The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

Saturday, December 29, 2012


I spent Christmas Day looking at directions. After my boys opened their presents, I helped one assemble his new Lego set.  We worked steadily for an hour or so and put together his new heavy-duty helicopter with minimal fuss, even though the set is rated for older children. Then I tried to help my husband assemble the gas BBQ he gave me. What a difference! My husband is quite handy and loves to fix, modify, and assemble everything from wooden puzzles to cars to computers. So it was with some surprise we found ourselves re-reading instructions and the assembly taking close to three hours, rather than the 45 minutes indicated on the box.

What was so different about the experiences? The Lego instructions were far superior. First, there are the pictures on the box and the front of the directions that show the completed project. Then, the parts are separated into several bags and each bag has its own detailed section in the instruction guide showing how to assemble. There is a picture of the complete section before the detailed step-by-step instructions. Each step adds just a small part to the section of the complete project and it is clear to see where each piece goes and how each section adds to the previous. Contrast that to the BBQ instructions where one exploded diagram includes many steps. We had to talk through the diagram and compare that to the pieces scattered on the ground, trying to figure out which parts to connect to each other first. Holes weren't aligned exactly (particularly infuriating to a machinist used to working within very tiny tolerances) and pieces didn't fit together easily. 

So that made me think about how I ask students to write essays, or rather, how I should help students write essays. Show them a model, point out the parts, go through the step-by-step writing moves that make the essay work. I do show a model essay at the beginning of explaining what an argument essay looks like, for example, but I could slow down on the step by step instructions and just do one small piece at a time, such as how to integrate quotes or what kind of transitions to use. Just because they are seniors, it doesn't mean they know what they are doing...


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