On writing essays people actually want to read…

the-witches

This week I collected in some homework essays from my delightful top set year 11 class. The question asked them to explore how Shakespeare presents the witches in Macbeth at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 3 and in the play as a whole (AQA Lit Paper 1 Section A). The class has made real progress with writing well-planned, well-structured, well-focused essays and are improving with their analysis. However, although competent, lots of the essays used formulaic topic sentences and the introductions were dry. I read time and time again that, ‘In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the witches are presented as….’. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, I want to push my students to work on developing a voice and writing in a way which makes their essays interesting to read. I promise this is not an entirely selfish pursuit (though I am the person that has to read them all).

In the past, top grades in English Literature were awarded based on mark schemes that used words such as ‘originality’ and ‘flair’. These are now gone and to achieve a Level 6 in the mark scheme students’ work needs to be a ‘convincing, critical analysis and exploration’ (AQA). Whilst there’s no mention of the words, being original and writing with flair will help students to write essays that are convincing. As English teachers we’ve always been good at knowing when we see a top level response but it’s difficult to define exactly how the student has done it which is why we saw those woolly words appear in mark schemes. I can just picture those poor mark scheme writers scratching their heads and saying, ‘Well, we can’t just say you’ll know it when you see it – can we? Let’s pop the word ‘flair’ in there and be done with it’.

So it was that on Wednesday morning, as I was getting ready for school and thinking about my lessons, I scrapped my original lesson plan and decided to tackle the issue head on. And this is what we did…

1. You only get one chance to make a first impression

I gave my feedback to the class and then asked them all to write a new first sentence for their introduction. I explained that, in the Summer, their essay was going to be read by a real human being who, probably, was going to be wading through hundreds of essays that began in exactly the same way. I explained that, probably, that person might be feeling pretty miserable and that their job was to give their examiner a little moment of joy amid the monotony of marking by starting their essay in a way that was interesting and maybe even exciting (aim high and all that).

I banned the following sentence starters:

  • In Shakespeare’s Macbeth… (we already know the play they’re being asked to write about so what’s the point in wasting ink on this?)
  • In this essay… (this has been banned since forever with my students but I like to remind them)
  • The witches… (by not starting with the object of the question they’re forced to do something a bit different)

After a few minutes, we picked a few to pop under the visualiser and analysed HOW that student had opened their essay and evaluated what the effect was. We then used this to come up with a list of approaches we might use in our future essays. They weren’t perfect but there was a huge leap forward from what I had read in their homework essays and I know that, with practise, the class are going to nail this.

Here’s some examples from my students:

Although presented as peculiar outcasts, the witches hold the audience in rapture and fear at their sadistic, manipulative and supernatural powers; an evil, all-knowing version of God.

Shakespearean audiences despised women who were thought to be witches, Shakespeare finds a way to perfectly present these contemptible beings.

Isolated, manipulative and physically repelling, the witches are the most mind-contorting characters with their complex plotting and foreshadowing of events.

Like mischievous puppeteers, the witches manipulate Macbeth and drive the plot forward.

A play written for James I, Shakespeare utilises the king’s interests and presents the witches as omniscient, omni-powerful and manipulative.

And our list of possible approaches to opening essays in the future:

  • Start with a subordinate clause
  • Begin with a link to the contemporary audience
  • Open with a triplet of adjectives
  • Start with a simile
  • End the first sentence with a triplet of adjectives
  • Begin with the Shakespearean audience
  • Make a specific link to context

Disclaimer: I did say to the class that if they were struggling to write a first sentence in the exam the best thing they could do was write something focused that used the key words e.g. Shakespeare presents the witches as…

2. Topic Sentences (AKA Signposting Success)

We then moved on to discuss topic sentences. It is a pet hate of mine to read essays from students that are flowery and lack the necessary focus. The job of a topic sentence is to signal to the reader what that paragraph is about. Therefore students do need to be focused and they ought to use the key words but topic sentences don’t have to be dry and repetitive. So, again, I gave the class a few minutes to write new topic sentences for one of their main paragraphs before popping a few under the visualiser to analyse and evaluate.

Here’s some examples from my students:

Interestingly, in this extract Shakespeare presents the wyrd sisters as masculine in both their physically repellent appearance as well as in their behavioural traits.

Warping the ideas and opinions of Macbeth, in this extract the witches are presented as manipulative to the extreme.

Mysterious old hags, the witches in this extract are capable of leaving the audience pondering the characters despite them evidently being fictional.

And our list of possible approaches to opening essays in the future:

  • Begin with an adverb to describe the effect the character has in the extract
  • Begin with a verb about what that character does to others
  • Start with an adjective that shows how the character is presented

Disclaimer: I did say to the class that if they were unsure, they should stick with focused topic sentences that are clear about the point being made in that paragraph and use the key words from the question e.g. In this extract the witches are presented as… In the play as a whole, the witches are presented as…

3. It’s good to steal (some things)

I want my students to have strong opinions about the text and to phrase these ideas in interesting and powerful ways. I want to see less of ‘might’ ‘may’ ‘could’ and see more of them presenting their viewpoint through powerful phrases and depersonalised writing (they are allowed to use ‘I’ in their conclusion only). To help with this we have recently started branching out into reading critical essays as a class. When I give the class some wider reading I ask them to do 3 things:

  1. Sum up the point that the writer is making
  2. Explain how the reading has had an impact on their understanding/ideas about the text
  3. Magpie words or phrases that they think might be good to use in future essays

And so, in my lesson on Wednesday, I reminded students of the latter. When they read something about the witches and they see phrases like ‘caricatures of the supernatural’ or ‘mischievous puppeteers’ they should make a note of them in case they want to use them in their essays. We haven’t made a bank of these juicy phrases yet but I’m tempted to do so for key characters and themes because it moves students away from hedging their opinions about the text and moving towards making bold statements that show their opinion without taking up several sentences. ‘Mischievous puppeteers’ not only has ‘flair’ but it also serves as short-hand for several sentences about the nefarious motivations of the witches and their manipulation of the eponymous Macbeth.

Time will tell if my students are now going to write essays I’ll enjoy reading – I’ll soon be looking through their next Macbeth essays to find out…

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