Posted in Personal Reflection

What I’ve learned from spending a year in the right school…

Young teachers are leaving our profession in droves; between 40-50% have left the classroom by their fifth year. I am just finishing my fifth year in teaching and, despite some monumental challenges over the past 12 months, I am loving my job. I hope this doesn’t come across as a sickening, self-congratulatory blog about how much I love my job, and I am not expecting a pat on the back; I just wonder whether my experience this year could help those 40-50% who are on the edge and struggling to find their motivation again.

This time last year, I wrote a post: What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school. It was a therapeutic experience; I wrote in order to shed some bad memories and find the positives in what had been a very difficult year both professionally and personally. At Easter 2014 I took a job at my current school. It is a 3-18 academy in Bradford, which is officially rated a 3, but which feels like a 2 (you know, one of those places with a heart, which Ofsted refuses to recognise has more to offer than statistics). In the past 15 months I have dramatically changed my role in school, learned a raft of new skills, run complex projects and taught my socks off. But the most surprising thing about this year is that, for the first time ever, I have NOT made myself ill or had two weeks off with fatigue in the summer term!

The reasons for this, I think, are here:

  • I have rules (agreed with my partner). 1. No emails after 6pm on a week night. No emails on a Saturday. No emails outside the hours of 3-6pm on a Sunday. 2. Make time for lunch EVERY DAY. 3. Do something for pleasure every day – have made a LOT more time for reading this year.
  • I have focused on learning something new. I started playing the cello – it is wonderful, and has made me realise that it is ok to be the worst in the room at something! There is something liberating about being told what to do, and putting yourself completely in the hands of an expert.
  • I have an EXCELLENT head of department, who knows exactly how to get the best out of me. She gives me the freedom to do what I love, but tells me to stop when it is too much. She has helped me to become a better leader, and shown me that it is OK to rely on someone else – I have genuinely never been able to let go and trust other people to do a good job, but I know her standards are just as high as mine, and we make a pretty strong team!
  • I have learned that being a leader means letting go of the minutiae of school life, and looking at the bigger picture; if I help my colleagues to be the best they can be, then THEY will look after the students.
  • My school invests in a life coach/therapist, and our HR manager arranged for me to speak with her. Aside from the fact that I love talking about myself for an hour every few weeks, it is really helpful to talk through my stresses with someone who is completely removed. I’ve also learned some practical strategies for sleeping better, organising my work, and confronting things head on.
  • My Head and VP have worked very hard to recognise the things I do, validate my feelings about work, and put in place the things I need. They are supporting my ambitions, and for the first time, I feel like I’m being taken seriously.
  • I’ve realised that I am not the font of all creativity, and that being part of a strong team is far better than being the Jenny Show all by myself…

I won’t apologise for the gushy-ness of the above; it’s all true. I feel that there is so much negativity surrounding schools at the moment, that sharing something which is working, at least for me, is important.

So, this is the right school for me. Their mantra is that they put the kids first. Other schools I have worked at have said this too, but what they really meant was that they put the RESULTS first, and the knock on effect would be that the kids would have a better life. Obviously, I’m not going to argue against this – better results lead to better options and more opportunities. However, schools which focus only on academic success are in danger; their only intervention is based on whether the data paints the right picture, not on what is needed by a child. At my school, we know our kids. We know what makes them tick, and we go the extra mile to support them, regardless of their academic targets or attainment. This is how it should be. I have realised that, although I have been incredibly stressed and busy this year, it has been bearable because I believe in what the school is doing. In the past, I have had little faith in my school’s mission, but in my current school I am on board, and that’s the difference.

Here is what I’ve learned from spending a year in the RIGHT school:

1. If you believe in what the school is doing, you can cope with a LOT.

2. A change in role or direction is fine, as long as someone above you understands where you want to go in the end…

3. A good team is built on mutual respect; celebrate each others’ individual talents AND take time to appreciate the collective power of a department.

