Wednesday, April 27, 2016

An easy writer's guide to High School essays

My daughter was upset about how she was doing on an in-class written essay, and it reminded me of all the pain and suffering I went through in high school writing essays.

I really have a problem with English teachers in general because the topic they claim to know is for a lot of kids a very hard level of thinking. It's all too easy for English teachers to take a strident attitude towards what is really an exercise in conditioned reasoning.  It looks so easy and teachers can do it, so what is so hard about it?

Well, for one thing, kids are used to formulaic presentations, by the teachers themselves, so they often lack a lot of depth in the subjects they are expected to write on. What this means is that whereas an older person that has done it before and been criticized many times for poor writing can survive, early writers as I will call them suffer from a double whammy of lack of experience and lack of knowledge. It is hard enough when you don't have practice with long drawn out formats, but then to expect what is really advanced reasoning is silly. Oh, but the teacher points out that these are very easy subjects, and they are given ample flexibility to create points and make proper sentences. Well, yes, but you can't remember how confused you were back 20 years ago, either. And as English teachers get older, their viewpoints and their empathy both suffer from myopia.

Unlike math, English is very subjective and quite frankly most English teachers are failed writers themselves. Let me repeat that, English teachers washed out writing on their own, and they supposedly teach BY EXAMPLE, and mark students as if they were experts in the craft.  Can you see wherein lies the problem?

Now, do I think kids are coddled, yes.  Do I think kids that don't put in any effort should be punished? Yes. But unlike subjects where kids have a chance to get a right answer, they can be marked badly for stupid stuff like punctuation and spelling, whereas they are really just practising with the idea formation and format. They get poorly done, or incredibly polished examples that are not realistic and told, voila, reproduce it!  Except remember English teachers can't for their own skin reproduce the same level of work on new stuff now not what they've copied out for 20 years.  Exactly how is that fair?

What nonsense.

Now, if you have gotten to here and can still follow my train of thought, it's not because I did well in High School English. It's because I'm better at it that they are. It's because I'm 44 and I've written for nigh on 25 years.  That is the biggest reason why; practice, practice, practice.  I've probably written more than most English teachers have, and I'm not so strident to have all the answers. I have been forced to practice, and make mistakes and learn. 

Here's one secret; I write first and then edit later in soft copy. I can, because I'm not stuck in 1970's teaching methods.

Add insult to injury, the question formulation, "Relay the points under consideration" or "..." are really ham-fisted and unclear requests to ask you to write about a topic but made to look articulate. Garbage!  Ask kids in SIMPLE English to write because you want to see SIMPLE English back.You are not judging their internal thesaurus, you are inspecting their ability to make an argument; in English!

So here is a simple guide to English essay writing for those that don't have the experience:

1. Find out what the question is asking for in your essay; read through the essay question and parse it - take it apart into pieces that make sense - and come up with about 3 to 4 ideas that they are asking for (You see how I presented a step and then explained it all in one sentence, that is experience).

2. Jot down in point form the list of ideas you need to write on.

3.  Make a thesis that ties all of those points together in some way. A thesis is a central idea or topic or theme. What ties all those pieces together? So look at it and remember the story and try to come up with a common idea, common theme that fits the essay question you just parsed.

4. Leave a space for the introduction of about 5 lines. Below, write out bullet points for 3 body paragraphs, one for each of the ideas from 1.

5. Erase the bullet points. Write out each body paragraph. That is the best way to make each point and make it make sense as a collective is to do them all sequentially.

6. Based on 5, write a concluding paragraph.

7. Go back to the open space above the body paragraphs, and write an introduction based on all the work you have written.

There is an essay, not fancy but complete, that covers all the bases, gives you time to correct and format, and that will allow you to pass and destress in English class.