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Class 9 Notes Essay — Reid Hoffman, John Lilly, Chris Yeh, and Allen Blue’s CS183C Technology-enabled Blitzscaling course

Here is an essay version of my class notes from Class 9 of Stanford University’s CS183C — Technology-enabled Blitzscaling — taught by Reid Hoffman, John Lilly, Chris Yeh, and Allen Blue. Errors and omissions are my own. Credit for good stuff is Reid, John, Chris Yeh, and Allen’s entirely.

This class was a talk with Allen Blue and Reid Hoffman— two of the co-founders of LinkedIn — on lessons learned from scaling LinkedIn.

I wasn’t actually able to attend this class in person so a big thank you to Ryan McKinney for helping to record this class and share the audio with me.*

Video of the class, notes are below:

I. The change from OS1 to OS2 to OS3

  • During OS1 (The Family) — You are trying to figure out if you can create something customers want, that is unique.
  • At OS2 (The Tribe) — You are trying to figure out if you have product market fit, and when to put on the gas to occupy the full market
  • OS3 (The Village) — This is when you decide to scale up. When the company reaches 150 people is usually when you go through the next substantial shift.

II. Why scale?

  • 150 people is Dunbar’s number— a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships — this is estimated to be ~150 people.
  • Once your company goes beyond 150 people, this is the time when people at your company don’t know everyone else in the company and coordination becomes challenging.
  • At OS3 the company has a sense of real traction, company scale, and either has a revenue stream or can see where the revenue stream will come from.
  • The coordination challenges causes the company to need to scale up and support the larger organization.
  • If the organization is scaling 50–100% per year, you are essentially building an unstable organization. Typically companies will change their organization structure many times over during this period.

III. Key considerations of when to scale

  • This is when market size becomes an important consideration. One question is if your company scales up, does it grow into a market that is worth taking over?
  • At this point you need a plan for access to large pools of capital — This can either be revenue (in Google’s case) or fundraising (Airbnb, Dropbox, Uber, etc).
  • Companies scale fast usually because competition becomes much more intense. However there are examples — for example in the Minted Story Mariam Naficy decided not to hyperscale because her competition were the old school stationery companies. No one was trying to “take her out.” LinkedIn was very similar in this regard.
  • During the first stages (OS1 and OS2), competition is less important because the market opportunity is not obvious. Once you get to OS3 — other companies can see more of the opportunity you can see (it becomes less contrarian) and this turns on the clock to compete.
  • The decision of when to scale is very much a judgement decision — depends on competitive circumstances, market opprotunity, the value of being first to market, access to capital, etc.

IV. How and why LinkedIn made the choice to scale, in 2008

  • LinkedIn launched in May 5th, 2003. They decided to scale 5 years into the creation of the product.
  • During LinkedIn’s initial launch they made a decision to keep things trim (very much the same decisions Miriam made) — and they were very selective about hiring and raising capital.
  • Before 2008 it was difficult to articulate what they were doing. In 2003 there was a site that launched called Friendster, and the only way to get the press interested in LinkedIn was to say they were “Friendster for Business.”
  • After Friendster and Myspace came around, the average user started to understand what networks were and how to use them. In LinkedIn’s case, users started to understand how to keep a profile updated, why profiles were valuable, and the ability to use networks to find a job, etc.
  • LinkedIn started off as a consumer company and moved towards enterprise because they found out businesses wanted to pay LinkedIn for recruiter access — moved towards hiring account managers, sales, customer success, etc — started to see early signs of product market fit.
  • In 2008, they made a conscious decision that now was the time to move fast into the market opportunity — and win both the consumer and enterprise market.

V. The LinkedIn plan of how to scale

  • Much of the below comes from a presentation that Jeff Weiner gave in 2010, while they were in the middle of the village stage, to the whole company.
  • When Jeff joined (more on this below) he wanted to bring to the table the foundation for scaling. In OS1 and OS2 you don’t need as clear of a plan because everyone can work together directly. In the OS3 stage you need a far sharper and succinct business plan to manage a large organization — past Dunbar's number.
  • The mission of LinkedIn which Jeff laid out was to “create economic opportunity for every professional in the world.” This became the same mission they had followed for the last 6 years.
  • A mission is important because it becomes the touchstone which guides decisions. When you get to 400, 1,000, 10,000+ people, the key is to create a common language to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Once communication moves past 100’s of people — there are many conversations within the organization that you can’t be a part of — how can you resolve conversations you aren’t a part of? You need a way to articulate things.
  • Bringing in executives brings in a whole new set of skills which the LinkedIn team didn’t have before.

