I’ve been thinking about some different ways of engaging students in the task of polemical writing or ‘writing for impact’ as the new AQA specs call it. As a marker, I’m always seeing candidates’ writing littered with little acronyms (some of them not so little) in the margins of their work – A FOREST, DA FOREST etc. We all use these and there is mileage in students being able to draw on these to help their writing. But as a colleague once said to me, if acronyms worked so well, how come there are so many and how come we keep on changing them? PQE, PEE, SQI, PEE, PEEL, PEARL, PEEZL are just some of the ones I’ve come across for analysis. How long before the acronym stretches down the page like some complex coding sequence and become so convoluted that the student forgets to write anything at all? I wonder whether brick-layers use them to help them remember how to build walls? I’d be glad to hear of any examples! Or do builders just remember through doing, practice, making mistakes. The rhythm of the job itself? How much of our curriculum time is spent writing, writing, and writing some more? Or are we slaves to the elements of reading?
Anyway, whilst I was teaching a revision class on writing the other day, we talked about why acronyms are both helpful and unhelpful and the students agreed that before we use language features, they need to know what to say. We looked at a recent AQA exam question:
‘Housework is women’s work; men fix cars!’
Write an article for a Lifestyle magazine arguing for or against the view that men and women still have stereotypical roles in today’s society.
So instead of beginning with AFOREST, I put these questions on the board:
- How do I feel about this? What are my opinions?
- Where is my evidence for my opinions?
- What will I say to support my views?
- How will I say it?
Planning and topic sentences
“And you Miss Norton, who used to write such well-organized themes with paragraphs for building blocks and topic sentences for mortar.” Stephen King – Salem’s Lot
Mind-mapping ideas is always helpful as we know but I’ve really got my students to think about the mind-map as a way into thinking about the topic sentence. In
Salem’s Lot the teacher character refers to the topic sentence as the mortar holding everything together, the broad shoulders on which an argument rests and this has stayed with me. Get your topic sentences right and you’re starting to structure your response.
So, topic sentences that came from this statement were:
- How the media present men and women: women used to advertise domestic products etc.
- Social conditioning and behaviour. Why men still have to appear ‘strong’; why women politicians like Hilary Clinton are criticised if they adopt ‘masculine’ characteristics (the double-bind)
- Toys and games – parents perpetuating the divide
- Despite our best efforts, stereotypes about men and women’s roles in society continue to structure the way we view the world…
- I agree with this statement because men and women are still stereotyped…
- I think men and women are no longer stereotyped because
Ask students which is the best one – they like the first one obviously, but it is surprising how many like the second one. If you’re a marker, how many times do you come across this? So I tell the students to imagine their reader can’t see the statement. This focuses their mind a little more and makes for more effective openings.
Internal structure of a paragraph
Once they began practising their paragraphs, we talked about how best to construct a paragraph. From some of the more successful ones, we noticed that a pattern was emerging: there was the use of direct address, a personal opinion, an anecdote or an example. Is there a ‘classic structure’? We tried this:
- Topic heading
- A fact/anecdote/example
- Your emotive response to this
- Maybe a rhetorical question
- A direct address linked to an assertive closing statement
“Parents don’t help these stereotypes. They continue to follow them when buying presents. This Christmas, my sister bought her three year old daughter a plastic play kitchen and a crying doll, and she bought her son a football and a book about motor racing. As they ran to me with their new gifts, their eyes glazed over with the magic of Christmas, what was I supposed to say to my family? Was I supposed to criticise them for their terrible choices and the fact that they were continuing the gender stereotypes that thousands of men and women had fought hard to breakdown? Was I supposed to say to the children that they should thrown away their toys, or even better swap them? Imagine the scene when these devastated young children ran to their parents to complain about their wicked uncle who had just turned into the Grinch.”
After this, we talked about sequence. One of my students wrote a good first paragraph about how they felt the stereotypes were wrong but then in their next paragraph did the classic “However, they are also right because”. Why do some students want to do this? To hedge their bets? To cover all bases? So I talked about the metaphor of a boxing match. Begin your argument with a good right hook, then a jab, another jab. Then step back a little bit and see what your opponent has to offer. This is the “there are some people that suggest that … however I feel” paragraph. Once you’ve done this, end with a smashing upper cut to go for the knock-out. Did it work? Well, the students in front of me seemed to like it: it helped the to understand momentum in an argument, to not jump around from one point to another.
- Right hook – opening paragraph, let them know you’re there
- Jab – topic sentence 1 – reinforce your point
- Jab – topic sentence 2 – again…
- Step back – let your opponent breathe. “Some people argue that… However, I feel”
- Upper cut – final topic sentence – go for the KO
Of course, this was a C/D revision class and more able students find such a model restricting, but it gets about four or five paragraphs down, gets the idea of structure, movement, rhythm across. The students liked it and there’s no better thing than a satisfied audience.