Category Archives: organizing information

Where do you start writing an essay?

An essay always starts with a topic.  Your teacher might assign a topic based on what you are studying in school, such as evolution or Romeo and Juliet.

But then what?  Do you just start writing?  Not if you want a good essay!  No, you think about the topic, about what interests you.  Does Harry Potter’s relationship with his aunt, uncle and cousin interest you?  Does the paucity of strong female characters—just Hermione and Professor McGonagall—in the Harry Potter series interest you?  You need to narrow down the topic.  At this point, you may have written a list but no sentences.

So when do you start writing sentences?  You start with a working thesis or topic sentence for the whole essay.  Your thesis needs to be a statement, and it should be an opinion which you can back up with evidence.  “Harry Potter’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents for him.”  “Harry Potter books contain few strong female characters compared to strong male characters.”

Now what?  Now come up with two, three, or four supporting ideas for that thesis statement (three if your teacher demands a five-paragraph essay).  Write those supporting ideas as statements.  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they forced him to live in a closet while Dudley had a big bedroom.”  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they bought few toys for Harry and many for Dudley.”  “Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents because they didn’t tell him the truth about his dead parents.”

Thesis written.  Supporting ideas written.  Now what?  Do you start your introduction?  No.  Now you search for evidence to back up your supporting ideas.  Under each supporting idea, use three or more bullets to identify evidence.  Use direct quotes or paraphrases.  Add page numbers or other citation information.  You want to have plenty of proof that your supporting ideas are true.  If you can’t find enough evidence, eliminate that supporting idea and write another for which you can find data.

Thesis written, supporting ideas written, evidence jotted down.  Now do you begin your introduction?  Yes.  Think how you can start out with either a hook or with general information about your thesis, narrowing your information with each introductory sentence you write.

For example, you could start by saying that Harry was raised by his aunt and uncle, a general fact.  Next you could say that his aunt and uncle have a son about Harry’s age, another general fact.  Now you say that Harry and Dudley are treated differently by Harry’s aunt and uncle, and that Harry is not treated well.  Do you see how you are going from general information—Harry is raised by an aunt and uncle—to more specific information—Harry is not treated well by his aunt and uncle.  Now you can add your thesis as the last sentence in this introductory paragraph.

Adding your body paragraphs should be easy.  You already wrote the first sentence of each body paragraph, and you listed evidence.  Turn the list into sentences and your body is done.

Now it is time to write the conclusion.   Two “go-to” conclusions that work well are a full circle conclusion–returning to something you said in your introduction–or future looking introduction–talking about the future of the topic.  For example, you could go full circle by saying that Harry’s aunt and uncle were lousy parents, but they provide a great deal of humor at the beginning of the Harry Potter books, hooking young readers.  Or you could look to the future by saying that Harry Potter would certainly raise his children differently from the way his aunt and uncle raised him, providing comfortable bedrooms and using closets for clothes, broom sticks and wands–and maybe for a photo of their great uncle, great aunt and cousin.

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/

Diagrams help students read and write

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to write a biography of Coretta Scott King.  Maybe the student has written a list of ideas related to Mrs. King’s life, from her education to working with her husband on Civil Rights matters to promoting his legacy.  But this brainstormed list seems to be without order.  The student doesn’t know what goes with what or how to begin.  How could a diagram help?  Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.  These insights could provide transition ideas from one paragraph to another.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.

A student can make a diagram like this after he creates a prewriting organizer such as a mind web or a brainstormed list.  Or this diagram can take the place of that prewriting organizer.  Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the essay breaks down into smaller chunks.

A similar diagram can be made by a teacher to preview what students are about to read.  Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.