VI. Strategy of scaling LinkedIn

  • The strategy of LinkedIn (as laid out by Jeff) was to connect talent with opportunity at massive scale.
  • This includes both the growth of people joining LinkedIn and product market fit with recruiters who were paying for the product. The value to the recruiters was a large pool of passive candidates.
  • They decided to find customers primarily with the creation and scaling of a sales force.
  • Secondarily to their strategy also included “greater engagement across LinkedIn” and “developing secondary monetization strategies.”

Competitive advantage

  • The competitive advantages are the “moats” which are hard for others to copy.
  • In LinkedIn’s case, their moats were: a focus on the individual vs. the businesses, continuing to grow to critical mass, network density, concentration on data (profile completeness), and using data to drive their recruiter business.
  • In the middle of their strategic bullseye was their hiring solutions product (aka recruiters). After this was developing products for marketing professionals, sales professionals, etc.

VII. The operating priorities of LinkedIn were

  • Build a world class team
  • Focus on product
  • Monetize
  • Expand globally

Question from audience: What were the most surprising things when Jeff came in and did this?

Reid Hoffman: The things which stood out were:

  • The clarity and sharpness in which he expressed the plan
  • He made this plan rock solid and kept improving and reworking it.
  • This plan was the same plan we used internationally and externally. He repeated the key points of this plan over and over again (See Mozilla section)
  • Jeff had a strong focus on culture and the mechanisms for driving culture. He used these to expand our company while maintaining culture.

Articulating the plan

Reid Hoffman: The difference with articulating the plan in OS3 vs. OS2 or OS1 was this. Here's how I was articulating LinkedIn before:

  • We were building a network as a platform
  • On this platform everyone's identity would be real
  • We could use this platform for a number of different applications — helping people find and match with each other, helping people form connections, etc.

Jeff’s insight was these ideas work well with geeks but we were trying to build a company with 1,000’s of people. For this you need to articulate the plan with much more concrete and succinctness. We were still doing the same core thing but needed to come up with a way to rationalize all of this and get anyone to understand what we were doing quickly.

There are ways to fail as a 450 person company which just don’t apply during a small organization. The current tech giants (Facebook, Apple, Google, etc) aren’t there just because they had the right app, the right market opportunity, and just hung on.

There is a bunch of art and science on how you build an organization. How do you articulate a plan in which most people know how to understand and can coordinate amongst themselves? Also how do you build a culture which defines parallel action amongst a large number of people?

Question from the audience — Which of these things would be inappropriate in OS2?

Reid Hoffman: In the plan, things like “world class team” mean something different in OS3 vs OS2 or OS1. At LinkedIn we hired very smart people before — but now we had to operationalize things and put processes into place. For example, with hiring, we needed to create on-boarding processes, videos to help teach culture, interviewing practices, etc. We had to bring on executives who are managers of managers and so on.

The “world class team” means people who can adopt and create these kinds of practices. We aren’t saying the people we had weren’t a “world class team” — we were saying we needed to focus on people who understood and could implement scale mechanisms.

We noticed that the key pivotal roles — which were once occupied by generalists — either had to become more specialized or they would have to move into different roles. Generalists tend to be flexible, love to experiment, could figure it out on their own, weren’t afraid to take risks and attack new problems, etc.

During OS3 when we needed to take this part of the organization, grow it by 300%, develop dashboards and metrics to manage this part of the organization, all while improving operational efficiency — this kind of work tends to be done better by people who have high expertise in this particular field (specialists) rather than by generalists.

VIII. Scaling in the engineering function

Allen Blue: During the OS1 and OS2 our technical platform had been optimized for agility, being able to experiment quickly, abandoning failures, etc.

During OS3, we needed to shift to being able to increase our capacity and load by 10x-100x and build the systems to support what was working. During this period the attitude towards building software is very different than before.

Question from the audience: Going back to the generalist / specialists divide, how can you determine which type of person someone is? How do you know if a generalist could become a specialist?

