Monday, 27 October 2014

Solving the essay problem: Part 2

At the moment, I am planning for the GCSE Shakespeare comparative essay. It is a beast. And, in a very rare occasion (all my own doing so no need for any sympathy), I am doing it with both Year 10 and Year 11 at the same time. The Year 11 class are comparing ‘Othello’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’, while the Year 10 class are comparing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.  You can see I like variety.

Anyway, during a lesson this week something happened. I was showing students three versions of a scene from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. We were watching the scene where Don Jon reveals his melancholy. Branagh’s version has this taking place during a massage. The creaky BBC version from the 1980s had this happen on a bed. The latest version from Joss Whedon also had this scene take place on a bed too, but with one difference: Conrad was now a woman and Don Jon was ‘very’ familiar with her.

Now, I am one of those people that can miss signposts. I have often missed a turning because a sign post was too big for me to notice. One student piped up: ‘Sir, is Don Jon gay then?’ Then, the student started to join the dots. He highlighted how one version concentrated on Don John being half-naked and massaged. He also connected how the bedroom tends to be the focus of conversations, highlighting the sexual nature of things. He then went on to describe how this is just a ‘men only discussion’. Finally, to add to his smugness he then stated how most characters pair off at the end of the story, apart from Don Pedro, because he is too busy, and Don Jon.  I then nervously coughed and added my bit. I made a reference to Antonio in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and how he indirectly is the cause of trouble for another relationship. Shakespeare starts the play with Antonio being melancholic and ends he play being single. Oh and he gets to keep his ‘pound of flesh’! Cough. Cough.  

I have been telling students this week that English is 80% thinking and 20% learning. I have no evidence to back this statement up, but the above anecdote does actually prove my point. The student had learnt the story, the character and some other superfluous information, yet through thinking he had attained a clever interpretation of the text and interrogate the presentation of a character. It wasn’t a structured part of the lesson. It was spontaneous.  He had an idea and then developed it. I added to it. But, it became a fully fledged idea with evidence, connections and references to the writer’s ideas. It was a natural progression of a thought. No set structure. Just honest, old fashioned thought.
This is a problem with education: getting students to think. How any of us have moaned about students not thinking? How many of us have had essays given to us that are transcripts of our lessons? There are students that are trained to soak up ideas in a class. They don’t soak up and interpret them themselves. They soak and repeat. There are a large number of students that listen and repeat. I have had to address this issue numerous times. The students think they are doing well because they have lot of ideas – sadly, none of their own. My fear is that they don’t grow out of it in time for the exam. We sadly insist on structures for students to follow. Look at some of the acronyms I have collected over the years:


My 'favourite' is PEEASE.

Point / Evidence / Explanation / Analyse / Subquote / Explanation

It’s so good it trips off the tongue. That last sentence is dripping with sarcasm. I have always argued against formulaic writing. But, sadly, it seems to be ingrained in the culture of teaching English. It is a default setting when analysing texts by using PEE. Does logical thought think that way? Does the PEE structure mimic thought or the communication of a thought? Does it develop thinking? Or, does it shackle an idea in a rigid framework that constricts independent thought?

The use of PEE has been borne out of the need to secure a C grade; in the same way that KS2 SATs place emphasis on certain writing characteristics that supposedly embody a level 5. It is kind of a midpoint. The scaffolding to get to a certain stage. It is a way for students to develop ideas instead of describing plot details. On a wider level, it is a reductive process. PEE, in my opinion, prevents natural thought processes and connections to disparate ideas. I have read hundreds of paragraphs and the one thing that often happens in that a student often gets to the good stuff in the last two sentences of a paragraph. Or, failing that, they just repeat what they have previously said in the last two sentences.

I don’t think a rigid structure is the answer. In fact, I think the removal of a structure is quite an empowering thought to us as writers. The knowledge that PEE can be in any order is something we need to teach. You can start with either point / evidence or explanation. Look at academic essays and you see that the combination of these is not limited to the order of PEE. Looking at all the attempts to put a spin on PEE, they all amount to the same thing: one single acronym will not convey the complexity of the thought processes involved in expressing a point in an essay. Nothing fits the structure of PEE, because….. essayists do all of these skills (pointing, evidencing and explaining) all at once and at separate times and in no particular order. Now, teach that to students.  

Start with an explanation of what Shakespeare is trying to do.

Start with an explanation of how the audience reacts to a line.

Start with a quote.  

Start with a combination of explaining the audience’s reaction and explaining the writer’s purpose.

Maybe instead of destroying PEE we should split it up. We should mix it up. We should blend it all together. Instead of following a rigid structure, we should maybe focus on their writing being a mixture of these elements and not governed by a select order.

One thing I have recently done is show students this:


Level 5                                                                                  Level 7

Describe              90%                                                                       20%       

Explain                  10%                                                                        50%

Link                        0%                                                                          15%

Opinion                0%                                                                          15%


They adapted their writing and made better paragraphs as a result. What made their writing better wasn’t a rigid structure, but an understanding of how they should express their points. How to communicate things better. After all, isn’t that a fundamental point of teaching English. Making students communicate better.

Going back to the Don Jon dilemma, it has got worse. The theory is set to continue: Iago actively splits a couple up and Doctor Jekyll leads a double life where he dresses differently. I don’t think I will have a problem with them using PEE. More likely I will have a problem with students reducing everything down to Don Jon being gay.

Thanks for reading,


Next time: Part 3: Making students better thinkers   

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