by Rachel Carey
I will never forget the day during eighth grade when my English teacher brought a grill to class. She was going to cook us burgers, she said, but not just any kind of burgers. We’d just begun to learn the process of writing research papers that year, and she’d cemented the construct of the five-paragraph essay into our brains by likening them to burgers (triple-stacked, huge burgers).
Here’s how that worked: the two buns were the introduction (including the thesis) and conclusion paragraphs, then there were three burgers between the two buns which served as the topic sentences (or the three components of the thesis), and the condiments (lettuce, tomato and cheese between each of the patties) served as the respective three supporting sentences for each of the topic sentences —together the patties and the condiments created the greatest of body paragraphs. That was the way to perfectly craft the burger — that was the way to perfectly craft a five-paragraph essay — but she didn’t stop at the perfectly crafted.To show us the disaster that would ensue if we forgot something in our papers, she went on to create three faulty burgers: one without an intro or conclusion (i.e. the buns were gone), one without the three topic sentences (i.e. the actual burgers had disappeared), and one without the supporting sentences (i.e. say goodbye to the delicious condiments). Let’s just say the ones that were missing something were very messy and hard to eat, just like five-paragraph essays without one of the components turn out to be very messy and hard to understand.
Does this method sound too complicated to bring into the classroom? Why go through all that trouble to liken an essay to a burger? Well, let me say, that that was the first year that I ever received a five on the DSTP for writing. The burger method worked for me. It stuck.
Now, let’s fast forward about five years. Picture this: a frazzled professor at the front of a college classroom puts down a huge stack of research papers on her desk and turns toward the blackboard. “Why is she frazzled?” you may ask. To answer your question, she writes this in huge letters across the blackboard: THESIS, and begins to explain how important it is to construct a (good) thesis statement.
Mind you, this wasn’t an introductory English course by any means; we all should have known what a thesis statement was, but I’d talked to a couple of my college classmates during the time before the paper’s due date and was told by many of them that they’d never written a research paper like the one the professor had assigned. I understood the teacher’s frustration. Deep down, I was thankful for the burger method and confused as to why the lessons about research papers that my fellow classmates were taught during high school never stuck.
Of course research papers continue to become more complicated than the five-paragraph burger structure that I’d learned in eighth grade. But I truly do believe that that lesson helped me to become a better writer and set the solid groundwork for my success (most of the time) in writing the research papers I write today. My argument for why I think that this way worked best for me is as follows:
1. The image was hard to forget and made it easy to pick out what was missing. Once she brought the grill to class and actually went about constructing the burgers, I had no choice but to imagine everything I needed in my paper in terms of the burger’s ingredients. I found myself drawing out burger diagrams and drawing lines from every aspect of my paper to the diagram to ensure that I had what I needed to make the perfect sandwich.
Let’s face it, especially for middle schoolers and high schoolers, any method that can make learning how to effectively write more fun by attaching a familiar image to the process (especially if that image involves food) is worthwhile. The method of the burger kept my attention and gave me a chance to correct myself if I’d made a mistake. It also made it easy to start writing, because I knew where it would end and I could stop.
2. This method made it hard to be lazy — any fewer than three (which was the quintessential magic number) and I knew I’d get points off. Like I said in my first point, the burger method gave me a definitive beginning point and end point when I wrote. I could tell for myself if I was missing something. If I didn’t have three components of my thesis, three body paragraphs, or at least three supporting details within each paragraph, I knew that I would probably get points taken off.
As a student, it’s definitely easy to tell when I’m slacking and not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. But, sometimes I don’t know how to fix it or add to what I’ve done to make it fit into what the assignment asks. With the burger method, there was an easy structure to follow and it was hard to slack because I knew exactly what the structure was and how much effort it needed. It helped me police myself and stopped me from being lazy or stopping mid-paragraph.
3. It made writing less of a duty and more fun. Writing is undoubtedly hard to make into an interactive, class-wide experience, since there is normally only one writer per paper. But the classroom setting is basically made up entirely of interactive, group-learning experiences, and that’s a good thing because learning with other students puts less pressure on the individual. I remember when I was just beginning to hone my writing skills, before I was introduced to the burger method, and I grew so frustrated when I didn’t know where to go in my paper or how to get there, that I’d often give up. I’m sure many current and past students can relate. There is nothing worse than not knowing what you’re doing.
Writing exercise worksheets are great once the initial structure is presented and understood — but in order to make sure that the initial structure of the thesis statement and essay format isn’t just understood but also embraced and remembered, creativity is essential. I am not saying that every day of school needs to include something as fun and interactive as the day that we grilled burgers in class. However, just one of those fun days per lesson — or at least for some of the more difficult lessons—definitely makes a difference. Experiences like those are ones that students will enjoy looking back on, both for the learning that they did that day and the fun that they had.
For me, the thesis burger method worked wonders. It may not work for everyone, but it might be worth a shot if you are having a hard time finding a way to introduce the art of writing essays. Just remember: if you are going to grill in class, make sure that you bring napkins … that burger without the topic sentences made a MESS.
Thanks for reading!
If you’ve come up with any creative ways to teach your students how to write effectively and want to share with us or your fellow teachers, please share in the comments!
Rachel Carey is a summer intern at Prestwick House. She is also a senior at the University of Delaware, where she studies English with a concentration in Creative Writing. During the school year, she is an active editor and writer for Caesura and The Main Street Journal, both of which are prominent literary magazines on campus, as well as Vice President of The Blue Pen Society writing club.