During the OS1 family stage, everyone we hired were generalists. Good generalists were people who could: tackle a new problem, know how to sort it out, and were comfortable with different things. For example generalist engineers can work on the server side then move over to building an iOS app.

With specialists during hiring you want to ask:

  • What specific projects have they worked on in the past?
  • What did they learn from those projects?
  • How would they reproduce those same results in a different org.?

For example in hiring a sales generalists you would ask what would happen if I threw you in this circumstance? For hiring a sales specialists you would ask: how do you define a territory? How do you manage your sales pipeline? How do you measure your pipeline? You want to look for people who have done these things before and can do them again.

Question from the audience: Do you classify people as generalists and specialists? Do you interview differently for each type of person?

Reid Hoffman: Yes we do.

Question from the audience: Have you made bad hiring decisions?

Reid Hoffman: Yes we have made lots of bad decisions. Generally companies have one of two choices when they decide to scale:

  1. Hiring anyone quickly, monitoring their performance, then firing fast.
  2. Be more careful on hiring and more careful on firing.

Most organizations which I have seen scale — do the second strategy instead of the first. They do this because they need to build a community within the team, and its hard to do this if you are firing a lot of people.

There are organizations which do the first pattern though.

One of the goals for this class is if you hire someone for the family, think if they would make sense for the tribe — it’s important to start to think about these kinds of questions early. Part of the challenge is if you have someone you really want to keep but doesn’t work for later levels — the only chance of keeping them is to start these conversations early.

If you can see issues coming up in the future you can take preemptive steps today — coaching, mentoring, learning from others, talking directly, etc. People can understand if you need to hire a person above them if they understand the decisions around it — better to have these conversations early.

This is also part of the reason why scaling is a lot of real work.

Allen Blue: Founders are a little different in the fact that they associate their success with the success of the company — not a given role. Founders tend to be willing to make changes (with their own role) and continue to do this over time for the benefit of the org.

Reid Hoffman: The short answer on hiring over stages:

  • Now that you more data about the person from the stage before — would you hire this person in this role today?
  • If you don't answer this question 100% yes — you need to figure it out or make a change.

Question from audience: For LinkedIn, 60M users in 2008 seems like a lot, why did LinkedIn not have to scale until this point?

Reid Hoffman: Before they knew how to massively grow the revenue line we were only investing what we made back into the company — primarily to grow the user base. In 2008 they got to a point where they knew how to scale in terms of capital.

I wrestled a lot with the term “blitzscale” which we got from the word “blitzkrieg.” I don’t like the word but it has a lot of good parallels.

Prior to blitzkrieg, all of the war was done through supply chains. You would extend your front to only what the supply chain would handle — it had a max speed.

The innovation in blitzkrieg was, it said screw the supply chain, whatever you could carry you carried to go fast without the slow supply chain behind you. Once you got the battle you either won big or lost big. If you lost, you collapsed because you had no supply chain (no backup, no ammo, no food). It was very much a gamble.

Similarly in a startup when you scale — you are really going to crank up the burn rate — hire a lot more people, really make a go at it. If you are wrong, it’s very painful, most likely the death of the company. Before you scale you really have to know where investment will come from (either revenue or VC) before scaling.

Question from the audience: Do you have a thesis about if bringing on an outside leader is critical for blitzscaling (Jeff Weiner, Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt) or can the old team adapt?

Reid Hoffman: Roughly speaking it should be a combination of internal and external.

If it’s all internal you tend to drink your own koolaid, unless you have a lot of experience in scaling. This is tough because very few people have the experience of going early to late stage.

If it’s all external you tend to lose all of the people who care deeply about the problems you are working on, the people who are emotionally committed, work 100’s of hours a week.

The art is to balance between these two. Some of it comes down to the founders recognizing what their key strengths and weaknesses are. External people (investors/board) can help with this dialog and critique with the founder.

When you are founding a company the question to your board/investors isn’t “am I doing a good job?” it’s — "What could I be doing better? What do I need to be doing that I am not doing?" You need to have an accurate judgement about this and about yourself.

One of the things which was impressive about Mark Zuckerberg (Reid was an angel in Facebook) was watching Mark grow. He was trading out execs as he was scaling along the different stages to figure out what skills complimented him best. At the end he found Sheryl who excelled in many areas Mark didn’t have expertise in.

