Teaching students to write essays that answer the question: So what?!

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Image by Image by dragonkim29 from Pixabay

Asking “So what?” makes the difference

My juniors finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Instead of taking an objective culminating exam, they will show their learning by writing a literary analysis essay. However, each student will choose the content and the focus of their essays instead of selecting a topic from a list.

With this essay, I wanted to provide an assignment that would be individualized to reflect the lessons and insights they took personally from the novel.

To accomplish this in their essays, I asked students:

  • What do you want for us to see in the text that we might not have seen otherwise?
  • Even better, what does seeing such a thing DO to our reading and understanding of The Old Man and the Sea, or of Hemingway, or the time period, society at the time the books was published, society today, etc?

Based on their first drafts that they turned in a few days ago, I can tell that students have written on a variety of topics. Some have written about the theme of masculinity in the book, some have written about the correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago, some have written about perseverance, and some have focused on the benefits of experience and wisdom.

But here’s another thing I can tell: most students haven’t explained the significance of those discussions. Another way to put it: they still need to explore their claims in the hopes of uncovering the greater significance of those claims.

In short, they need to ask themselves “So what?”

  • For example, it’s great that one student thinks that Hemingway wrote about a man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed,” as one student wrote. But so what? What was Hemingway trying to help readers understand by writing about that man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed?
  • It’s great to claim that Hemingway uses many examples of masculinity in the novella. But what was Hemingway’s point in doing that? So what? What does that DO to our understanding of the novel?
  • It’s great that you see a correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago. But what’s the purpose? So what? What does seeing that symbolism do for our lives?

Read this explanation from the blog, Writing Power.net, which I think does a good job of explaining the importance of answering the So What question. For example…

“Three other ways to phrase the So What question are as follows:

  • What is significant about your claim?
  • How does this enrich my understanding?
  • What are the implications of your claim?

In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders…

The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.”

On my assignment sheet for the culminating essay, I included a rubric of sorts. It contains a list of needed items in the essay: three pages, MLA formatting, two sources, in-text parenthetical citations, two direct quotes, a counter-argument.

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Image by S K from Pixabay 

But really, I also have another purpose — a much greater purpose — to the assignment: I would like to challenge my students to answer the question, So what?

I want them to go further than writing a claim that shows they noticed something in the book. I want them to explain why it’s important to notice that thing in the book. How does noticing that thing affect our lives? What does it teach us? Basically, tell us why it matters. Answer the question, So what?!

And to be truthful, the meaning is more important than the rubric. If a student expounds on their claim, but is short a few paragraphs in length, that’s okay. It’s more important to answer the SO WHAT question than it is to cross off all the boxes.

My juniors will read and revise their first drafts during peer review groups later this week. Hopefully, reading and discussing their essays with their classmates will give them the opportunity to see the importance of  answering the So What? question.


Thanks for reading again this week! Meaning is more important than a rubric. That’s a really hard idea to teach. It’s always easier to focus on mechanics and grammar; it’s harder to help kids think on paper and then communicate their thinking clearly. Have you taught the So What question? If so, please leave a comment with your ideas and experiences.

New Year, New Units: Beowulf and The Old Man and the Sea

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The British Lit textbook my school uses alongside Hemingway’s book.

Lots of planning comin’ up!

Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.

My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday  and my senior classes will start Beowulf on the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)

 

These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop.  We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.

Until now.

I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.

I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.

For me, tackling anything new in teaching requires patience, planning, and an expectation that for these first attempts, I’ll be learning right alongside my students. I’ll be…

  • exploring new vocabulary
  • answering study questions
  • designing writing projects
  • creating summative assessments, and
  • planning cumulative activities.

It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors.  That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.

As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.

I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.


Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.