It’s always good practice for teachers to write a timed essay at the same time, and in the same conditions, as their students. In this way students can immediately appreciate that you can ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’. Moreover, they will then be able to compare their essays, and the comments they receive, with a model piece of writing which is superb for developing their own writing with concrete feedback. To ensure that students read the essay carefully, engage them in the reading process by challenging them to convert it into a magazine article.
Case Study: The Domestic Policy of Richard Nixon
After writing a timed essay on the subject “Analyse the successes and failures of Nixon’s domestic policies”, I provide students with a model essay on my own on the same topic. After doing some of the more standard reading tasks – for example, reading the opening topic sentences, highlighting key facts, identifying any use of historiography – I then challenge them to reflect more deeply on the piece by considering how a magazine editor would take this ‘raw copy’ and turn it into a proper article.
I then provide students with a selection of History Today magazines so they can look more closely at the most common features, including:
- An opinionated title
- A brief thesis statement
- Subheadings to clarify the structure
- Key quotes in marginal boxes
- A timeline
- A glossary of key terms
- Recommended further reading
- Illustrations with captions
- Footnotes with additional information
The students then proceed to pore over the article to determine what these things should consist of for the essay in question. By reading the introduction, conclusion and topic sentences, they should be able to produce an opinionated title (“Richard Nixon: The Quiet Reformer”) and a thesis statement (“Russel Tarr argues that despite harsh rhetoric at a time of economic crisis, Nixon was both liberal and successful in his domestic policies”). They could also extract what they think are the most arresting statements made within some of the paragraphs (“Both Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore acknowledge that ‘Richard Nixon was our last liberal president’”) and insert suitable subheadings at appropriate points.
The timeline can be constructed by identifying all the dates mentioned in the piece; the glossary can be put together after making a list of all topic-specific terminology; recommended further reading can be identified after researching the works of any historians named in the piece; illustrations should be chosen to illustrate particular points made in the article rather than for decoration; and footnotes could be used to add further information not included by the teacher from additional research.
The end result is that students will have considered the piece from a variety of angles, engaged with it directly to turn it into a more accessible article, and thereby created for themselves a useful revision resources as well as reflecting more deeply on what constitutes good writing.
Taking it further
Most computers come with pre-installed desktop publishing packages. There are also however a great deal of online tools which are arguably even better. At the time of writing www.canva.com is my favourite.