IX. Execution plan

Reid Hoffman: One thing to add is in OS1 and OS2, we were focusing on lots of experiments. One of the key execution components in OS3 was to pick a few things to focus on.

Allen Blue: One of these components was going international. Going international was something that didn’t play a role in OS1 or OS2.

For LinkedIn the critical components were:

  1. Product
  2. Go-to-Market
  3. Engineering

Each of these plans were presented on by a new executive, people we specifically brought on for OS3.

Product Plan

The background for the product plan was LinkedIn had been working on many of these items before, but never constructed it into a plan which 500 people would work on together.

The product plan included:

  • Member growth
  • Professional identity (profile)
  • Search (for recruiter product)
  • Knowledge sharing (Q&A, groups, etc)
  • Hiring solution (the paid product of LinkedIn
  • Marketing solution (the secondary paid product of LinkedIn)
  • Monetization (payments, invoicing, etc)

Go to market plan

  • Primary sales broken up by field sales teams

Another new component of the go to market plan and the OS3 stage in general is using dashboard and analytics to manage the company and forecast projections. You don’t really need this in the OS1 or OS2 stage.

Engineering Plan

  • The engineering plan was to scale our product lines 10x.
  • This happened primarily through focusing on developer productivity which included building our own internal tools.
  • Before this, we would just build things for product market fit — now we had to build systems in place for engineers and operations — uptime, distributed computing, disaster recovery, security, etc.
  • We had to change our whole stack and infrastructure, continue building our product, and scale our sales team all at once — it was very difficult.

Question from audience: How many engineers were you at, at this point?

Allen Blue: We were at about 200 engineers. One other reason why process is important is to to ensure we didn’t lose coherency across the product, tech, and sales offerings.

X. The CEO question

Reid Hoffman: Once you identify the scale challenges, one of the tough questions to ask yourself is: “Do we have the right CEO? Am I the right CEO?”

This isn’t a question about just now but it’s a question about what happens when you are 1,000 people, 2,000, 3,000, etc. The classic path is to wait till things are broken then try to fix it — this is much harder with organization problems. It’s better to anticipate where the organization is moving towards and then make the adjustments while you are going there.

The CEO directs how the whole organization works at scale. The two options are to either go into the steep learning curve or bring in a CEO/COO who has done this before. This is the same question with all of the other executive functions as well.

We fixed the ones which were absolutely critical — then used some of the early founders/employees who were generalists to fill in some of the other roles.

For myself personally (Reid), I was good at product and strategy but not so much in growing an organization. We originally hired Dan Nye as CEO when LinkedIn was 65 people. Dan was a good enterprise excellence person but after talking further, LinkedIn was at its core a consumer centric company and needed a CEO who had an affinity to this problem. Reid moved back into the CEO role then brought in Jeff Weiner to help. Very quickly Reid realized Jeff would be a good CEO and transitioned him to that role.

Allen Blue: Jeff knew we were going to need to grow fast — he worked to make sure our culture was relayed in the correct way. The challenge is when you hire in a distributed way — to make sure everyone hired the same in terms of quality, fit, match, interviewing style, etc. Jeff helped articulate a vision, mission, plan, etc but he also articulated a set of values and put these values into the hiring process. With these kinds of things, you can’t just talk about it either, they have to be embedded in how you manage on a regular basis.

People recruiting was also the #1 thing the engineers were worried about. When you are a small company, part of the pitch to engineers is to be able to define the tribe, the culture, processes, etc. When you are scaling up, this pitch doesn’t exist anymore. How do you now talk about the mission to get high quality people excited about LinkedIn?

Reid Hoffman: Another part of scaling is to make sure we had enough capital — enough money in the bank while they were about to throw on the gas and blitzscale.

The thought was to raise enough capital to smooth out our scaling challenge. This is much easier to do before scaling thann to do while you are scaling. Reid went out and raised the LinkedIn Series-D which was the last round before they went public.

Many people might be familiar with the LinkedIn Series B deck. Once you get to scale, the pitch changes to become much more succinct.

In the LinkedIn Series D deck was a:

  • summary of revenue growth
  • summary of user growth
  • revenue model (for LinkedIn it was mean revenue per member)
  • key execs and backgrounds

In later stage companies, the pitches are more succinct and much more model driven than in early stage companies.