4. It is OK to manage your time, work and stress in your own way; don’t try to be like other people or worry how you will look if you go home before 4pm.

5. Trust and professional respect is about always doing exactly what you said you would do. Every time you walk the walk, that is money in the bank.

6. Approach new tasks and the development of new skills with enthusiasm and a fresh eye, but never be slow to ask for help.

I like to think that in a year’s time I will be reflecting on a less hectic, more stable year at school, but I know things will always feel crazy. I look forward to being in the same school for a long time; I want to consolidate, build, and invest properly in the young people who come through our doors.

Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Teaching Ideas – #5 Academic Voice

ALL credit for this goes to the talented Leslie Rowland, a PHD student and Associate Tutor in English at Indiana University. She ran a really fantastic workshop with some A Level Literature students in West Yorkshire this week, and the work she did was so great that I thought other teachers of essay subjects would benefit from it.

The powerpoint and handout below are all aimed at getting students to write in a more formal and appropriate academic tone, avoiding colloquialism and ensuring that they have the right amount of distance, while still making a personal response to a text.

You can contact Leslie at: rowlandl@umail.iu.edu

Powerpoint: Academic Expression

Handout: Academic Expression Handout

Posted in Projects, Teaching Ideas

#TMBrad – Teachmeet reflection..

I am always amazed by the dedication and sheer geekery of some teachers. At 10am on Saturday 11th July (the FINAL weekend of the school term), teachers from around Leeds and Bradford (plus, you know, Bahrain, just because…) descended on Appleton Academy for a day of inspiration and all round teacher banter.

The day was part of our project called ‘Writing for Bradford’ which you can see details about here.

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The focus of our teachmeet was ‘getting kids to write’ and we had some really fantastic presenters and ideas throughout the day. Below I have written up my notes from the presentations, and included all the powerpoints, links and resources which the speakers have very kindly agreed to share.

Here is the ‘Storify’ document of the main tweets from the day: Storify

1. Keynote Presentation: Adam Henze (@henzebo)

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Here is Adam’s blurb from the program:

Adam D. Henze is a third year PhD student in the Literacy, Culture, and Language Education department at Indiana University. Adam fell in love with the spoken and written word when he accidentally stumbled into the speech and debate office at his high school. He attended Western Kentucky University on a full speech scholarship, helping the squad win four national championships at the collegiate level. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in Communication Studies and English Writing, Adam attended his first poetry slam and immediately felt embraced by the spoken word community. In the past decade Adam has lectured and performed at over 40 universities, dozens of secondary and elementary schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers and other places of learning. Adam has performed in almost every state, Canada, Ireland, and is excited to return to England. He has a Masters degree in teaching, is an instructor in the English Department at Indiana University and is the director of a summer camp for fledgling high-school-aged poets at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

Today Adam’s presentation is about “writing like a fan.” Fan culture has embraced the multimodal literacies inherent in mediums such as spoken word, hip hop, video games, comic books, music and film, and his session hopes to marry academic literary practices with the kinds of “reading” students value at home. The presentation will explore the evolving literacy practices in a globalized digital society by giving educators theory and practical lessons that they can apply to their classroom.

‘Literacy Beyone Literature’ – Prezi link here.

2. Mehwash Kauser (@meshishk) – ‘Chaucer to Tupac’

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Mehwash is at the end of her second year of teaching, and is the KS3 curriculum coordinator at Appleton Academy. Her presentation centred around a SOW which she developed this year which aimed to engage students in canonical poetry by first hooking students in with rap and other elements of modern youth culture. The SOW was incredibly successful, and is being used by the National Literacy Trust as a national model of excellence; Mehwash will be presenting her work to colleagues around the country in order to support their own engaging planning for teenagers and classic literature.

You can find Mehwash’s powerpoint here.

