I read this article in the September 20th issue of BusinessWeek about how CEOs use the cliche "laser focused" when they want to make an impression on shareholders, and thought it would be a nice piece to share with the class as a way to show them how the skills they've been learning occur in the "real world" (outside of politics and advertising). I also like to just share something I've read because it creates some authenticity in the classroom, and models for students the idea of applying what they learn on their own, and to be more observant in the lives outside of school.
I'll put it on the Smartboard and read it out loud, focusing particularly on the last part where it cites a Stanford study that showed how often "laser focused" had been used, and correlated it to how well the business was doing; what he found was that the cliche was usually used when the company was not doing well. When companies are doing well, they tend to use more facts and specifics (why evidence is so important!). Besides the real-life context, it also shows how cliche and generalization can be effective in the right situation--shareholders want to feel confident the company is working to improve, so in the moment it can work well. So I'll read it and chat with the students for a minute about it before moving on to the main part of the lesson.
One goal I have over the course of this class is to encourage reflective practice in my students; to have them think deeply about why they do what they do in a classroom. In this case, as entry into the writing process and moving them to stronger academic writing, I want to first reflect on what they have learned about the explanatory essay—the general structure, purpose, etc. To do this, we will explore the rhetorical situation of an analysis essay through a class-wide brainstorm.
I will start by stating that they’ve been writing analysis essays since fifth grade, and asking if they have ever really thought about why they are doing it. This will transition to “well, let’s do that!” followed by a SOAPS brainstorm (you could have them fill out the SOAPStone worksheetSOAPSTone Blank worksheet.docx to assure complete participation and as assessment; the brainstorm is in part because of time, and there will be other opportunities to assess understanding in the writing process. Additionally, the students in this particular class are all rather attentive, so there isn't always the need to do things on paper to have everyone's attention).
With each element, there are some specific things I want them to think about, so, while it is a brainstorm and I will write much of what they say on the Smartboard (included in the resources is a screen shot of part of that brainstorm; part of what you'll learn is that I haven't figured out how to write neatly on a SmartBoard!), there are certain things I want to highlight, and therefore will steer the conversation towards:
Subject--this one is simple; whatever the topic is in the prompt.
Occasion—the obvious occasion for students will be that they were told to do it. Besides that, I want students to think about how these essays often are an assessment of knowledge, critical thinking, and writing skills.
Audience—the obvious one here is the teacher, but I want them to consider broadening that to think about peers, about unknown readers interested in the topic, etc., because thinking about a larger audience outside of the teacher will get them thinking about editing for style and meaning more precisely.
Purpose—the purpose they will gravitate to is to get a good grade, a purpose that will never really lead to lots of improvement in creating compelling writing, because the very nature is to check-off elements rather than invest in the craft. I will press the students to think of their purpose as creating a compelling piece of writing, to show the audience that they know their topic, and are invested in the topic.
Speaker—I’ve really taken to focusing on persona here, so I will ask them what persona they are taking on when writing an explanatory essay, and what persona they do not want to take on. We will brainstorm ideas, but ultimately some version of an academically curious person who is invested in the topic and craft of writing is the goal, and what they don’t want to sound like is a student trying to do what is necessary for a good grade. We will also talk some about the difference—how, to some degree there is a bit of “acting” when writing, but there has to be a root sense of interest for the natural voice to come out, particularly because editing is hard work!
From this point, we will continue by briefly brainstorming the basic tools for accomplishing good writing—structural elements like a hook, evidence, development of a topic—to set a baseline of what they already know so they can move to the next steps—learning how to establish claims more thoroughly by more deeply understanding how the tools work. This will be relatively brief, because too much brainstorming diminishes its value, (and by this point it will be a lot of philosophy for them to take in!), and I want them to get to the task of applying this knowledge.
To start thinking more deeply about how syntax, word choice, evidence, language, etc., work together to create compelling explanations of a topic in a unified whole, we will look at a model close analysis essay from The Language of Composition textbook (pgs. 62-63; eventually I hope to use student models from my own class, but because this is the first time teaching the course, I will rely on the textbook). Because I want them to start recognizing the small language moves for developing a strong main idea while also establishing voice, I will use the jig-saw method, separating students into small groups and assigning each group one paragraph to closely analyze (rather than all groups working with the whole text, and because of the length looking at it more superficially).
I will start by having students re-read the essay (they had read it yesterday) before focusing on their paragraph so they can get a sense of the whole—where the essay had been and where it goes after their paragraph. Then the students will spend about fifteen minutes talking about the moves they notice, and what the function of each move has for creating meaning or appealing to the audience. This is a conversational brainstorm—I don’t want to put too much structure to it so they don’t think they are searching for a “right” answer. I will ask that everyone takes turns pointing out something so they all participate, but the conversation itself can be free (this also allows the students who see more of the nuances to share those with their peers).
As they share, I will listen in to conversations as formative assessment, noting what types of moves they are gravitating towards (word choices, syntax, etc.) as a way to start establishing what I should focus on in future classes to help their writing. I may also join groups and ask questions designed to push students toward stronger specificity if I hear the conversations veering toward generalities.
After fifteen minutes or so, I will have each group share some highlights of their discussion, instructing them to point us to a segment of the text when explaining (every chance I get I work in some practice in identifying specific evidence!). I will also likely use the document camera and Smartboard to highlight certain moments there as they are pointed out. Also, as we move from one paragraph to the next, I will note development in tone, transitions, and building of an argument though questions of how new moments relate to the ones we already talked about.
Next Steps: We will likely run out of time and have to start the next day finishing this. However, that will be a good thing because it will work as a review before they move into the next part of the writing process. For homework they will re-read the Ariel Levy’s “Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” essay they are writing their analysis of, and annotating and writing 10 questions they have about the function of writing moves. We will use these in the next class to establish an answer to their prompt and talk about evidence as the move from reading to writing.