I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.Blaise Pascal
I love that quote by Pascal! It comes to mind today because I have been working on essay projects with my students. Most of their teachers assign them the typical 5 paragraph essay. This structure requires them to have an introductory paragraph (which includes the thesis statement), followed by 3 paragraphs (each including a main argument with 3 supporting points) and ending with a conclusion paragraph which reiterates and emphasizes the information in the introductory paragraph. This structure and requirement causes my students great difficulty.
The hardest part of it for them is seeing how to define their main points. You see, they have not been required to organize information this way before. So what do I do?Just like when I teach math, I get out my white board and markers. We lay out the main points in an outline that I create by dividing my whiteboard into sections. I use different colors for the main points so they can see how they flow from introduction to the main points and on to the conclusion.
The tricky part is keeping them from getting bogged down in details. It is a challenging skill to train them to think in bold outlines and bullet points. But it is a terrific way to learn to be concise. If they start bogging down in details and lengthy sentences I put my hand up and say “whoa! don’t wander off….we will get to that”. We throw our outline together FIRST. Listing main points and supporting arguments. THEN we fill in.
It is too soon to say they “get” the beauty and universality of this system. But I keep saying it. I explain that this method is the foundation of their writing assignments. I used the same argument when teaching them math and especially algebra. I tell them “moving junk around in an equation” is the essential foundation. I tell them once they understand that they can unlock the door to much of math. By now they can see that this is true. So I have “street cred” with them when it comes to that argument.
Now, those of you who have been following my blog for awhile may understand the irony of this next statement. I tell them, “it is essential to be concise and focused in your writing”. Yeah~ I am THAT good. I can say it without laughing at the irony. I who have yet to have an unexpressed thought. I who at times take 500 words to say what many can say in 110 words.
Words I dreaded the most from my English teachers? “In 400 words or less write an essay about….”. Oh hearing that there was a maximum number of words allowed was painful. So far my students haven’t been given word count maximums. Their teachers are focused on mastering the structure of an essay, and building an argument point by point. I love that part!
Would you ever guess that I preferred Steinbeck over Hemingway in high school? ;-).