For LinkedIn why we were so interested were:

  1. No cost of customer acquisition (users not recruiters)
  2. High margin on their recruiter product
  3. Highly scalable model (able to replicate to many users and recruiters)
  4. Network effects
  5. Huge market (recruiting, marketing, sales, business media)

Question from audience: How many companies fail at this stage? Is failing at this stage fatal?

Reid Hoffman: It depends on the competitive landscape. Many companies fail at this stage — sometimes it's product market fit, sometimes it's technology (Friendster failed in this way). I don’t know what the exact percentage is, we in technology tend to have a success bias and only look at the successful ones. At least in the social space there were Friendster, Orkut, Myspace, etc.

Question from audience: How did you approach new locations especially with the viral loop of email address, was this the same everywhere?

Reid Hoffman: We didn’t change the viral loop in other markets. Even in the early days we had a 50% international user base and we never tried going after people. It was only in the past couple years we have started doing specific changes for certain countries.

Question from audience: In terms of fundraising — how do you not fall into the temptation of just raising early and outspending the competition?

Reid Hoffman: By default, companies tend to raise more capital than less — more capital brings you more optionality.

The problem with raising too much capital are: less exit options, less discipline, setting too high expectations for new investors, it can complicate things.

On the other hand, a bigger war-chest is better than a smaller war-chest. The obvious tradeoff is dilution. In today’s market, it’s easier to get capital so founders are saying "let's go for it." Even if your valuation is above where it should be, you can use the capital to grow into the valuation.

This strategy works, only if when winter comes and financing dries up — you can get to a break-even state — because when you look badly capitalized, it's hard to raise money.

Allen Blue: Sometimes raising money at this stage is different than others — for example raising for acquisitions — common to start looking at acquiring companies during OS3 — LinkedIn didn’t, but it is common.

Question from audience: When you are at family or tribe stage, were you only hiring people who could make it to later stage? If not, did you have a discussion with them in the beginning?

Reid Hoffman: The short answer is, with very few people you have 100% confidence they can make it through multiple stages. Looking back on LinkedIn — some people broke earlier than expected and some lasted much longer than expected.

If you have the conversation — “there is no entitlement — even I’m not going to be the CEO forever" — we are defined by our mission and how well as a team we are reaching that mission. My job as a manager is to give you feedback, start the conversation, help you understand what you are good at and not good at, and helping you to find the best role possible.

Notes on teaching response to text essays

Sample Approach for following the SRSD* steps for Response to Text essay to Year 9/10 students. [5 lessons]

* Self-Regulated Strategy Development approach to teaching writing strategies developed by Steve Graham and Karen Harris.

NB: It is assumed that you have already done the teaching of the text and the aspects of the text that you want students to write about prior to this point.

Lesson One: Develop Background Knowledge, Discuss strategy

Set the context for student learning:

Tell the students they are going to be learning a new trick/strategy to help them write response to text essays. Tell them this trick/strategy has been proven to improve the writing of students of all abilities. Explain that you are interested in them learning the strategy and how they apply it in their own essays. Explain that you are also interested in what they think of the strategy and how the strategy might be improved to be even better.

Develop the strategy and self-regulation

Step One: Develop Background Knowledge (of the writing purpose)

Check that they know what a response to text essay is e.g. “A response to text essay is an essay where you write about a particular aspect of a text that you have studied and show your knowledge and understanding of this aspect and why it is important or interesting.”

You may also want to check what they think about their ability to write such essays. Have they done this type of essay before? How did they go? What do they remember about this type of essay?

This could be done as a whole class or in groups or pairs. Think about what approach would involve the students the most. You may want to do a combination i.e. groups discuss these questions first then share group ideas to the rest of the class.

It is important to address any negative ideas/beliefs students may have about essay writing. Project a positive belief about the benefits learning this strategy will have on their essay writing e.g. “A lot of you have said that you don’t like essays and that you’re no good at them. I just want you to know that I’ve taught this strategy several (lots of) times before and the students in my classes really notice how it improves their essays.” Basically, project the idea that the trick/strategy really works and will make a difference to the quality of their essays and how easy they find writing the essay.

