See a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1803
Like a butterfly or a wild flower cupped in your hand, essay titles are small and delicate. Seen differently, though, they are a microcosm of our entire subject.
Chris Curtis eloquently makes the case for the humble essay. Essays are not only a sleek way for teachers to assess understanding; expressing ideas both extensively and concisely sharpens pupils’ thinking and helps them remember what they’re learning.
I began thinking: how might I craft my essay titles a little more deliberately?
So I asked English teachers on twitter to share essay titles they’d recommend. It’s quick and easy to share a question or two, so crowdsourcing seemed a good way of comparing lots of concrete examples.
- How does Robert Browning reveal the state of mind of the speaker in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’? (Year 8, @Xris32)
- How does Sylvia Plath present her views on motherhood in the poem ‘Morning Song’? (Y9, @JamesTheo)
- Explore how Owen presents the effects of war on the youth of society in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Spring Offensive’. (Year 9, @Englishsamwhit)
- Compare a poem that glorifies war with one that vilifies it: how do the poets convey their contrasting attitudes towards war? (Year 9, @agwiliams9)
- In (the unseen) sonnet Hour, how does Carol Anne Duffy explore love and loss? (Year 11)
- Compare how Wordsworth and Forster communicate their feelings about the city in their poems ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ and ‘Winter Night: Edinburgh’? (Year 11)
- How does Oscar Wilde present the themes of morality/secrecy/duty and respectability in The Importance of Being Earnest? (Year 9, @JamesTheo)
- To what extent is Eddie a tragic hero in Arthur Miller’s A View from The Bridge?
- How does Arthur Miller represent the themes of fear and intolerance in his allegorical play The Crucible? (Year 10, @joe__kirby)
- ‘Arthur Miller makes it impossible to feel much sympathy for Abigail Williams’. How do you respond to this view of the way Miller constructs this character in The Crucible? (Year 10)
- How does William Shakespeare present Lear’s descent into madness in King Lear? (Year 8, @JamesTheo)
- How does Mark Antony’s rhetoric after Caesar’s assassination incite the Roman mob? (Year 7)
- How is the theme of jealousy presented throughout Shakespeare’s play Othello? (Year 9 @katiesarahlou)
- How is Iago presented in the play Othello? (Year 9 @katiesarahlou)
- Who is most to blame for the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet? (Year 9)
- To what extent is Friar Lawrence responsible for the deaths of Romeo & Juliet? (Year 9)
- What is the significance of the prologue in Romeo and Juliet? @katiesarahlou (Year 10)
- How is conflict caused in Shakespeare’s tragedies Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth? (Year 11)
- How does the language in Macbeth’s soliloquies reflect the character’s state of mind? (Year 8, @xris32)
- ‘This dead butcher and his fiend-like queen’. How far is this a fair judgement on the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? (Year 9)
- How do the witches’ prophecies influence and affect the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s Macbeth? (Year 10)
- To what extent are the issues and tensions over power and authority resolved or reconciled by the end of Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest? (Year 11)
- ‘Tudor families were based on formidable theories of patriarchy and male supremacy’ (C Russell) To what extent do both the speaker in The Laboratory and Lady Macbeth adhere to the patriarchal societies of their time? (Year 11, @englishsamwhit)
- To what extent is justice done in Oliver Twist? (Year 8)
- How does Dickens ensure his characters, settings and plot in his serialised novel Great Expectations are not forgotten over the weeks and months? (Year 8, @Xris32)
- How does Dickens set the tone and themes in the opening of Great Expectations? (Year 8, @Xris32)
- ‘Children are born savages and adults make them civilised.’ How does William Golding reflect the theme of savagery in The Lord of The Flies? (Year 9)
- Elsewhere, Orwell has written that: ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ To what extent does George Orwell demonstrate this view in Animal Farm? (Year 9 @JamesTheo)
- ‘Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ How does Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm explore power and corruption? (Year 8)
- Who is most responsible for Animal Farm’s downfall in the novel? (Year 8)
- How do Orwell’s dystopian novels Animal Farm and 1984 use symbols and motifs /reveal rhetoric as problematic? (Year 9)
- How does Mary Shelley explore revolutionary romantic themes of innocence and loss in Frankenstein? (Year 9)
- Compare two themes or characters of your choice in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stocker’s Dracula or Robert Louis Stevensons’ Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? (Year 11)
- How does Steinbeck use language and structure to present Crooks, Candy and Curley’s wife as outsiders in Of Mice and Men? (Year 10 @tillyriches)
- ‘Of Mice and Men’ is not sufficiently critical of social injustice’. To what extent do you agree that John Steinbeck’s portrayal of marginalisation reinforces injustice? (Year 11)
- Compare how John Steinbeck and Harper Lee critique racial prejudice and injustice in Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mocking Bird. (Year 11)
The full, flourishing and organically evolving emporium can be found here. Big thanks to Chris Curtis, James Theobald, Katie Ashford, Anne Williams, Phil Stock, Tilly Riches, Kerry Pulleyn, the Samuel Whitbread English Department and others. Keep contributing – the more the merrier in the crowdsourcing bazaar! It is currently a little lacking in non-fiction essay topics, especially on biographies and speeches.
To me, there seem to be three dimensions for carefully crafting essay titles:
- Comparison: do you want pupils to analyse one text, or compare two (or three!)?
- Choice: do you want to specify the character(s), theme(s) or extracts, or let pupils choose?
- Complexity: how much complexity do you want to build into the title?
The main insight that I take away from this is to craft essay titles on literature that might bring the best analysis and deepest thinking out of the text.
What else might we crowdsource?
Suggestions have been whizzing about for what we English teachers might crowdsource next via social media. Possibilities include: exemplar pupil essays; essay marking rubrics; multiple choice questions and options; conceptual hinge questions; scintillating debate motions; combustible speech topics; provocative creative writing challenges …
We’ve set up a new shared document, the Debate Bazaar, to crowdsource non-fiction debate motions and speech topics: have a look and contribute your ideas!
English teachers: what else would you like us to collate?
Neat application of crowdscource via social media!
All of these essay assignments require students to compose a communication on a matter they would be unlikely to write were it not for “school” and for which they have varying degrees of background capability. That’s OK, but it’s seldom a requirement outside of “school” and I’m not sure what a student learns in the assignment–other than how to cope with tasks that otherwise seem “dumb.”.
I’d like to know how to frame an assignment that would teach them how to construct a composition when they are personally motivated to “say something” –in short or at length, extemporaneously or after inquiry.
My hunch is that the assignment would likely exceed the bounds of conventional “English lit,” but maybe not.
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Really interesting Joe, thanks!
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Powerful stuff, no?
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This is a great list compiled there! Is going to help me and other writers a lot! Thanks for sharing!
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