Part one is available here.
I have argued that knowledge need to be organised; a collection of disparate facts is not enough to help our students write great essays. Organising knowledge starts with our selecting the most important our students need to have and just giving it to them. I know we want students to be independent and draw their own conclusions. But we have to build up to that; it doesn’t come out of nowhere, especially if we want their interpretations to be valid and meaningful.
So, where do we start? All too often, we make the mistake of planning backwards from an assessment. For example, I might know my students will have to write a response to this at the end of the half-term: how does Priestley present Mr Birling in An Inspector Calls? (This could just as easily be a specific essay in RE or history or science.)
There is a danger I focus my teaching on that one topic so that I can ‘show progress’ etc. But what I really need to do is to plan backwards from the essential knowledge that underlies the whole thing – in my example, the whole play – so that my students’ knowledge becomes flexible and can be applied to a range of specific questions. That’s not just so they can pass exams; it’s so that they genuinely do understand the play and can reap the personal rewards that real learning always brings.
When I teach An Inspector Calls, I give my students the key knowledge right away. I tell them that the most important thing to know, the anchor that we will attach all our other thoughts to, is this: Priestley wrote the novel to expose the injustices of the class system. I tell them. They don’t work it out or guess. I don’t want any confusion here. We unpick what those words I just used really mean. We pull apart what being part of a class system in 1912, when the play is set, meant for different kinds of people and we unpick how, by 1945, when the play was written, two world wars had begun to break down the barriers between the middle and working classes. Priestley saw the possibility of a greater and more permanent change to British society.
From that moment on, whichever character, technique or minor theme we explore, we attach it to that big idea. I use a lot of diagrams to help me. Having a working wall in the class with that idea at the top helps students to map connections as we go along. But they also have their own notes and diagrams. More on that next time.
This approach works in other subjects too. We start with the question: what is the most important underlying concept we’re trying to teach? And underlying concepts can be well hidden and difficult to work out. I think we probably all need to confer with our departments to make decisions about that. I bounce ideas off my friend and colleague, Sam Gibbs, all the time. Without her, I would be far less of a teacher, that’s for sure. If we don’t work together, there is a danger our teaching becomes surface, somewhat disconnected, and that nothing will really stick.
All of this brings me to another aspect of organising knowledge that is oft overlooked: writing organised, meaningful sentences. We need to teach writing all the time, every lesson, as we go along, in order to adequately prepare students for the essay at the end. I’ve written about this before so this serves as either an introduction or a brief reminder.
Firstly, we can use sentence fragments – taking small pieces of sentences that students play with in order to ‘do the thinking’ and express themselves on paper. Hochman & Wexler (The Writing Revolution) suggest we might try something like this (this is my version).
In explaining why Gerald, an upper class philanderer in An Inspector Calls, behaves the way he does, we might offer these fragments in which key elements are missing. It encourages students to think about connections and relationships:
is self-indulgent in that he
lacks self awareness because
allows Priestley to explore the idea that the upper classes are
One student wrote this:
Gerald is self-indulgent in that he allows himself to take advantage of someone vulnerable.
He lacks self awareness because he doesn’t see himself as a philanderer; in fact, he seems to think he’s a sort of victim of circumstance who couldn’t really stop himself for having feelings for Eva. Nothing is ever truly his fault.
Gerald allows Priestley to explore the idea that the upper classes are also failed by the class system, despite seeming to be in control of it, because they have to live with their failed relationships and guilty consciences.
I deliberately don’t ask them to include quotes here because students need to understand the message itself, the argument, before they can go about including ways to support or exemplify it.
In creating these fragments, I think we teachers also get clearer and more fine-grained about what matters most. It forces us to zoom in on the key ideas that really matter so that our students do the same, something that is vital for low structure builders (see Make it Stick for an explanation) for whom working out what matters most is often very difficult.
And here is one from Doug Lemov. This is about the use of appositives. An appositive is a way of renaming a noun in a sentence. It sits next to the noun it renames. In each of these examples, the appositive is in the centre as an embedded clause (there are other ways to construct them!)
A bird, a tiny blackbird, kept visiting the garden.
A bird, a huge great eagle, was poised in a nearby tree.
A bird, the most important bird in the whole clan as it turned out, began to address the crowd.
I like this technique because it’s a fairly easy way to build something that feels quite sophisticated. It also encourages students to think of more than one way of saying essentially the same thing. Having options like this has to be one of the ‘holy grails’ of using language: our students need to have more than one option easily available to them if they are ever to express themselves with subtlety and nuance.
And writing well does not require the kind of ‘shoe-horned in’ fancy vocabulary that students don’t really understand. I can’t count the number of times I read the word ‘harmatia’ in relation to Macbeth while marking essays over summer. If they can really own that vocabulary, I have no objection. But many of them can’t and it stands out in their work as a mad attempt to points-score rather than a genuine articulation of a thought. One student wrote, “it was because of his harmatia that he did what he did because it wasn’t very nice, his harmatia.” Time would have been better spent on allowing this student to develop their expression through practising with sentences than worrying about vocabulary. Barbara Bleiman writes wonderfully about this here.
So, we have a big cohesive idea to pin everything on and we’re developing writing in short bursts as we go along. In the next instalment, I’ll look at how we might go from writing sentences to actually planning and writing the essay itself.