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It is not uncommon at all. I believe, as a teacher, having worked all around the world, a lot of the same approaches to asking a student to write an essay are similar. It is not wrong, it is just what I would call flat, especially for those students that do struggle with something creative to come up with.
Rašymas
Rašymas
© Shutterstock

Let’s face it, even some of the subject/topic matter is not that inspiring, so therefore, how do we get around creating an inspiring piece of work that can be sustained for more than a few hundred words?
There is a process, which has been out in the world for a long time. I cannot garner the accolade for this. The incredible honour needs to be awarded to Edward de Bono. Edward de Bono, a Maltese physician, author, inventor and consultant, also originated the term ‘lateral thinking’ and wrote the book The Six Thinking Hats.

I have both as a teacher, currently at Erudito Lycejus, Kaunas, where de Bonos methodologies are very aligned with some of their techniques. I have been practising one of his techniques for the last 15 years. It is called RSI (Random Stimulation Input). It can be used in a number of ways, personally, for example, to improve a relationship, to be promoted more quickly, however, it is absolutely brilliant to unleash this lateral thinking when we are looking at composing essays, and it has never failed me or my students in 15 years!

It basically operates in two separate stages and thinking of particularly the older students or those of IBDP students I believe it an absolute necessity. So let’s play this out:

The topic of the essay may be ‘To Improve our Relationships with Others’. Then I would ask the group for a random word. Usually, the answer to this question is something like, ‘kindness’, ‘generosity’. Yes, completely correct answers, however, our brains are so intelligent what is happening here, is that our brain is already trying to link ‘random’ words to the topic – the essay question. Clever but not appropriate for this exercise. Why? Because we have yet to create complete ‘randomness’. This is the first part of the task.

If you ask a group of students, as you would as a teacher, to spend some time planning out their essay before writing, this is obviously absolutely essential, what do we get back?

More often than not, a selection of bullet points, a few lines or points regarding what they think they might like to include in their essay. As a teacher, my experience of this, leaves students repeating information in a guise of different ways to ‘pad’ out the writing or, as I have seen before, an excellent writer, who after 2 well-written paragraphs had nothing else to say, causing a high level of frustration.

So, how can we show them how to plan, extensively and have fun with it too? It can be done either as a group or if in an exam on the back of a piece of paper in 10 minutes, either method works, if the process is followed correctly.

Stage 1 – complete randomness. I have come up with my own groups to help suggest ideas for this (unless you are writing about zoos). A selection of nouns that don’t usually turn up as an essay topic, however, my grouping can obviously be extended to whatever you wish it to be.

An example: A plant (but a specific one), like a rose. An animal (but a specific one), like a tiger, or food (but a specific one) like pizza. Now we have one of these as our random word selection. So to start, the group or individual will brainstorm any words or phrases just associated with that chosen word (nothing to do with the essay topic). If you brainstorm anywhere between 10-15 words you a doing a great job. The example below, will help to illuminate how this all comes together.

For exmaple, the topic essay is ‘How to Improve Your Relationship with Others’

This group chose ‘Monkey’ as their random word, then forgot about the essay for a while, whist they brainstormed as many words and phrases associated with a monkey. You will see a few examples like, ‘protective’, ‘bananas’, ‘live in groups’ (these are all the words in green), ‘supportive’, ‘ugly’ and so on. The wording in black is to make it clearer as that student choosing that word, has to think their thought process through, not just cite the word, so the thinking expands, then we can summarise the basic principle being brought to attention here. And so it goes on. This particular exercise outlined about 15 basic paragraphs that becomes the thought process to be discussed and followed through, they were therefore instilled and clear in the students thought process by this time.

Stage 2 – this is where 90% of the work is carried out.

We then have to leave the middle stimulus word alone, in this case, monkey, which is why it has been crossed out not to cause confusion. We then have to take each of their brainstormed words about the monkey, and however, tenuously, link it back, positive or negative to how it relates to the essay topic.

Let’s take a couple of examples to elaborate. Jungle was one word brainstormed for monkey, however, we can relate this back to competition, and to be aware, that when it comes to relationships, there is and always will be a lot of competition and this is something to be very aware of from a positive or negative aspect.

Banana was another one, seems simplistic, however, the students took this meaning through, to spending more quality time with one another, like eating out. Aggressive was another suggestion, this one obviously negative, but being aware of this negative emotion, acted out on others would result in a negative relationship situation. Finally, one last example, as a positive one, was playing. Monkeys play and the suggestion offered here, was that as humans in relationships we should spend more time ‘playing’ doing happy, free-time activities to improve the quality of our relationships. Here are just a few examples, which you will be able to take more time to look over in the workshop we produced above.

Then I have added my own extension to this, to keep the writing options flowing, and that is for them to list in a tentative order, their paragraph selections, from the introduction, then the main body, the examples they already know they have something deep and interesting to say, then a concluding paragraph.

They also have the option of looking at all aspects from a negative and a positive one, as there are both in everything we do, more extension to their wording. If they wish they could also associate their thoughts and ideas from a local aspect, meaning for example at home, school, town, to a global perspective - how are these elements considered and being undertaken now? From their own personal perspective, how do they feel and also they could include personal experiences, either their own or from those they know.

In conclusion, from both a teachers’ point of view, marking a piece of work of maybe 1500 words of deep, considered, organized work with breadth and various perspectives is very inviting and invigorating. From the students’ point of view, it is a relief to have this amount to discuss, in a focused, organized way again with clear insight and interpretation.

Why not try it out, I have reached the point where I do no except an essay from a student without an RSI first, as I am aware of the vast difference in the standard of writing to come to light.

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