Commencing countdown, engines on…

Back in 1975, David Bowie gave an interview in which he spoke about his ‘cut-up’ technique for songwriting. It always intrigued me, and when a couple of students recently came to me to tell me they were having trouble planning an essay on Elizabeth Bennet, I thought maybe the Thin White Duke could provide a way to help them make some changes to the way they went about it. So often, when it comes to planning, students say they hate it, often because they don’t understand how to do it, because they’re Absolute Beginners. Feeling incapable like this causes them such sorrow, it’s little wonder they don’t want to do it, either on that day or the next.  (Sorry, that’s the last terrible Bowie joke I’ll make)

The setup is pretty simple – each student gets a little picture of Bowie on their desk to stick into the centre of a double-page in their books. Explain what they’re going to do – and about Bowie’s technique. They then look at the title of their essay:

‘How far do you agree that Lizzy Bennet is a heroine’?

Once they’ve got that on the board, they spent 15 minutes, or 3-4 Bowie songs (with Y9 today I used Let’s Dance, Rebel Rebel, Life on Mars and Jean Genie) writing down every idea they can think of to answer it. They could write anything they wanted, in any order they wanted, on either side of the debate they wanted. Here are some of the ideas they had:

‘Rejects Collins but stays respectful’

‘Doesn’t actually solve anything; needs Darcy’s help’

‘Sensible, especially amidst the incompetence of her family’

‘Stands up for what she believes in’

‘Sarcastic and arrogant’

‘Quick to judge’

‘Learns from her mistakes’

‘Sister is an idiot – makes Lizzy look better’

‘Totally wrecks Lady Catherine at the end’ (I particularly liked this one)

The key thing here was time boundaries being clear. Without having to try and logically order their thoughts they were free to let them flow a little, helped (hopefully) by the music – but without losing focus. Once the final note of ‘Jean Genie’ had rung out, I pulled up the random name picker on the board and spun it so that everybody had to contribute one idea they had written. By the end of that, which took just under 10 minutes, we had 28 different ideas for answering the question. This was equally important for consolidation but also gave everyone a chance to contribute to the overall discussion of Lizzy’s heroic (or not) qualities.

The final step was to get them to then group their ideas together, as logically as they could, connecting their thoughts in any way they saw fit. This completed, they now had a skeleton outline of their paragraphs.

Tomorrow they’ll be quote hunting to flesh out their ideas and give them some language to analyse, but at least now the shape of their essay has been sorted and they know not only where they’re going, but how they’re going to get there.

Anyway – I hope this can be helpful to people – let me know if you use it and how it goes!

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About PS

English teacher in Shanghai.
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