3. Richie Dunk (@richie_dunk) – Letter Writing in Science

Richie is a physicist and Lead Practitioner at Appleton Academy. His presentation began with the problem that most students see scientists as being stereotypically brusque and lacking personality (his words, not mine!). Consider someone like Sheldon from the ‘Big Bang Theory’, and you understand why, when asked to write a letter in Science, some of Richie’s students were struggling to write with real personality and flair, even though they do it instinctively in English and History.

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Richie talked about using photographs, and the personal letters of famous scientists in order to make them feel more immediate and relevant to students of today. These letters show people who had deep emotion, loving relationships and real life connections to politics and the wider world; by showing these to students, they can begin to see writing in Science as just as human and close to their own lives as everything else.

You can fin Richie’s powerpoint here.

4. Laura Hirst (@MissLHirst) – Using Post-it Notes to Motivate Students

Laura is just 3 weeks in to her NQT year in the English Department at Appleton Academy. She presented some strategies she has used with a challenging group of Y10 students, using post it notes to support, motivate and reward them.

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You can find Laura’s powerpoint here.

5. Charlotte Wright (@commahound) – Writing a Class Novel

Charlotte taught in Bradford for 8 years, and is now KS5 leader in the English Department at Brigshaw High School. She presented the powerful work she has done in order to create class novels, where every child becomes a novelist, and every child feels celebrated. Charlotte uses multi-linear narratives (where the reader gets to choose which route to take through a story) to ensure that every child can write their own part of the text, while still being part of the whole.

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You can find Charlotte’s powerpoint here.

6. Jennifer Webb (@funkypedagogy) – Engaging with Abstract Concepts

You can find a blog post about my presentation here, and my powerpoint here.

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7. Curtis Wilson (@andrellcurtis) – Big Writing

Curtis is the owner of Andrell Education, and proponent of ‘Big Writing’ (his mum is the wonderful Ros Wilson, so there’s no surprise there!). Curtis spoke about the rationale behind the ‘Big Writing’ initiative, and shared some ways in which schools can get involved.

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You can find out more about ‘Big Writing’ here, and look at Curtis’ powerpoint here.

8. Cheryl Boote (@CherylBoote) – Working Wall

Cheryl is only 3 weeks in to her NQT year in the English Department at Appleton Academy. She shared some of the work she has been doing on displays in her first ever classroom – the mantra being, they should be interactive, and celerate the work of students.

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You can find Cheryl’s powerpoint here.

9. Annie Black (@AnnieBlack01) – Slow Writing

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Annie is an English teacher and shared some work she has been doing on Slow Writing in her school, following a Research-Ed conference where she saw David Didau (@learningspy) speak. She talked about how Slow (or ‘focused’) Writing was helping her students to be more creative, and allowing them to explore new techniques.

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You can find Annie’s powerpoint here.

10. Mark Miller (@goldfishbowlMM) – Revision Decisions

Mark is an English teacher at Dixons Kings Academy. Having done a great deal of work on using sentence structures with students, he shared a new idea to help them to break sentences down in order to explore the many structural and syntactical possibilities we have as writers.

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You can see his own blog post about his talk here, and the powerpoint here.

11. Kat Lang (@kat_stubbs) – Literacy Ladders

Kat is an Assistant Director in charge of individual learning needs, AND the Head of English at Appleton Academy. Her presentation focused on literacy ladders as a way to get high quality, developed writing out of SEN students. Sudents use the ladders to rank writing techniques in order of difficulty, then attach ideas, vocabulary and sentence structures to tladderhe ladder in order to plan and scaffold their writing.

You can find Kat’s powerpoint here.

12. Leah Ellerbruch (@LEllerbruch) – Success Criteria

Leah is an English teacher and leads the Media GCSE at Appleton Academy. She presented how she developed and uses success criteria in order to support students’ writing, and give them ownership of their content and mark schemes.

You can find Leah’s powerpoint here.

