Teaching Students How to Organize Essays through Nonlinear Practice

A foggy downtown Pittsburgh, viewed from The Mattress Factory.

This past November, I attended the College Reading and Learning Association’s 50th Annual Conference, which I wrote about here. In addition to being inspired by the sessions I attended, I left Pittsburgh with a signed copy of James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, which was selected for the conference’s “One Book, One Conference” program.

Before the start of this semester, I finally had the opportunity to read Small Teaching. It focuses on “the notion of small teaching, an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications in our course design and teaching practices” (5). This idea of “small teaching” has proven to be incredibly useful. It has not only given me many great, very easy to implement, classroom exercises, but it has also enabled me to reflect on effective in-class activities that I have used in the past. Thanks to Lang’s book, I have been able to make clear connections between these successful activities and the science behind their efficacy.  

For this post, I was inspired by Lang to outline an example of “small teaching” that I have used consistently throughout my eight years as a composition instructor. I adapted this in-class activity from a strategy used by a colleague in graduate school, who would bring scissors to class and have his students cut up their rough drafts as a way to think about their essays’ organization. I have used this group activity in composition as well as composition and literature classes, but it could be modified further for a literature course in which students might benefit from a brief activity focused on writing. In order to help students understand and reflect upon the importance of organization in an essay, I have them, as groups during class time, determine a logical structure for a sample student essay*, one that they first encounter as a pile of cut-up paragraphs.


Sample Student Essay
The deconstructed sample student essay.

Once everyone gets settled into their groups, which usually consist of between three and four students, I toss a bunch of paragraphs held together with a paperclip onto each group’s desk. The directions that I give my students are intentionally vague — “These paragraphs make up an essay. Your mission is to put them back together so that they read as an academic essay, containing a logical structure.” I float around the room, listening in on how students go about determining the essay’s organization. In some classes, this activity turns into a race to see who can get the “correct” order first, with me checking and telling groups whether or not their organization matches the original essay’s paragraph order. In other classes, I have one student from each group write the first sentence of each paragraph on the board in linear order, so that we can compare the groups’ final decisions for the essay’s paragraph order. Both versions of this classroom activity allow students to think about thesis statements, transitions, and essay organization in a nonlinear way.

Introducing students to the essay in this way disrupts their normal perception of an essay’s organization. Lang describes the process of learning as one in which “we are making changes to our brains…Neurons form new connections with one another with every new experience we have: new sensations, new thoughts, new actions. As the neurons are connecting to one another in novel ways, growing and strengthening new connections, they are forming networks” (95). These networks connect the new information with what students have previously learned. For this activity, students must recall ideas about writing that they have learned during previous classes in order to make sense of this disorganized essay, which then helps them to make new connections in their brains about essay structure.

Finished Sample Student Essay
The same sample student essay, now organized into its original, linear structure.

To further make these connections, I ask each group to describe their process for completing the task to the rest of the class. It’s always interesting to hear what the students actually did during this activity. They usually try to find a thesis statement first and then almost always look to the first sentence of each paragraph for clues. With one sample student essay I have used in the past, students often confused the order of the same three body paragraphs because the original writer did not include clear signs for how these paragraphs relate to each other. Making this observation has given students the opportunity to talk through revisions, ones that would make the paragraph order more explicit to a reader. When using a different sample student essay, groups would almost always place the original writer’s conclusion as the essay’s introduction. This confusion creates another teaching opportunity, one where we can discuss why this confusion happens as well as the similarities and differences between introductions and conclusions. 

After having students reflect on the activity, I ask each group to read the essay out loud, using the writer’s original paragraph order. We then have a discussion that assesses the essay by identifying its strengths and weaknesses. This discussion is an example of what Lang describes in “Practicing,” a chapter that emphasizes the importance of providing students with class time to work on the cognitive skills that they will be assessed on. Lang writes, “It may seem to you that holding an in-class discussion about a text serves as good preparation for writing an essay about that text. Those are two different things, though.” Because it was written for the same assignment that the current students will be completing, the discussion of this sample student essay allows for students to ask questions about the writing process as well as the assignment’s directions and outcomes, which can be useful for college students who are writing about literature for the first time or for upper-level students who may benefit from a refresher on what makes a strong literary analysis. This practice can be taken a step further by having students then rewrite the parts of the sample essay that they identified as weak or confusing.

