I tell my students all the time that essays are my favorite part of teaching English. It gets me a lot of eyerolling, but it’s true. Well, partly: I love teaching essay construction more than I actually like to do essay construction. The part of the essay planning that actually involves, well planning. But I’ve also been one for picking something a part to see how it works. Essay construction is very much like that- trying to pick apart a piece of literature and figure out how it works while simultanously constructing an essay that works. Most students I know skip this step. Instead of outlining, planning, gathering evidence, figuring out a thesis, they jump right in. And it almost never turns out well.
I tell my students this but inevitably they by pass this stage anyway. When it came time for the big out of class essay round two, I was determined not to get the same paper- brilliant in spots but lacking evidence, well said in a sentence but lacking any structure. I was receiving 30 papers that had moments of clarity but lacked any overall organization.
When did we start skipping this step? When did I start skipping this step?
This aggression will not stand, Donnie.
So the last module, I decided to spend a two days on essay organization. Not only did my students enjoy and really understand the importance of this process, but their papers were infinitely better.
I had them start out with a series of different colored post it notes. The first step in this process is to identify a controlling idea, or a thesis. Most students just jotted down a fragment, an idea. Here, this student starts with the blue sticky note, “pilate vs macon/life of freedom/both children of the flying Solomon”. We then talk about how to create good thesis statements- that the significance is really crucial. One can talk all day about how Toni Morrison uses a certain symbol, but if you don’t explain why this is significant in your essay then I don’t care. Yellow sticky notes indicate further exploration; the thesis becomes “Society shops the idea of freedom into different forms for each of Solomon’s children”. While not completely finished, I give them the go ahead for outlining. I use red, yellow, and green page tabs. Yellow indicates to proceed, but know the thesis will need more once the outlining is complete. Red means “ahhh no stop! Give me more on this idea!” Green is easy- it means keep going.
And then the fun begins. We talk about different ways to outline and organize information. I tell them a story two ways: in a chronological order and then in order of importance. Usually it’s StarWars. For example, I ask my students when would you prefer to met Darth Vader, when he’s young and just starting out in the force or later as an opposition to our young hero, Luke Skywalker?
Allow me to digress. This is important.
You see, some students will argue that meeting Darth Vader as a child takes away the importance of Luke’s journey. I would agree- if the main point of the story is to highlight Luke Skywalker’s struggle with the dark side, then chronological may not be the best form of organization. Instead, I’d highlight the most important plot points- his discovery of Leia’s message, the self discovery on Tattooine, the fight with his father. You can skip in and out of the timeline. However, if you are arguing the spirituality (lack thereof or glimmer from within) of Darth Vader, then one may want to tell his entire story, in chronological order.
This works for just about anything- even The Hunger Games.
Organization and structure are important; they decided how the reader gets the information. It’s the most persuasive tool a writer can master. Once they understand and develop their outline, they have to justify WHY (not just how) they are organizing their essay. And this two minute conversation has been the most crucial part of the process. Thinking about structure and the reader is the most important thing students can do in the revision/creation part of an essay.
Once they have their outline on yellow sticky notes (and another tagged approval process happens), I ask them to write a personal objective for their paper. This is the light green strip. Here, this student’s personal objective is to “be less obtrusively wordy”. With objective in mind, they start the writing process. They go back (and I encourage them to do so) many times to their outline (now in digital form) and add, subtract, move. Some even use the sticky notes as placemarkers; ways to imagine what their essay might look like if organized differently.
When they are about halfway through the rough draft process (I did this activity on the day of peer review), I ask them to identify three things about their paper: the strongest sentence, the strongest piece of evidence (quoted material from the text), and a list of four to five words that they really feel articulate the paper. This go on post it notes for reflection later.
I have a nine panel window door that I used for each of my nine students to hang their process. The important part is that this does go on display for the entire process. It creates a community that holds each other accountable.
From there, they embark on their own. They might hate you at the start, but I can tell you from experience they will understand and appreciate that approaching finish line so much better.
Below is the first essay’s beginning digitalized outline after pre-planning; it turned into one of the best papers I’ve graded all year long.
Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon focuses on a
Thesis: Pilate and Macon’s determination and courage to pursue their ideal freedom are qualities that has been developed from their family roots; simultaneously society impacts the two characters which formed two different lives of freedom.
- Macon VS. Pilate( Beliefs+ physical appearances)
Macon-Tall, Strong, always carries keys around-pg. 55 “Own things=most important thing” quote, portrayed as “impregnable” the most feared and respected black man, willing to go to any extent for his money (power)(pg. 25 with Porter)
Pilate: Tall, strong->willing to go to any extent to protect her baby (Reba/Hagar/ Milkman?)-> Flexible: police scene, taller/ shorter in front of different people (pg. 206)
Isolated but regarded with respect, nobody bothers her (mentioned several times in the novel, people back off when they hear its related to Pilate)
Not well mannered (according to the people in the town in that time period in that society)
Beliefs: pg149->realizes how she wants to be seen in the world
Pg139->indifferent to money,