In the stack of marking that I took home, promising myself I’d do before Spring Break ended, sits a stack of Of Mice and Men literary analysis essays.
As we worked on them, we had a fair number of conversations about what we were doing, and why. We talked about how, often, exercises like lit analysis are purely academic, but the process of analysis, and thinking critically, are important.
Since I teach from a largely thematic perspective, we had focused our analysis around thematic elements of the novel, which we had discussed as we read. In short, we had talked through a lot of the what of these essays before writing. I really wanted to focus on the how.
This has become a focus for me as an English teacher, because there are folks that fill my students’ heads with very concrete ideas of what an essay is. There are Right Ways. If you’ve not heard of these Right Ways, then let me tell you, the fear of them runs deep in my writers. Actually, the fear of not conforming exactly to these Right Ways has them so paralyzed with doubt that they can barely write.
My message to them is simply that there are no Right Ways. Well, not official ones that carry throughout academia from top to bottom as they’ve been led to believe. Those that pound their fists on desks and insist that there are are misleading their students – there are right ways, conventions to conform to, but those are individual preferences that very well may differ from teacher to teacher.
So we focused on writing. I let them know what my expectations for the paper were, and made it clear that our goal was to write our strongest pieces. To that end, I wanted us to focus on ideas and organization. I gave them some ideas about structure. We worked hard on introductions, even going so far as to write a rough draft of one in our notebooks, removed from the essay itself.
Like many teachers, I have my bag of tricks that I rely upon. I have a sheet I call The Big Sheet, which I print off on 11×17 to make little booklets to help us organize our ideas. The outer pages are a handout I came across that compiles the rhetorical moves from Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say. Inside they have a thesis statement generator based upon the one that Jim Burke created. There is a page that is blank, but for a reminder of the structure of an essay: an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. I also remind them of the mnemonic that I use to remind us of the things that should be in a body paragraph, SELECT.
I also spent a class sharing the idea of using Says/Means/Matters with them. (I’ve written about using this strategy before.)
Not only did we look at using it as a strategy we can use to develop our arguments, and better explain our ideas, but I was frank with them that they may, in their studies, face a writing assignment that asks them to achieve a piece of a certain length. I know that this stresses writers out. A SELECT paragraph gives them a basic, and potentially brief way to make their point using a quote. Says/Means/Matters allows them a way to expand on that one idea, which, if we’re being honest, is a tool that they can use to add length to a paper more effectively. We did the simple math: if, using only SELECT, we can write a baseline of a five paragraph essay, with three core arguments, then we can use Says/Means/Matters to stretch that same core to up to 12 paragraphs, possibly more than doubling the length of the paper, and that’s without resorting to choosing really, really long quotes!
The strength, I feel in showing them these two approaches is that I’ve now shown them two different ways to communicate their ideas in an organized fashion. I make it clear that another strength in knowing two approaches is that they can alternate between them, giving their writing some variety, less of a feeling of following a set structure than what I’ve seen from students in the past when they used only SELECT.
Basically, I want to spend as much of their time as academic writers giving them strategies they can use in that pursuit. It will work in my class because we’re playing as we learn, taking risks and figuring out how the tools work. I hope that it will work if they roll into a classroom in which there exist Right Ways, because they’ll have confidence in their ability to write, and can do so once they figure out the expectations they need to conform to.
What other organizational tools do you use? Do you have acronyms that you use in class for strategies? I need to build better models for teaching introduction and conclusion… what have you got?