I have taught pupils how to write an essay explaining William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings every year for fifteen years.
Incrementally I’ve got better. Now I’m pretty happy with what I do.
Before going on to any methodology I think it important to appreciate why this is so high stakes and why it is important this sequence of lessons is taught well.
Most children in primary, at least in my experience, have not written a history essay. While they may have completed projects or written stories set in the past few have ever attempted an analytical piece of extended history writing.
This makes the “Why did William Win the Battle of Hastings” essay often the first proper history essay Year 7s will ever complete.
Doing anything for the first time is scary and if the essay goes badly there is the risk pupils will internalise the feeling they are difficult and so something to be fearful of and avoid.
If this happens every history teacher after you will be fighting an uphill battle so it is important to get this right!
I find it best to begin with clarity on what it is essential pupils achieve. My minimum expectations are:
- Every essay will have an introduction.
- Every essay will have at least two paragraphs explaining two reasons William won. These will include evidence to support assertions and will directly answer the essay question. Most pupils in the class will have four paragraphs including four reasons, but I’d rather two done well than four done badly.
- Every piece of work will be presented well and every pupil will be proud of what they have done.
There a lot of things that I once tried to teach Year 7 that I no longer do to the whole class. I don’t bother insisting they evaluate the significance of each reason and I don’t ask them to come to a judgement in the conclusion. This is not, of course, because I do not care about these things. It is because I now view this essay as a formative process in which it is unwise to try and do everything all at once. Much better they get one thing nailed and produce something they are proud of and want to get better at then find themselves muddled and demoralised.
This is emphatically not low expectations – it is understanding that having high expectations does not mean expecting children to be able to do something they have never been taught to do.
My Y7 classes begin to build up to the essay two lessons before they write it. In the first lesson we read through the story of the Battle of Hastings together – me reading, pupils tracking. I plan questions around reasons William won without making it explicit this is what I’m doing. For example, after a passage on feigned flight I might ask “how did this help William win?”, and then spend some time extending the classes answers into fully developed sentences that would fit well in an essay. If a pupil voices something that isn’t developed, for example, “William had cavalry,” I’ll push them or another child in the class to turn it into a full sentence explanation into how cavalry helped William win the Battle. I’m especially quick to correct narrative answers, as unless this is dealt with early the seed can flower into the sorts of stories the children are more used to writing.
At the end of the lesson we’ll usually do a short quiz based on making sure they know events of the battle – this might also be a timeline that needs to be put in the right order or perhaps a cloze text exercise.
I begin the next lesson by asking pupils to list reasons William won the battle. While they do this I circulate around the class checking they have got the point. If I see something good I’ll tell everyone, if I see someone going wrong I’ll intervene. It I see more than a couple of people making the same mistake I’ll stop everyone and give a whole class correction.
Next I use my visualiser to project a pre-planned spider diagram, with arms labelled in grouped categorise which might include “leadership”, “military strength”, “luck” or anything else I think makes sense at the time. After giving them some time to think about it I’ll then ask pupils to help me populate the diagram, through question and answer, using the causes they listed in the first activity. The idea here is to get them categorising and planning discrete paragraphs without them realising this is what they are doing.
Only after all this do I tell pupils they will write an essay. There are invariably groans and fearful looks, which I alleviate by explaining that I will teach them what to and that nobody will have to write before they know exactly what to write.
I don’t spend very much time on the introduction – I’ve never been much a fan of them anyway. For this essay I’ll usually share a two line example one stating that William’s victory had many causes before briefly listing them.
I then share an exemplar paragraph I’ve written, based on one of the categories. First I’ll give three minutes or so just to read it. Next I’ll explain why each sentence is where it is, what it does and why I have used the words I have. The exemplar paragraph is always pretty straightforward –not dumbed down but focused on what it is I want pupils to do well. After this I’ll use cold call questions to build up a second paragraph on a different category. Lots of pantomime here: “Now what could go next? What could I add? Why would I put that there? What is a better synonym for that?”
Then I ask pupils to write a third paragraph independently. I take no questions and offer no support for the first ten minutes, as I’ve learned unless I do this I’ll end up fielding scores of questions based more on insecurity and anxiety than genuine confusion. I am watching closely though – who’s straight down to it? Who’s staring blankly? Who looks scared? – its this data trawl I use to target my support once my ten minutes are up.
Once everybody has a paragraph I use the visualiser to present great work, to refine, and to straighten out misconceptions and correct mistakes.
Then, in the next lesson the pupils write up, open book with all their notes. I allow this because we’re learning how to write an essay. It isn’t a test.
The result is usually a set of decent essays. Heavily structured, led largely by me, certainly not everything and certainly not perfect but a solid start build upon.
That’s fine. They’re Year 7. We have plenty of time.