The Pragmatist’s Guide to Essay Writing, AKA The Underground English Manual


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This is a picture of my hand holding a picture of my hand. How’s that for meta?

When I went to university, I was a slow learner. I had to write essays. I was a poor BA student.

And I mean metaphorically and literally.

No multichoice for me. Things may have changed, but I doubt it. C’est la vie…

I didn’t even take film studies. Close though. English literature major.

Nothing wrong with BA students, mind you.

Bob Jones always liked BAs because they could write. That meant that they could think. And that meant he could train them to run his businesses.

That was back in the days when he used to fly in commercial airlines, but after he punched the journalist in the face who disturbed him trout fishing in Turangi.

And long before he was called out for racist comments in a national newspaper.

Anyway.

It took me three years to learn how to write. I was totally unprepared. This is mainly due to the fact that I thought I was above average at English at High School and I thought I had above average teachers.

I got a scholarship in English in 7th form, you see. It was worth an extra $150 towards my studies at the time I think. IKR…?

So I declined. I grew my hair long and joined a rock and roll band. Actual about 5 different bands. It’s a blur now.

And after three years of selling guitar strings in Taupo, I realised that my best years were probably behind me now.

That international tour to Norfolk Island with the Wairakei Country Music Club.

Those cassette tape recordings of the original music my friend in the goth band wrote and we performed.

Coming second in a talent contest with another mate who sounded exactly like Dave Dobbyn but was never gonna win because the winner and the judges were all family members.

Those drunken 21sts.

The biker club in the industrial area with the spiked corrugated iron fence (whose idea was the whipped cream…?).

Good times, but my best years were behind me and I needed to move on, find another life, settle down.

Get a haircut, eventually. Regrow those brain cells.

So I had to learn to write essays about 21st-century literature.

And I could read but I couldn’t write.

It turns out that my scholarship in English was suspect as well. Possibly fraudulent.

I blame the NZQA. And my high school. It was their fault.

My test results for English had been scaled as part of rather dodgy norm-referenced testing.

In other words, my score was almost above average. But not exceptional.

It was just that everyone else in my cohort was crap and I was the least crap. Plus they had already allocated a scholarship to the school from the year before that had to be used.

Ka pai me…!

But back to the writing. I got Bs. I got the occasional B+. It was hard to rise above this level of mediocracy.

In the end, I got help. Professional help. From someone who KNEW.

Her name with Judith. She was very old. And she had her own office. I think the university had forgotten about her, because it was in a really obscure location.

I’m not sure what she was supposed to do. And I can’t remember how I met her. Or if she was paid.

But she would interpret the scratching on the bottom of my essays and tell me what they meant. It was like reading tea leaves. She was my medium.

And it worked like magic. Judith was my saviour.

One of my lecturers would write something like “This is Ok, but lacks cohesion”… I was always “Whuh…?

But even when you go and talk to these pillocks in their office hours they just say more of the same thing. Meaningless drivel.

That’s when I began to develop a deep-seated suspicion of academics. I mean, as a species they are kind of cute. But we should be sceptical of them. Just sayin’.

Thanks to Judith, though, I started to learn how to write. She showed me the basics.

Like how to understand the topic or question. How to plan. And then how to write.

And then… Dulce decorum est…! I started getting As and then A+s. It was a freaking miracle.

To be honest, it was a little mindless after a while.

To start with I was so jazzed, I’d print out every A+ on a sheet of golden A4 paper on my new Cannon Bubble Jet printer that I’d paid ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS for.

And I’d put them up on my wall.

Soon the whole wall was covered. And by soon I mean relatively speaking.

But it got embarrassing so I took them down and wrote a book about how to write essays instead.

And this book, I got designed and commercially printed. And I even sold a bunch at the unofficial student bookshop where they always had all the second-hand books that no one really wanted.

That’s the cover in the picture up above. I kinda feel that I started to find my voice when I wrote this book.

Unfortunately, that was the voice of a snarky arrogant git. Funny though.

Here is one pearl:

Always give a monkey a banana

…your tutor, teacher, lecture – whoever set the assignment – is a monkey. What you have to do is give them a banana – that’s your essay. What’s important is that you give them the right kind of banana. Probably, this person is an academic. An academic is just a monkey with a degree and it’s the job of these monkeys to make difficult things more complicated. He or she won’t just come out and tell you what kind of banana they want. However, as you work through our method, you can increase your chance of dishing out the right kind of banana.

It’s a bit cringy now.

But I wanted to share it because it illustrates a point. And this is… that this is what is wrong with our education system.

The current situation with NCEA comes to mind. This kind of strategy still works. You can try it out.

The skills you need to get through are not the same as learning the content that you’re learning to navigate.

But don’t let that stop you from getting those A+s… Download link below for the full unexpurgated version.

How do I write a learning outcome?


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For your project work for this course, you need to write at least two learning outcomes. Our suggestion is that you write one for literacy and another for numeracy.

These learning outcomes need to focus on a skill that you want to develop in a specific context.

For example, you might want to focus on developing specialised vocabulary in the context of reading a complicated recipe. If it was numeracy, you might need to look at developing learners understanding of area in the context of a farming or horticulture.

You can make changes as you go along, but the idea is that your learning outcomes should guide what you do over the next three assessments. This includes using diagnostic assessments, planning and teaching and then measuring your learners’ progress.

Writing a learning outcome for embedded literacy or numeracy is easy if you do it our way. Just like with writing your broad strategies, we have a process for you to work through.

If you already know how to write embedded learning outcomes, feel free to skip ahead to the assessment template and get underway.

