The First Step Toward Writing Outstanding Essays: Crafting an Outline

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SWBAT develop and strengthen writing by planning by producing a robust outline for a long composition on Great Expectations.

Big Idea

Today's class will prove that robust outlines make writing an essay easy.

The Presentations

10 minutes

Before anything else, we will spend a few minutes finishing the presentations of theme statements that we didn't get to finish last class (SL.9-10.1).

The Prompt and Goal Setting

10 minutes

We are going to start the final assessment for Great Expectations today, but it's not really a new start or a new assignment. We have been preparing for today-- and the next few classes-- in several different ways, the most obvious of which is the fact that they have already written to the prompt. I purposely gave students the prompt I use at the end of this novel a month ago; they wrote to this prompt using their choice read novel. As I distribute the prompt, they will retrieve their writing folders, which contain their last essay and the model long composition. Before we begin working on this essay, I want my students to remind themselves of their successes on the last essay and where they need to improve. I will ask them to write a few goals for this writing assignment on the inside over of their writing folders, so they can see them throughout the process.

It may seem silly to write the same essay twice. But it's not the same essay twice. The content of the essay has changed, even though the elements of the writing hasn't, which is exactly what I want to highlight. No matter the prompt, they need to develop a clear thesis (W.9-10.1a), they need to support it with sufficient evidence (W.9-10.1b), and they need to prove that they understand the message of this text in a broader context (W.9-10.1c). I hope that by repeating the same prompt, I will highlight the importance of these elements.

It's important to note that, although this is an argument essay (isn't everything an argument?), students will not develop an counter-argument, as the standard suggests. It's important to develop the argument, before addressing the counter-argument.

The Ever-Important Thesis

10 minutes

Students freak out when you ask them to write a thesis, as if it's an impossible enigma, no matter what I do to encourage them. But we are going to break it down into small steps in an informal and quick discussion that might look like this:

What characters from Great Expectations are selfish or proud?

  • Miss Havisham,
  • Estella,
  • Pip, and
  • Orlick


Does that selfishness cause problems?

  • Oh yeah.


Could you write about it?

  • Yes! Time to pick a character..


They basically just wrote their thesis and they didn't even know it. I will give them 5 minutes to decide which character they want to write about and pull their ideas together.  As they are writing I will hand out this graphic organizer to use as an outline. I will give them the option of using this graphic organizer or the Harvard Outline, which I asked them to use for the last essay. I am expanding their options because it's important to try different forms of brainstorming to see what works best for them. I start with the hardest version-- the Harvard style-- so that anything else seems easier. Then I will ask a few students to share their thesis statements.

Topic Sentences

10 minutes

I like to focus students on the topic sentences right after they write the thesis statement, since the topic sentences should echo the main argument (W.9-10.1b). The graphic organizer makes that focus easy. I will simply ask the students, "what do you want your body paragraphs to be about? Create a sentence for each one." I will give them 10 minutes to write their three topic sentences. Then they can jot down some textual evidence to support their big ideas, either plot point or specific quotations.

The 10 minutes to write will work great for most: enough time to think, not enough time to think themselves in circles. A few will need more time, which is fine. They can always go back to this section, instead of moving forward with commentary and an analysis after I give the next instructions.

I also leave these definitions on the board.

Commentary and Analysis

15 minutes

Now the hard part. Or at least what is usually the hard part, but this time, we are prepared. We created theme statements last class; therefore, the hard part is done! Their posters are on hanging up already. I will simply read through all the statements again, and after each one I will ask, "Does this theme statement apply to Pip's situation? What about Miss Havisham?" I don't plan on answering any of those questions. The students need to decide for themselves which theme they can imbed in their writing; they need to do the evaluating.

Once they have selected their theme statement, they will return to the graphic organizer (or Harvard Outline) and think about how it pertains to each body paragraph. How does Pip's situation prove that ambition without morals is destructive instead of constructive? How does Miss Havisham's downfall prove that hardship or struggle can make you better or bitter? They will have 15-20 minutes to work through these more difficult questions.

Take a look at some final outlines.

Wrapping Up

5 minutes

In the last few minutes, I want to check-in with the kids: Was this process hard? Not really... it takes thought, but it's doable. We know the text and we have something to say about it. We can write the essay, and we basically just did! They may not have realized that in the last hour, we wrote the skeleton of the essay. For homework, they just need to finish the outline, if they didn't in class. I will highlight the fact that I am giving ample time for the pre-writing stage because that's how important it is.