13. Keynote Presentation: Leslie Rowland

Here is Leslie’s blurb from the program:

Leslie Rowland is currently a PhD student in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University. She grew up in Kentucky (you might hear a bit of a twang), but has lived all over the United States. She graduated magna cum laude from Murray State University with a degree in English Education (focus on literature). Her primary doctoral research focuses on teens, chronic illness narratives, and depictions of chronic illnesses in young adult literature. She also studies drama pedagogy, disability studies, and social justice issues. Before graduate studies, she was a high school English and theatre teacher, and a writer and editor for educational publishing companies. Her 48 writing, grammar, and vocabulary titles are used in PK-8th grade classrooms all over the world. A sincere Anglophile (as you will witness), she’s thrilled to be back in England.

Her presentation today is on remix writing in the digital age (i.e., a digital composition using at least three different modes of communication [i.e., combining words, sounds, and images into one creation on the computer]). She’ll show examples, present a little research, connect it to “academic” writing, and give suggestions on how to incorporate this fun “new” way of composing in your class—no matter the age of the student (or teacher). You’ll receive a handout with detailed lesson plans, resources, examples, and differentiation tips for using remix digital writing to motivate even your less-than-stellar students.

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‘Digial Writing REMIX’ – Prezi link here.

Presentation handout here.

Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Literature Ideas #4: Engaging with abstract statements, questions and concepts…

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Confused? This is what my students see when I ask them to think outside the box…

As I write this, I am sitting in a classroom with no windows. The air-con is broken. The kids are melting, their brains hurt, and I am trying to get them to engage with this question: “Is love just a lie?” (in relation to Romeo and Juliet) As you would expect, I am facing some pretty stiff opposition – they are not in the mood to tax themselves with abstract, multi-faceted questions. I think the weather will win today and we might do some colouring in instead.

On a normal day though, these abstract tasks are still difficult to approach with students. A couple of my own students have had this to say about my lessons:

“Miss, sometimes, I listen to you talk, and it’s just like a….a….I don’t know what it is…that’s the problem.” – Leonie, Y12

“When you ask me questions, all I see is a bunch of weird little guys in hats running around…messed up.” Ezra – Y11

My obviously erratic and perplexing teaching style aside, I think that Ezra’s ‘weird little guys’ are a metaphor for the sea of ideas and possibilities which abstract questions create for our students. They need a way to filter through these possibilities, and to engage with higher order tasks and concepts without getting lost at sea. There is a risk in any such resource or strategy, in providing too much scaffolding or guidance – this is not an essay structure – it is a key to unlock an idea and to begin to look at its various layers.

This approach has worked for me when doing the following types of task:

  • Thunks
  • Critical Viewpoints
  • Key Questions
  • Political Statements
  • Controversial Opinions
  • Debate Topics

My students all have a copy of this card:

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I’ve trialled this with A Level Literature students, Y11 and Y9, though in its current state it is perhaps best suited to high ability learners.

The ‘Statement Card’ takes students through 5 stages to support their initial approach to an abstract statement, viewpoint or question… The exemplar statement is: “Literature is just a pale shadow of real life, and is therefore unable to tell us anything new.”

Words:

Define the key terms in the statement. What do they mean? What else could they mean? How are you defining them?

e.g. How do you define “literature”? Is it just the classic works of the canon, or does this include EVERYTHING which is written? What do we mean by “new”? “New” to WHO?! Does literature actually have to offer “new” things?

Context:

Does placing the statement in different contexts change the nature of the statement? What is the natural context? What are other possible contexts?

e.g.

Context 1: reading for pleasure – do you have to learn something new if it’s just for fun? Or does literature just have to be entertaining?

Context 2: academic study – does a text need to have some deeper meaning or message to make it worth studying? Do we rely on literature to give us an original insight into human life?

Range:

What is the range of the impact of this statement? Think HUMAN to GLOBAL. Does it have impact on different levels?

e.g.

Human impact – do we rely on literature to tell us things about ourselves?

