an even deeper understanding of the text.
After this mini-lesson, the hard work of critical thinking and connection-making still lies before the students. But, finding a way to point to the qualities of a strong and persuasive conclusion has allowed my students to articulate what their conclusions need and a way to begin — a drumroll and trumpet call for which to strive in their writing.