Otherwise, stay here and we’ll walk you through the process. Following the overview, you can download the worksheets you need and record your ideas for learning outcomes as you work through the rest of this module.

If you want all of the worksheets now, they are also here:

  • Reading – Writing your own learning outcomes
  • Writing – Writing your own learning outcomes
  • Number – Writing your own learning outcomes
  • Measure – Writing your own learning outcomes

1. Think of a specific context where your learners need to apply these skills

If you were about to start a new course with new learners this might be something they need to learn in the first week of training. For example:

  • an introduction to health and safety in the engineering workshop.

Alternatively, you might know that your existing class was about to start a practical project where they had to cut pieces of timber to build a picnic table, the context might look like this:

  • building a picnic table according to a plan.

It’s important to define a very specific context for your learning outcome. The reason is that these outcomes will guide everything we do from here.

When you wrote your big picture strategies you contextualised them to your programme as a whole. This time, when you write your learning outcomes you’re narrowing your focus and contextualising them to some very specific aspects of the content that you teach.

Often, the more specific and narrow you can be about this the better.

2. Target a specific skill that you want them to learn or practice

You should have already identified specific literacy and numeracy skills. These are the progressions and steps from your mapping in the last assessment. And you might have also built these into your strategies in the previous module.

Now, just identify what the skill or knowledge is that you want to focus on.

For example, in a new course students may have to read or view content online that contains a lot of unfamiliar and highly specialised words. The specific skill literacy area that you might want to focus on could be this:

  • Technical vocabulary

Then add your context from the last step, like this:

  • Technical vocabulary in the context of an introduction to health and safety in the engineering workshop.

If it was something else, using a metric tape accurately measure and then cut pieces of timber for a picnic table, you might write something like this:

  • How to use millimeters and metres to measure and cut length

Again, we can add the context from the previous step:

  • How to use millimeters and metres to measure and cut length in the context of building a picnic table according to a plan.

3. Frame the learning

Here we’re talking about what kind of learning you want to see. You can frame the learning in different ways. It depends on the level of your learners and whether you want to make it easier or more challenging.

Here are some words you can use to frame the learning. These words sit on a poutama or staircase. At the lower levels are words that describe learning that is less demanding. As you go up the stairs, the learning gets harder. Each level assumes that they can do the one below.

Apply

Use

Demonstrate

Understand

Explain

Discuss

Remember

Identify

Describe

Choose one of the words and add it to the front of your statement. For example:

  • Understand technical vocabulary in the context of an introduction to health and safety in the engineering workshop.
  • Demonstrate how to use millimeters and metres to measure and cut length in the context of building a picnic table according to a plan.

What we’re suggesting here is a guide. You know your programme and your content. If you can think of ways of tweaking, improving, or simplifying your learning outcomes you should do it. It’s normal to go through several drafts before you come up with something that really works well.

For example, the second example above could be simplified like this:

  • Use millimeters and metres to measure and cut length in the context of building a picnic table according to a plan.

Strategies: What are some examples of numeracy strategies?


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Here are some more examples of numeracy strategies developed by tutors for embedding numeracy into their programmes.

These are the kind of concise summaries that you’ll also need to write for your assessment.

Don’t forget, for assessment purposes for this course, you only need to write two – one for each of literacy and numeracy.

Below are some examples of numeracy strategies:

  • Teach my learners how to use number to solve problems with a focus on additive strategies and place value in the context of my Introduction to Farming course for highschool students.
  • Teach my learners how to measure with a focus on estimation and using a tape for metric measurement in my New Zealand Certificate in Building and Construction programme.
  • Teach my learners how to measure with a focus on calculating the area of rectangles from measurements of length in the module I’m planning this semester for the course I teach on Level 3 Horticulture and sustainable development.

Strategies: How do you write a numeracy strategy?


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If you know what you’re going to write for your numeracy strategy, feel free to skip ahead to the assessment template and get started. If you want to walk through the process again for numeracy, please read on.

As with your literacy strategy, there should be three parts. The process is the same as before. The content is now focused on broad numeracy skills.

1. Identify the numeracy skill area that you want to concentrate on

Again, make it both broad and practical. We’ll zoom in on the specifics in the next module. For now, we suggest that you use the strands of the Learning Progressions for Adult Numeracy that you already identified as important in the last assessment. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems.

2. Say what the numeracy focus is going to be within the skill area.

Now you are starting to narrow things down. Include one or two specific numeracy skills or progressions that you want to develop or practice.

Use the progressions that you identified as important from the last assessment. Choose at least one that you know is critical. Add this to your statement. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on how to use additive strategies.

As before, you may want to focus on more than one progression. It often makes sense to combine two related numeracy skills or progressions at the same time. Add both to your statement if it makes sense to work with two. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on how to use additive strategies and number facts knowledge.

Here’s another example with a combined focus on two skills.

  • Teach my learners to measure and interpret shape and space with a focus on how to use units, tools, estimates, and formulas to measure objects and place value knowledge.

3. Say what your broad teaching context is

Your broader teaching context should be the same as what you wrote for your literacy strategy. For example, a formal qualification or informal programme. Here’s the whole strategy. E.g.

  • Teach my learners to use number to solve problems with a focus on additive strategies and number facts knowledge in the context of short course on warehousing.

Here’s another:

Teach my learners to measure and interpret shape and space with a focus on how to use units, tools, estimates, and formulas to measure objects and place value knowledge in the context of the New Zealand Certificate in Horticulture.

Up next: How to write your own strategy for number and measurement