Let’s do it again … backwards

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But if, baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top!

-Cole Porter, You’re the Top

Don’t go getting any funny ideas about today’s post: it’s about essay writing.

Today I felt like I was almost back among the living. I made it through my two morning classes after getting up at 5:30 AM to catch the school bus. I explained to my students that I was suffering from allergies and that my voice might give out at any time, but as luck would have it, I ended up talking more than I usually do. That’s not always a good thing.

The topic today: the topic sentence. It’s always a tough one to teach, because a truly kick-ass topic sentence is notoriously difficult to write; I should know, because I’ve struggled with enough of them myself. My mistake in the first class was in talking too much about the topic sentence and its virtues, instead of just letting it evolve through student practice. By the time the bell rang for the mid-class break, the students’ eyes were glazed over. If it continued like this, they would be catatonic by the time I got to discussing essay writing.

It isn’t that I lacked a good beginning. After all, I started with my favorite analogy: the sandwich model of essay-writing (good stuff in the middle, introduction and conclusion on the top and bottom).

It’s not original, but it’s better than using the “cheeseburger” simile that I’ve seen in others’ lesson plans. I then explained my reasoning:

My purpose was to illustrate the linear style of English-language academic writing: beginning – middle – end. During Class #2, though, I looked at this diagram again, and it hit me: I had it backwards. If you make a sandwich, you don’t start with the top slice of bread; you start with the bottom. Then you pile on the good stuff, and only last do you apply the top slice. Why, then, not teach the essay backwards, or at least start in the middle? After all, when I was a student, it was always easier for me to write the opening sentence or paragraph after the rest of the essay was complete. English writing may be linear, but it doesn’t have to be taught that way.

I quickly improvised a paragraph that lacked a topic sentence:

…For example, you can recycle plastic, metal, and paper products. You can buy products that are good for the environment. Many people also join groups that help to save endangered animals.

Then I told the students to work in groups, and come up with a good topic sentence. One group came up with this amazingly good opener:

To help reduce pollution, there are several things that you can do in your everyday life.

My problem seemed to be solved. Now my direction and purpose in life are clear, and I’ll let you know how the lesson evolves through the rest of this week. I’ll relax now by opening a good book – in the middle.

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