Maybe you’re lucky, and you have a curriculum that includes teaching students how to organize thoughts, how to ensure that they’ve backed up their ideas — most likely, it’s all part of a unit on how to write an outline.
And maybe you also have a golden Lamborghini and a pair of boots that can fly. And a machine that can make any kind of food you want.
Students often do not know how to organize their thoughts or write an outline. And so, I would receive an essay from students I had no idea how to grade. Namely, an competent writer would look at the prompt and say, “I will need to compose a thesis, come up with three good supporting points, find evidence to back up the points, lay it out in an organized way, and end with a conclusion tying the thesis to some further ideas or questions.”
But what I get often reads more like Kafka’s stream-of-consciousness diary entries. Each idea meanders around, maybe offers a thesis, maybe not. Maybe ideas are developed, maybe they leave the reader wondering if life is nothing but absurdity and darkness.
Now, I am not an English Teacher. I teach a series of humanities electives that borrow from psychology, sociology, and literature. They require cross disciplinary thinking, and any essay students will write for me will require some creative thinking, some mastery of content, and some organizational finessing. This is not: “Compare Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy.”
But I have a background in English Lit. And the English Teacher in me says, “Well, if you can’t follow the student’s thinking, and the ideas are not developed, then that should be reflected in the grade.”
But what about the ideas? The thinking? The mastery? The content at the center of the topic which the student never gets around to because he or she is paddling around, lost, stuck, in circles at the edge of the pond? This is an essay, yes. But it’s also a test. And the main goal of this particular unit was not necessarily to teach writing.
One year, a student with some learning differences bombed an essay test she should have thrived on. She touched on zero of the brilliant ideas she’d fronted in class discussion. At a conference, her mother said, well, was there an outline I could give her to make sure she touched on all the main ideas?
The next time we had an essay exam, I gave her an outline in advance, and she thrived.
But what about the other students? Should they learn how to write an outline? Sure. But what about this week, when it’s time for the essay exam for the end of the unit? A third of them don’t know how to organize their thinking.
Should I have them write and submit outlines which I will review and give pointers on? Should they submit a revision of the outline? I will give a third round of revisions, and then they will write the exam!
No! Who has time for this? The essay exam is this week!
Here’s what I started doing.
- For every essay, I include an outline. The thesis is highlighted in purple. It provides very explicit places to write supporting ideas, textual evidence, a restatement of the thesis, and questions for further thought.
- If I will include additional requirements (like quoting a support-statement from an in class film or partner work) I build spaces for this into the outline.
- In their actual exam, their thesis is purple. Their support statements are green. Their textual evidence is orange. Their additional requirements are blue. It’s easy to find these “points of assessment” as I read.
- And when I grade their essays, I know I am grading not only their fledgling writing skills, but more importantly, their mastery of the material, their creativity, and their critical thinking.
Some day, will I begin to differentiate between students who receive an outline and those who must write their own outline?
But the essay exam is this Friday. Onward, we write. With outlines.
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I’d love to invite you to check out Teaching Writing Part One: On Giving Feedback
and Teaching Writing Part Three: The Best Way to Encourage Revisions