Small TeachingThis in-class activity is one example of “small teaching” that doesn’t have to take up a ton of class time, but can have a significant impact on student learning. I want to explore the idea of “small teaching” further, as Lang suggests in Small Teaching’s Introduction: “Use the book to spark new or newly invigorated conversations on your campus about how we can best help our students learn and about how we can best promote positive change in higher education.” I look forward to hearing from the PALS community about other examples of small teaching: the activities, models, and assignments that focus on the process of student learning.


*It is important to note that I almost always use an essay written by one of my previous students for this activity. Almost every semester, I will ask some students if I can have their permission to teach their essay, with the removal of any identifying information, in future classes. Students are often flattered and rarely say no to this request. Using an essay that was crafted with my actual assignment requirements in mind is invaluable for this lesson because it provides my current students with a model for their specific assignment.


Teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

PALS Note: We are pleased to have a guest post from Carli Sinclair. Sinclair is a graduate student studying American Literature at the University of Missouri. In this post, she writes about dystopian fiction and teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Read on for Sinclair’s take on the novel. 


Dystopias are hot right now. If the popularity of television shows like Black Mirror and The Walking Dead isn’t enough to convince you, consider that a television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s ever-popular 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be coming to Hulu in 2017.

I was thinking about Margaret Atwood and the relatively recent cultural fascination with dystopias when I themed my Writing About Literature course “Utopias and Dystopias.” I’ve always wanted to teach The Handmaid’s Tale, and this course, which focuses on learning to write about literature with the aid of criticism and theory, seemed like the perfect opportunity. I first read and loved Atwood’s novel when I was eighteen and I imagined it would appeal to my students, many of whom have expressed an increasing interest in dystopian texts over the last few semesters. Moreover, as a story that imagines a future in which women’s rights are completely erased and women are instead largely used for reproductive purposes, it pairs naturally with feminist theory, which we would be discussing during the semester. And so it went on the syllabus, alongside Henry David Thoreau’s Walden which we would discuss as a utopian text, and away we went.

I was right in that Atwood did appeal to my students: they appreciated her writing style (especially after reading the lengthy sentences of Thoreau) and were fascinated by the plot. As with teaching any book for the first time, however, there were some challenges that I hadn’t anticipated, and these were often related to the sheer size and scope of the Republic of Gilead, the dystopian world that Atwood creates. Students sometimes struggled to keep characters organized or situate the world against our own, especially as Atwood often reveals Gilead’s development in a nonlinear fashion. In response to these challenges, I introduced a few activities that would not only help us to organize Atwood’s world and characters, but also pick up on how many of Atwood’s concerns are still relevant today.

Define, define, define

One of our questions of the semester naturally became: “What makes Gilead dystopian?” I quickly discovered that it would be useful to give students some key terms to use when defining a dystopian world; this would ensure that everyone was on common ground. We could refer to these terms over and over again regardless of the text we were considering, and it gave students some concrete language to use when writing about utopian/dystopian spaces in their own papers. And so starting the first week of class, I gave students five distinct terms that we would use to think about different facets of a utopian or dystopian community: 1) political, 2) environmental, 3) socio-cultural, 4) religious, and 5) economic.

