Posted by: jockmackenzie | February 15, 2010

Essay Writing – Part 1

Building an Essay – with bodies

If students can visualize an essay, even build one with their bodies, I think they can understand what it is they are creating when they write an essay. One of the first exercises I employ during essay writing time is the Essay Built With Bodies exercise.

Imagine I have a class of 32 students. Despite criticism by some, I will teach them how to create a 5-paragraph essay. It would be just as easy to build a 6 or 7 paragraph essay but I think they get the idea with 5. Prior to the building with bodies activity, I have shown them the picture of an essay – something like I’ve created below:


It was brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe. “Beware- the- Jabberwock, my son!  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch.  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack.  The jaws that bite, the claws.

TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE He took his vorpal sword in hand. Long time the manxome foe he sought So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in eyes of flame, Came- whiffling through the tulgey wood,And burbled as it came! One- two! One, two! And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back.  One- two! One, two! And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back.

And, has thou slain the Jabberwock? TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE Come to my arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ he chortled in his joy. Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the- borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe. It was brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All- mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!  The jaws that bite, the- claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!  All- mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son.

He took his vorpal sword in hand. Long time the manxome foe he sought So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought. And, as in uffish thought he stood,The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,And burbled as it came! One, two! One, two! He chortled in his joy. Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble- in the wabe. And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack. It was brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!  He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back. TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE TOPIC SENTENCE

And, has thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish- boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy. Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe.  He chortled in his joy. Twas brillig, and the slithy toves.


In my “whiteboard” days, I used colored felt pens and simply drew lines – no words. When I gained access to an interactive white board, I jazzed it up and used Jabberwocky BUT changed the font to SYMBOL so the words were indecipherable. Luddite that I am, I lost the formatting in the transfer from my original to this blog entry . . . but you should still be able to get the idea. It’s not the words but the overall idea of an essay that’s important.


I also lost arrows down the right margin. An arrow was placed to join each paragraph to the one below it.

A version of the whiteboard version


Without going into considerable explanation here, the students had this “picture of an essay” in their minds before we tackled the Essay Built With Bodies.

The short explanation of the EBWB goes like this: The students are asked to stand around the perimeter of the classroom. With 32 bodies, I would ask 5 students to form the Introductory Paragraph, 8 to be Body Paragraph #1, 7 to be Body Paragraph #2, 8 to be Body Paragraph #3, and 4 to be the Concluding Paragraph. Each grouping stands slightly apart from the next.

Because this is a visualizing exercise, I might ask shorter students to stand in the Introductory and Concluding groups, emphasizing the relative brevity of those two paragraphs. The students chosen to represent the TOPIC SENTENCE in the body paragraphs would be asked to stand first, second, and last respectively. Somehow they would have to stand out from their peers.

The order of the students within each paragraph would depend on a decision they would make. Could they stand to symbolize a time order, or compare/contrast, order of importance, etc.?

The last person in each group would be asked to display some connection to the following group.

Intuitively, students seem to take this to be a pantomime activity and need to be encouraged to add sound and/or movement.

For the first effort, I don’t go into great detail or spend an inordinate amount of time with this body building exercise. I have asked two classes to perform for one another and have enjoyed the ensuing discussion. I also encourage you to try this activity at a mid point and at the end of an essay unit. Seeing the growth in understanding is encouraging.

For a video clip, see the “Video and Audio Clip” page, look for “Acting the Essay.”

Of course, a more detailed description of this activity and others can be found in my book Essay Writing: Teaching the Basics from the Ground Up

I hope this helps someone out there in TeacherLand, and would love to hear about your experience.



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