Link to prior knowledge:

You may want to ask the students what they know about essay writing and other types of essays that may link to this type of writing – make links between this type of essay and how it is similar or different to formal writing, opinion essays etc.

Describe and discuss what makes a good response to text essay - e.g. a good response to text essay:

  • has a clear introduction that lets the reader know what text they are writing about and how they are going to address the topic/question in their essay.
  • focuses on the one aspect that the question/topic is asking them to write about
  • makes two or three points about this aspect
  • contains specific details, quotes or references from the text to support each point
  • makes clear statements explaining how each point/example links back to the topic and addresses the question

Explain purpose of the essay skill that they are developing

Talk about when you would write this type of essay and why learning how to write this type of essay is important or useful (try to go beyond just needing it for exams!)

Tell the students that they will learn a trick for remembering what to put in their introductions and in each of the main paragraphs in their essays.

Step Two: Introduce TAKO & SEXY (SEEL, PEEL etc…)

Show students a couple of examples of a response to text essay introduction e.g.

“In the novel Hatchet by Gary Paulsen an important character is Brian. Brian is important because he develops the key ideas in the book of courage and perseverance.”

“An interesting character in Gary Paulsen’s novel, Hatchet, is Brian. Brian is interesting because of the ways in which he changes from the beginning of the novel to the end. By the end of the book he has changed from an average city boy with no outdoors skills into someone who has learned how to survive in the woods.”

Go through the examples with the students exploring what each of the introductions includes. Ask them if they can identify the parts in the introductions that the examples have in common (NB: could be done as a whole class or in groups or pairs before sharing together). Students will probably come up with a range of points – put them on the board and students/class decide on the one that they like. If students don’t come up with it themselves you can write up T.A.K.O. Title, Author, Key words from question, Outline of points/ideas.

Go through together how each part of the mnemonic links to what is in a good introduction. Ask if students are happy with the mnemonic and if they would change it in anyway? If so let them – make the mnemonic something they have ownership of! Just ensure that it does include the elements you want to emphasise.

Now introduce SEXY

Reveal the mnemonic for paragraphs in a response to text essay. Say, “Let’s look at the parts that make up a good paragraph in a response to text essay.” Go over each part of SEXY, describing what each part is and what it does - e.g.

S: the Statement at the start of the paragraph that says what point/idea this paragraph is making, focusing on.

E: the Explanation that explains how this statement is relevant to the text and/or question.

X: the eXample(s) from the text that support(s) your statement and develop(s) your point.

Y: explain whY this example/point is relevant to the question/topic.

“One reason why Brian is important is because he shows us the key idea of perseverance. Brian had to learn many new things that took him many attempts to get right. An example of when he had to show perseverance was when he tried to start a fire and it took him many attempts to get it to work. To begin with he didn’t know what to do but when he realised a rock he found produced sparks when it was struck he tried and tried again until he got a fire going. This was important because if Brian had not persevered in trying to light a fire then he would not have been able to keep warm at night or to cook the meat he needed to eat to survive.”

Read through the paragraph together. Say that this paragraph is a good example and does everything that you would expect in a good paragraph at this level.

Go through and annotate, locate, each part of the mnemonic in the paragraph. Talk aloud as you do e.g. “The first think I’m looking for is a statement that says what the paragraph is going to be about. The statement is usually at the start and makes a point. Does this first statement make a point? I think so, it says one reason why Brian is important and states it as a fact – so that’s my statement. I’ll colour that red.” Go through in a similar way for the whole paragraph.

NB: Talking aloud like this – asking yourself the questions and saying what it is you are looking for and what that is – is important because you are modelling the self-talk you want the students to be doing and to learn.

Ask the students if they agree that the mnemonic works, is there anything else they think is in the essay that the mnemonic misses, can they think of a different mnemonic or extra part of it that they could add that will do the job better?

Step Three: Find parts in an essay – whole class

Tell the students that they will read an essay to find out if the writer used all of the parts of TAKO and SEXY in their introductions and paragraphs. Display the mnemonics clearly so that the students can see it, refer to it. You could give a cue card with the mnemonic to each group or have it on an OHT or on the board etc.

Read through another example that students have copies of. Ask them to raise their hands when they hear each aspect of the mnemonic(s). In this way you can discuss with the students which words or phrases the writer uses that alert you as a reader that s/he has included each aspect.

