Sunday, 5 October 2014

The post-it note approach to essay planning

Overly scaffolded essays are RUBBISH. RUBBISH for the students who are lead by their nose through four hours of dullity. RUBBISH for the teachers who will spend hour after hour attempting to mark slight variations of one mediocre response. RUBBISH in that they reinforce Gove et al's tired old critiques related to spoons and feeding.
However, unsurprisingly, many 15 and 16 year olds still require stabilisers when it comes to writing an extended response under exam conditions. The approach below was developed to try and combat this dilemma specifically in English controlled assessments.
Pick your weapon
I think it's really important to give students a choice of question whenever possible. At my place, giving students choice seems to have lead to improved results, perhaps as they more readily 'buy in' to the question/task.

I RAG rate my questions to show that some are more challenging, but give students free choice in terms of which they then choose. 

Giving a choice also means that they are already thinking about their response before they've even begun to plan - or else how can you make a decision! 

They then write their chosen question at the top of an A3 sheet of paper, like so:

Prepare for battle
Firstly, students need to sum up their 'quick' answer to the question. They should be able to give you the gist of their response on the back of a post-it note:

With a bit of 'spit and polish' this will become their opening paragraph. They then stick it on their A3 sheet in the top left hand corner, at the 'start' of their response.

Locate your evidence
Students then need to consider their best bits of evidence (i.e. quotations) for the argument they've outlined. I've made a simple 9 box worksheet for this, but again post-it notes would do.

A top tip is to get them to add page numbers at this stage to save time later.

Build your case
This is the most crucial step, where the 'story' of the essay takes shape. Students need to arrange their evidence in an order that fits the ideas expressed in their opening paragraph. Take for example the second post-it note above. I would expect the student to group all of the evidence that Crooks is treated badly, then that he is disabled and, finally, that he is heroic and 'keeps on going'.

I get students to talk through their essay to me at this point, explaining how each point links to the last. Then and only then do I lend them the pritt stick so they can be stuck down in order!
Put flesh on the bones
At this point the skeleton of the essay is in place and it's time to put the meat on it: time for the highlighters, coloured pens and spider-like arrows.

I give students a RAG rated checklist for their notes linked to the assessment criteria. That way there really is no excuse for missing out tricky bits like structure or context!

Marvel at your future success
I hope that it goes without saying that my students do not have access to this plan when they write their controlled assessment. They do, however, use it to create their notes page and to revise from at home prior and during the assessment window. Many bright sparks get a marker out as soon as they leave the classroom to cross out the paragraphs they've written that lesson: a brilliant way to remain organised and motivated over what can span a fortnight of silent scribbling.



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