Great stories come out of freshman writing seminars in college, but they are usually not great stories written by the students! In many cases in these classes, a good deal of students discover, often with tears, that they did not learn to write properly in high school. Recently, I heard an interesting story about one of these classes and two of my school’s former students from the parent of an alumni of Veritas Academy. Two of Veritas’s students were in one of these courses, a large seminar with many students. After class, the professor asked these two Veritas alumni to stay after class. I am sure the students were initially concerned, fearing punishment or censure. After most of the students had left, he said, “You two are the only two students who can write in this class, I just wanted to find out where each of you went to high school.” He was surprised when he found out that it was the same school.
Writing is one of the hardest skills that we teach to our students and possibly the most important. Here are three keys that teachers can use to help students write good lateral thinking questions. (Lateral Thinking questions are the essays at the end of an Omnibus test or exam. These questions often require students to “think laterally” which means considering how a concept plays out in a few books that they have read often asking them to compare and contrast.)
1st Key: Practice Creating a Thesis that Answers a Question and Takes a Position
Any good essay starts with a good question. The student, of course, does not have any control over the question, but, regardless of the question, the next crucial step toward making a good lateral thinking essay is creating a good thesis sentence. A thesis is a declarative sentence that answers the question posed in the lateral thinking essay. If the thesis and essay are correctly composed, the entire essay will flow from the thesis sentence.
Students, however, struggle to write a good thesis sentence. If this foundational sentence is poor, the rest of the essay will suffer. Having a bad thesis sentence is sort of like a house that has a poor foundation. The house always ends up with trouble if its foundation is uneven. Therefore, creating a good thesis statement is imperative to having a good essay.
Besides writing a thesis, there are two particular problems that students really struggle with in lateral thinking essays. Be on lookout for these two problems and you will really help them improve. The first problem is that students (especially if they are in a timed test) panic and simply start writing down truth things, things that they know about the books. The problem with this is that these true things, however impressive these truths are, they often don’t answer the question. I on the other hand encourage student take a minute to do some outlining to make sure that the parts of the essay are fitted to the question.
The second problem is that it is challenging for students to take a position because they lack confidence. They end up splitting the difference. Watch for thesis sentences that have the “both” or “and” when these words are connecting opposite ideas. If an essay asks if William Blake’s contention that Milton made Satan the hero of Paradise Lost, some students will be tempted to write: “William Blake is right in some ways and wrong in others.” Basically, this splitting the difference says nothing. Challenge students to take a side and reward them for marshalling evidence and making an argument—even when you think their argument is wrong. Reward courage. Work with them until they disdain the part of their heart that wants to be half right about everything. Jesus said that He would split out the lukewarm Laodiceans.
In summary, we should put our mind and heart into our thesis statements, using clear organization and rational thought and, believing in our topic passionately enough that we can pick unique or polarizing ideas instead of the middle ground.
2nd Key: Create a Model Essay with them and then have Each Student Write a Practice Essay
In class—particularly with younger students or a student new to Omnibus—take time to write a lateral thinking essay together as a class. Work them through the form that you want (more on this below) and talk with them about how to marshal arguments. This can be challenging for students because lateral thinking essays often ask students to compare and contrast ideas from a number of different books. Again, a moment or two of outlining can help students succeed.
Also, send a practice essay home with students before they write a real lateral thinking essay. That way you can see the problems that they are having, and you can help them correct their problems and be confident about their ability to give you what you want to see.
Another good tip is to create a new lateral thinking question or take one of the options for lateral thinking and make it a take home essay. Hold these essays to the highest standards because the students have time to check their spelling and form. You might be amazed with the quality of the work that you get from your students when you do this.
3rd Key: Concentrate on Form
Too often, we think so much about content that teachers neglect the form of the essay. Bad form often spoils good content because it makes the content seem random and disconnected. Good form helps solid content sing. The best essays I read as a teacher have settled content and thoughtful transitions.
Remember the general form of an essay:
The thesis sentence usually comes at the end of the Exordium.
This form guides good content toward a pleasing essay. I teach seniors and I encourage them to rely on this form, but I do allow them to vary it (in order to show that, as masters of the form, they may artfully vary it). With younger students, I force them to use it. They need to live up to this tradition and master it before thinking that they can re-invent the form.
One problem with this form is that often it is best to write the Exordium after knowing all the content of the essay. The content can often serve as inspiration for the Exordium. If students are writing answers in a timed manner on paper, you can allow them to write the Exordium afterwards on a new sheet of paper and put it on the front of the essay.
If you work on these three key ideas, you are likely to see your students' lateral thinking essays greatly improve. Over time, when they internalize these good practices, you will need to remind them less, and you will enjoy grading their essays more!