Essays written in English lessons are flabby.
Like a 50 year old man sitting down to watch the rugby, we have sort out comfort and ease. A cosy chair – the ‘easy’ chair – in just the right place, the remote within reach (perhaps in one of those attractive over the arm tidy things). The ‘easy’ chair of the English classroom is the PEE architecture used to firstly meet the assessment criteria and secondly meet the assessment criteria in nice ‘easy’ steps.
I have said (numerously) since I first blogged on this research project last April, I have a number of problems with English essays. I have summarised their main crimes below (and to serve as a context for what follows):
- Often they start and finish as a gap-fill exercise.
- They require little articulation of individual thought.
- They lack cohesion and genuine argument (used here in its true sense).
- They lack interest – as a piece of writing created they are often the least interesting to read.
- They don’t often demonstrate knowledge or understanding.
- They serve little purpose to the writer.
Whilst my hyperbole doesn’t do us all justice. It’s amazing how marking 300+ exam papers makes it seem true. (Intuition and anecdote are not fact klaxon).
Undertaking classroom research
I am apprehensive about calling this project ‘research’. It’s been 20 years since I did my degree and even then serious study wasn’t my focus. I worked two jobs and got married. Added to this, research has become a bit of thing in the Edu-sphere and dare I say it, there is an inner circle of those deemed wise or thoughtful enough to comment and then everyone else. I am definitely the everyone else.
But the question keeps nagging me, and it has followed me from my old school – through a term and a half of supply – and onto my new school.
If I don’t teach Year 7 “the English essay” with PEE and sentence stems and all that gubbins. If I do something else, could it improve their writing? Don’t worry I’m not about to burst into a rousing chorus of “be the change you wish to see in the world”.
I’m more of a Tolstoy girl anyway.
Expected and unexpected outcomes:
You probably think from my writing above that I want PEE to fail. Actually that’s not entirely true. I want essays that don’t mean anything to fail. I want essays where paragraphs with no tangible links to fail (how many times have I read paragraph A on George is father-like and paragraph B on George has had enough of Lennie – with no link, no link!). I want gap-fill to fail.
I am not predetermining the results. I hope I am not.
I also know that it isn’t going to be the data that I produce with just 64 students that matters, or that makes a difference. In many ways it’s the fact that I am focused on it that will make a difference. I want to teach PEE really well. So that the class that learns PEE end up writing genius essays AND I want to find an approach that isn’t PEE. I want the students who won’t learn PEE to write something utterly staggering too.
Maybe we can all be winners.
So what I am doing?
I have two year 7 classes, I see each one once a week and they are equivalents sets from each half of the year. These two hours will be my research hours. One class will be my test group (no PEE) and one my control group (PEE). Both classes have equal numbers of boys and girls in. Although one class has a slightly greater number of students with higher levels. Both classes have students in who were ranked as being in the top 5% of the country in their KS2 SATs.
Among other admin tasks we are writing to parents to explain the project and asking permission to use work generated as part of the write up. Once I get beyond Phase 1, each lesson with both classes will be filmed.
The text I am using for study in this project is the very short story Ruthless by William De Mille. The text of which is widely available on the internet.
Phase 1: Love Analysis
The first 4 – 5 lessons of the project are the same for both classes. I have titled this phase “Love Analysis”. In order to give both classes enough opportunity to read, discuss and analyse prior to writing – we will spend four lessons unpicking this short story, the characters and literary techniques.
At this point there is no discussion of an essay question or analytical writing. Any written responses produced in lesson are exploratory, recounts or creative.
I have shared the 5 lessons plans for this phase here Essay writing research SOW – Phase 1. There is nothing over-exciting so please don’t expect too much. These are lesson designed for year 7 to experience analysis for what may be the first time.
It is the next phase that is causing me to lose sleep. Once both classes have read and explored the different ideas and concepts in Ruthless we need to get on and write some analysis.
At first I wanted a thematic question – on injustice. After following the advice of several wise ones – thanks EMC and Fran N – I agreed this was perhaps too much.
So the essay question that both classes will tackle is “How does William De Mille present the character Judson Webb in Ruthless?” Bog standard. Potential for boredom. Potential for greatness.
Now these two classes will diverge.
Here I will teach one class PEE – the most unstructured, structured PEE approach I think I can get away with. Students will have the broad strokes but I don’t want them to fail, so they won’t have a PEE sentence stem gap fill experience.
The other class will get something completely different. Spot the deliberate vagueness. Despite this being less than a month away I am still kind of stuck on this one. I don’t want to give them any structure at all. After all TEEPE is just PEE by another name. But I also don’t want them to fail, so I need to do something.
In collaboration with my amazing colleagues I am slowly working it out. I have a draft structure of these lessons worked out and if you fancy having a looksee let me know.
Things I don’t know:
- Which class should do which? Names in a hat I suppose.
- What a good essay that doesn’t use PEE looks like.
- Whether I am reinventing a square wheel.
- If this has any value at all.
Thank you for reading, if you have any advice or ideas please get in contact via the comments or twitter.
Have a great weekend.