Society – can literature have an impact on a larger group? Does literature echo the realities of groups/movements/events, or highlight patterns in human behaviour?

Extremes:

What are the extreme applications of the statement? Does it become ridiculous at the extremes? Do the extremes illuminate key issues?

e.g.

Do we simply discard something because we can see nothing “new”? Who can really judge the level to which something is new or relevant? Can we really dismiss ALL art?!

Solution:

Is there a solution to the problem/question? How could you CHANGE the statement to make it better?

e.g.

Literature shouldn’t have to tell us something new, and it certainly doesn’t have to be an exact mirror image of real life. A better statement could be: “Literature should reflect, distorts, magnify and illuminate elements of the human existence.”

This is not an exhaustive list of approaches to these types of task, but it’s a start.

Here’s an example of one Y9 student’s work – the statement in question was “Dr Frankenstien is pure evil. Discuss.”

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(RANGE) “The statement is only about one person, yet it does have a global range of impact. This is because it makes us think about what it means to be evil. Some may also wonder what it means to be human. The reason for this is because Dr. Frankenstein creates a ‘monster’ from all ‘human’ parts, and perhaps it is evil to corrupt the natural state of humanity.”

Example 2 (SOLUTION) “Dr Frankenstein is not evil, he is committing socially unacceptable acts in the name of science. At worst, he is an outcast.”

Here is a copy of the card and the exemplar: Statement Card , Statement Card Exemplar

If you would like an editable Word Doc version, drop me an email – happy to share! (funkypedagogy@gmail.com)

If you use this and it works, or make an alternative version, I would love to hear about it!

Posted in Projects

A New Project – Writing for Bradford

This summer, my school (Appleton Academy) will be hosting an exciting project to promote writing in Bradford schools. It will involve working collaboratively with professional writers, spoken word artists, academics, university students and teachers. The project is open to any interested schools in the Bradford/West Yorkshire area. Please see the information in this document: Writing Bradford leaflet

If you are interested in being involved, or would like more information, please contact me on my work email: jennifer.webb@appletonacademy.co.uk or on Twitter @funkypedagogy

Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Literature Ideas – #3: Mood Boards

Literature at A Level has traditionally been a very essay driven course; there are very few specifications which allow any element of creative writing, and even these are optional swap-ins for a potential second essay. This is a shame because students need to be able to appreciate the craft of the writer and have a deeply ingrained sense that someone sat down and wrote something for a reason. The specification I am teaching allows students to create a piece of original transformational writing. The idea is that they study one of their set texts, then write a ‘missing’ scene, chapter, monologue etc. Obviously this allows students to get under the skin of a particular character or idea, and to better appreciate the author’s style and craft because they are no longer just passively observing, they are actively creating.

This term, I asked my Y12 class to write a missing monologue for the character of the nanny in A Doll’s House. This is a woman we learn very little about, but who has a singular perspective on events and an intriguing history. She gave up her own children as a young woman, and has been witness to the oppressive family home of the Helmers. Their first drafts were two dimensional, and said all of the obvious things about having a ‘hard life’ as a woman, and being ‘nervous’ around the master. We all knew this wasn’t going to work without spicing things up and digging deeper. They all went away that week and created a mood board. I gave very vague instructions, told them to bring together a sort of collage of all the things which this character might come into contact with, love, fear and experience. I was expecting a couple of good ideas to come forward, but the response of my class was stunning.

The work they did has significantly deepened their level of understanding and sophistication in relation to this character, and the text itself. It occurs to me that a mood board would also be useful for analytical writing as a way to collect together images and ideas from the text for a more tactile exploration of the literature.

An alternative to making a physical mood board which is, I’ll admit, a little cut-and-stick heavy, would be making a digital version using something like Prezi. They could challenge themselves by making something like an auditory mood board, recording sounds, music, speech etc, related to the character.