Step Four: Practise TAKO, SEXY

Practice the mnemonic – test the students on what the letters are and stand for. They should be able to write it down correctly by themselves. If not allow them to look at the cue card reminder etc and try again.

Step Five: Find parts in another essay- group work

Hand out another essay(s) to small groups and ask students to go through and identify each aspect of the mnemonics. Colour them in different colours, underline them in different ways, … For students you can do this very quickly you may like to give them the additional challenge of identifying the key words or phrases that the writer uses that signal each part of the mnemonic as it comes along.

NB: Important to give out examples that do have the elements in them – you are, afterall, trying to get them to see that this mnemonic is useful and that it works!

You can go through these steps several times over several lessons to reinforce the mnemonics and their relevance and to help students memorise it and to be able to identify each aspect of the mnemonic confidently.

Lesson Two – Modelling, Memorising, Self-statements

Set the context for student learning

Test to see if the students remember TAKO and SEXY. Also review the purpose of a response to text essay – what is it and when and why we do it. Ask the students to write down the mnemonics and then to see if they can remember what the mnemonic stands for. NB –it is essential that all students have memorised the mnemonic. If some students are having difficulty with this then spend a few minutes on it and give them the opportunity to learn and memorise it.

Develop the strategy and self-regulation

Step One: Revisit finding essay parts

You may wish to go through another example of an essay and ask students to identify the parts of the essay referring to the mnemonic. If some students are having trouble finding the essay parts you may need to go through this with them a couple more times.

Step Two: Model the strategy

Lay out a copy of the TAKO, SEXY mnemonic as well as a sample question like one that the students will be responding to (like one of the ones from the previous day). Say “Remember that the first letter of is T. I need to know what the title of my text is that I’m going to be writing about. I know that I’m going to be writing on Hatchet. Next is A for author. I remember that the author is Gary Paulsen. That’s good I know who the author is and what the title is. Next is K – which stands for Key words of the Question. So now I need to look at the question and identify what the key words are. What are the key words? There are two main types of key words in a question like this. Firstly, are what I call the ‘action’ words – the words that are telling me what I have to do. If I look in this question I see that in this instance they are ‘Describe’ and ‘Explain’. These are the words telling me what to do. Cool, now I know that those are the two main things I have to do? But what do I write about? This is where the other words in the question are important. The next set of the words are the ones that indicate what I’m writing about. So in this question I can see that I have to write about an important character and WHY the character is important. Ok, so that is two things I have to do – identify an important character and think of some reasons why they are important. I’ll have to think about that one. I should check my notes on characters to see why the character is important. OK, so now I’ve identified the key words of the question the next part of the mnemonic is O which stands for Outline – so now I have to think for a bit and come up with an outline or plan of what I want to write about so I can put it in my introduction. I will check my notes about the character and might discuss the ideas with others or the teacher to see if I have good points about why the character is important.”

You will likely want to stop and get the students to work on their own TAKO introductions at this point and to do some planning and thinking of points in the Outline part of the mnemonic.

The modelling of your ‘self-talk’ is very important. This is what allows the students to understand the cognitive decisions that you are making and the metacognition that you are going through as you make decisions. It allows them to listen to the questions that you use to support you in going through the steps of the mnemonic and how you have to interpret or use the key word reminders that the mnemonic provides.

If you are not comfortable to talk ‘on the spot’ about your paragraph making you could basically write yourself a script – like the one I have up here – that you would learn or have with you to remind you of the points and steps you go through.

Step Three: Self-statements

Ask the students if they can remember 1) things you said to yourself to get started, 2) things you said while you worked, 3) things you said to yourself when you’d finished.

Ask the students to write some things they could say to themselves on a self-statements sheet:

  • What to say to get started; this should be along the same lines as “What do I have to do? I have to write an essay using TAKO and SEXY”. Be sure the students use their own words.
  • Things to say while working; self-evaluation, coping, self-reinforcement, and any others in the students’ own words e.g. “Have I got all parts of my mnemonic?; I should check my mnemonic if I don’t know what to do next; Good, now I’ve done that part I move on to the next part; That looks like a good TAKO; I can check this with my neighbour to make sure I’ve done everything I should do” etc
  • Things to say to themselves when they have finished to review their work - said in their own words.
  • Note that the students don’t always have to think these things aloud; once they learn them, they can think them in their heads or whisper to themselves.