Approaching Atwood’s Gilead in this way was incredibly useful—rather than getting bogged down trying to consider each of these aspects in one discussion, focusing on one aspect at a time gave our conversations more direction and helped students get more out of the novel. This approach also lent itself to group work very well, which was an added bonus. For instance, after reading the first section of The Handmaid’s Tale, I broke students into five groups and assigned each group one of these categories. Each group was tasked with finding instances of their particular category in the section we had read: the “political” group considered what made Gilead a political dystopia; the “environmental” group looked for moments where the environment was discussed, and so on. Once students had combed the chapters for examples, they came up to the board and listed what they had found, including page numbers to give everyone a specific place to mark in the text. Mapping Gilead on the board like this was not only a way to engage closely at the text, but it also helped students to visualize connections between the categories (political decisions would naturally impact socio-cultural conditions, for example), which led to a discussion about the many ways that those in charge of Gilead worked to keep characters like Offred, the novel’s protagonist, in place.


What are the rules?

Once we had established some guidelines for how we would talk about Gilead as a dystopia, we moved on to considering the laws of the land and how they impact characters, especially Offred, who narrates the story. Atwood’s Gilead is a complicated place with unsettling rules that are revealed throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Offred’s reflections jump back and forth between her present position as a handmaid and her very different experiences before Gilead was established. This was something that students often remarked upon, noting that they struggled with keeping track of what exactly Gilead required of its citizens and what specific behavior was forbidden or punishable, as well as Offred’s trajectory as a character—where she had been, and how she had got to where she was.

To help students keep track of how Gilead operates and Offred’s arc throughout the novel, I would often begin class discussion by asking students what rules they had noticed in the latest chunk of reading. These often started very simple: “Women must walk to the market in pairs,” for instance. These became more complicated as the novel went on often building on the rules we had discussed in our previous class: “While walking to the market, women are only allowed to speak about certain topics” and so on. Devoting just ten minutes or so to establishing the rules that students had discovered in the latest reading assignment was another way to map Gilead, as well as a way to keep tabs on Offred and what she was up against as the novel unfolded. (This could also easily be done as a free write in the beginning of class to get students focused on the day’s discussion or kept as a running log of sorts—perhaps on a class Blackboard or Canvas page for easy access.)


Connections To The Present

After students felt as though they had a good handle on how to discuss Gilead as a place as well as Offred’s trajectory, I wanted us to use our understanding of Gilead to consider the popularity of Atwood’s novel and why it might still resonate with readers so strongly. One way we went about this was to spend a day considering what issues or questions from The Handmaid’s Tale students would consider relevant to their lives.

To help guide this discussion, I divided the class into small groups and had them brainstorm at least three questions or topics they noticed Atwood raising that they considered relevant in 2016. These had to be backed up with specific instances from the text, which meant students were again diving into the novel. They were quick to come up with examples that they considered significant to their own lives: environmental concerns (Atwood imagines a world in which chemicals and toxins have rendered the natural landscape irreparably damaged), questions about birth control (nonexistent in Gilead) and birth rates (birth rates are drastically and dangerously dropping in Atwood’s novel), issues surrounding the prison system (Atwood presents a world in which punishment is cruel and unusual, to say the least), women’s safety and questions of power (in Gilead, women are used as reproductive objects), and many more.

This activity resulted in a lot of discussion from the group, perhaps because they found concrete, direct ways to place a novel from 1985 squarely in 2016. The complicated links they were making also meant that they had to spend time unpacking the novel, getting into the nitty-gritty details of Gilead and thinking critically about the sorts of questions Atwood wanted to raise. Our discussion could have easily spanned several class days, or certainly a longer writing project in which students make these connections with real world examples linked up to the novel.

What I discovered in using each of these activities is that they not only gave students some specific ways to organize their thoughts on Gilead and the detailed dystopian society that Atwood creates, but they also helped everyone to engage with the text very closely—which is always something I’m trying to get students to do. Of course The Handmaid’s Tale tackles some challenging and provocative questions, but with some careful unpacking—and a nod to Hulu—it can provoke some powerful classroom discussions.

Contributor’s Bio:


Carli Sinclair is a PhD candidate in the English at at the University of Missouri. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on the role of landscape in nineteenth-century American women’s nonfiction. Other research interests include depictions of women’s work and Civil War poetry. She teaches American literature and Composition, as well as the occasional professional writing course.