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This student used Victorian wallpaper samples to back her board, and then found contemporary news articles about women who had been forced to abandon their children. She also focused on birds (a key theme in the play), and the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes is an original idea which will play a key part in her monologue.

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This student created an actual doll’s house with opening sides. He collected fabrics which the character would have used and worn; the nanny would have spent a lot of time making clothes for the children. He is going to use the sensory description of fabrics very heavily in his monologue.

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This student was very influenced by the text itself, taking a large number of lines, structures and images from the play which he will re-work.

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This student did a great deal of historical research into the life of a nanny, and looked at accounts of actual nannies from the period.

037This student collected images and examples of objects from the nanny’s life – there are 15 fabric swatches here, and picture of buttons, fastenings and other objects you would find in a nursery.

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Posted in A Level Teaching, Teaching Ideas

A Level Literature Ideas – #2: Essay Planning

The key to all good writing is shape; when to be broad and when to be narrow, when to charge ahead and when to circle back. In a previous post I described how a good essay introduction is like an upside triangle, or arrowhead pointing the reader to a strong argument. A successful essay must be launched by this ‘arrowhead’, then explore and circle around a range of ideas, while still sticking to a firm thread, or thesis. When I was an NQT, I developed the system below by drawing out the shape I wanted by hand. It has evolved into the resource you see below, and revolutionised the way I teach essay writing.

Essays are a difficult thing to teach, particularly at A Level, because they are so abstract. In an essay, you essentially take your reader by the hand and attempt to guide them through your ideas. For many 16-18 year olds, their ideas are still a little jumbled, and this can lead to confusion, repetition and a lack of solid coverage of requirements for the course.

I am a total essay geek – I love everything to do with academic and analytical writing. I get excited when my students write beautifully crafted essays, and they laugh at me for my enthusiasm; one of my Y12 Literature students recently said, ‘Miss, calm down,’ as I marked his final coursework draft. To me, the most effective (or beautiful…) essays do the following things:

1. Keep me interested!
Answer the question without being boring – this means interpreting the title or task in an interesting way, and following it through without being too predictable. A good introduction will ensure that the essay is well focused, but the key is finding more than just the obvious points.

2. Place analysis (currently AO2, but soon to change…) at the heart of every single paragraph or point made – this way, no points are made without being firmly rooted in exploration of the text itself…

3. Be simultaneously tentative AND dynamic in tone – it’s important to hedge and use words and phrases like “perhaps” and “this could suggest”. However, being overly tentative can be detrimental to a solid argument – I want my students to write with dynamism – to be strong in their assertions, while also acknowledging that there are other perspectives and interpretations out there.

I have been teaching the essay planning structure below for years and, on the whole, it has helped students to understand the need for a strong internal structure. I call it ‘The Solar System’ because of the shape, but some students call it a wagon wheel or tortoise shell. I would like to apologise in advance to any science types out there who will undoubtedly be offended my terribly simplistic and inaccurate use of the solar metaphor…

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This shape puts the introduction in the centre (or ‘core’) from which all the paragraphs spread out like beams or rays.

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(you will notice that the introduction uses the DDR model which I outlined in a previous post…)

As you see, each paragraph (or ‘beam’) is separated into three sections.

Section 1 is for AO1 – topic/point and quotations:

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Section 2 is for AO2 – analysis of language, forma and structure:

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Section 3 is for AO3 and AO4 – textual linking, alternative/critical viewpoints, context:

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The spaces in between the sections can be used to write linking words and phrases. If you use the border space to summarise each paragraph in a few words, this can then become notes for your conclusion.

The finished product looks like this:

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This can be used or adapted for any kind of analytical writing. Because it is so detailed a plan, I often ask my students to complete one of these for homework when I don’t want them to write the full essay – a completed ‘Solar’ plan shows me exactly what they would include in their essay, and how they would structure it.

n.b. I am still using the resource I drew by hand and have not created a digital version of this shape. If anyone fancies using it and makes one, please send to me!