Lesson Three – Modelling, Memorising, Self-Statements

As above but with the SEXY part of the mnemonic not the TAKO part

Go through the same steps and processes for the second aspect of the mnemonic as you did for the introduction and planning part.

Examples of some of the self-talk and self-regulation points you should cover in the SEXY paragraph modelling lesson are:

[a] Questions to orient you to the task e.g.

“What do I need to do in a good response to text essay?”

“What is the question asking me to do here?”

“What did I say I was going to cover in my introduction”

“What order should I point my points in?”

“What do I have to put in a SEXY paragraph?”

[b] Questions or Statements to help manage or self-regulate the writer during the writing of the essay e.g.

“What does the mnemonic say I should be doing next?”

“I should look back at my mnemonic sheet to make sure that I have covered everything in there”

“Can I think of a better or another example to support my point?”

“Does that make sense? Would a reader know what I mean here?”

“Have I used words from the question in my answer?”

“How can I use different words that mean the same things because I’ve used that word too many times?”

“Am I paying enough attention to the task/question?”

“Is there a better way of wording this point?”

“How can I link my point back to the question/topic?”

“Do my points link well together? Do they create an overall ‘argument’ or flow to my essay?”

[c] Statements about managing self e.g.

“What should I be doing next?”

“How can I check that I’m on the right track?”

“I think I’m doing a good job at following the mnemonic”

“I need to stay focused on the mnemonic because that will help my essay be better”

“I could ask my neighbour to help me keep on track and focused”

“What is my goal for this lesson/task?”

“Am I on track to achieve my goal?”

“What would my teacher think of my essay at this point?”

“Am I happy that I’ve done the best I can on this section?”

Lesson Four - Support

Set the context for student learning

Test to see that the students know TAKO & SEXY (SEEL…). Do this aloud to save time. It is essential that each student has memorised these mnemonics. If students are struggling spend more time on memorising games, techniques, tests of the mnemonic and what it means. You may wish to remind students of what this type of essay is and what a good response to text essay does also how it is the same or different to other types of essays and writing that they do or have done before. Link to prior learning and orient to the purpose of this writing. Link to goals that the students may have formed for their own learning based on previous formative feedback etc.

Develop the strategy and self-regulation

Step One: Collaborative Writing – Support It

In this lesson you can do two things. Either you collaboratively write a TAKO and/or SEXY paragraph together with the whole class OR you get them to work in groups to do this aspect.

The important thing, again, is that the students are gradually being scaffolded into being able to self-regulate their own construction of these aspects of the essay.

If you are leading it try to get the students to do the work as much as possible with some prompts or questions from you using your self-statements to elicit student focus and ensure that they are using the mnemonics well.

If you get the students to work in groups you should structure it so that:

  1. They have to write the mnemonic down first together
  2. That they write down and share their self-statements as a group
  3. Give them an essay prompt to work with that would be in the similar structure to those you have worked on together before.

When the students have completed their writing it is important for them to go back and highlight or map each aspect in their essay that covers the elements of the mnemonic/strategy.

A variation of this could be that the groups passed on their TAKO and SEXY paragraphs to another group to highlight and map each aspect of the mnemonics as they appear in the writing.

NB: You may need to repeat this lesson before you feel confident that students can perform independently and you may need one for TAKO and one or more for SEXY aspects.

Lesson Five - Independence

Set the context for student learning

This lesson is about the individual/independent performance and use of the strategy.

Remind the students that you have been working on Response to Text essay writing and learning a strategy for writing effective essays. Quickly retest/reinforce the mnemonics that have been used / developed for this purpose. Explain the purpose of these essays and how they are similar or different to other types of essays. Link to students’ individual goals – remind them that they should set writing goals before they start learning.

You could get them to work independently on any or all of the aspects that have been covered above in the other lessons i.e. independently identifying parts of the mnemonic in an essay, independently producing a TAKO introduction or SEXY paragraph (or both) etc.

Tell the students to use their self-statements to manage their work and to keep them on track as they do the writing.

You will need to monitor to see if all of the students are ready for independent performance. It may be necessary to form a group to work collaboratively and who continue to need support to do the work.

Published on: 18 Jan 2011


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