Updated on February 23, 2017 Donna Hilbrandt moreI am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends. Contact Author Students need to learn to write critically. They need to be able to analyze a work of literature or a historical period and back up their thoughts using evidence from a textual source. Although this has always been an expectation in most humanities classrooms, the recent shift in many states to adopt the Common Core Standards has reawakened the importance of critical thinking through writing. In NYS, educators are asked to take a hard look at the curriculum and to make sure that we are aligning it to these fresh standards. As an English teacher, I know that when I was in college and graduate school, I had to write many critical papers. When I reflect back on the early years of college, I wonder if I felt prepared enough to tackle these assignments with confidence.
I don’t really remember how I felt, but when I revisit essays from my freshman year, I get a little red in the face. Did I really write that? This reflection on my own work motivates me to teach my current students to gain the skills that they will need when they enter college. The Common Core standards are a guide to help educators create clear goals for learning in the classroom. I also believe, that as an educator, we must not forget our own educational experiences. We should use our experience to enhance the delivery of the state’s expectations. We can’t forget that we were once at the level of our students, and we need to help them grow by giving them the tools they need to succeed. I took on my first job as an English teacher not long after I graduated from college. At that point, I wasn’t planning to be a teacher.
I was spending some time travelling and living abroad, and I found myself supply teaching (substitute teaching) in the East End of London. I learned many lessons through that experience that I still carry with me into the classroom every day. One of those lessons was a great technique for teaching students how to write well-developed paragraphs. It is successful, because it is easy and simple to remember. It is short and to the point. And, it is a little gross. Kids love gross. No matter what age they are, they also love when their teacher says something gross and related to bodily functions. They don’t easily forget that. So when I am teaching my students to write good, solid well developed paragraphs, I tell them to follow the PEE Principle and PEE down their page. Did she say “PEE”? The PEE Principle is a simple way for students to remember to make a POINT, provide EXAMPLES, and EXPLAIN how their examples support their point.
Those are the basic elements of a well-developed paragraph. First, students need to make a point. Sometimes we call this a topic sentence. Sometimes we call it a thesis statement. Sometimes we call it a controlling idea. It is a good idea to discuss with your student that these terms are similar. A point is an idea that controls the paragraph or essay. It is the main topic or thesis. I express to them that they shouldn’t let the vocabulary confuse them. Instead, they should think of a really good, strong point to make for their paragraph or essay. The stronger the point, the easier it will be to back it up with examples and explain. Next, I ask my students to consider the examples. What evidence from the text supports their point? I ask them to be specific and choose evidence that they can incorporate into the paragraph. I encourage them to choose words and phrases, rather than whole paragraphs. Students like the general. They like to fill their page with long quotes from the text, even if the length of the quote takes away from their thoughts and words. Last, I tackle explain.
This seems to be the most difficult concept to grasp. First, I tell my students that incorporating explanation generally takes their paragraph from a summary to an analysis. The video above uses Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story entitled “The Minister’s Black Veil.” I created this example to teach the PEE Principle concept as a way to approach answering one of the short response questions on the NY state exam. However, the example can be used to teach any general analytical writing using this concept. Watch the video before you show it in class in order to decide where you may want to pause and discuss. Pause and allow students to find the components of the PEE priciple. Ask students what they would highlight as the point (or example and explain). You will note that my discussion is not always direct, so that teachers can lead their own students through a productive discussion of the concept. After we talk about the pieces of the PEE Principle, I always show my students models of well-developed and no-so-well-developed paragraphs.