Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Teaching the Executive Summary: Applying Real Life to School Life

By on September 24, 2011

OK, so there they are: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They are in your audience and have their checkbooks out looking for a new cause to fund. Will it be yours?

So began my schpeel on writing an Executive Summary for this DARPA/NASA Project I’m doing with my students (see earlier posts, “The Power of Teaching Something you Know Nothing About” and “DARPA project con’t: Research and Questioning.”)

I have decided that even though the NASA/DARPA video conferencing event is on Friday, Sept 30, there should be one last period at the end of this sentence for all students involved, not just those who were selected as panelists to speak on camera. So the following week, each of the small groups will be presenting in their own panels to their classmates. The classmates will be given mock checks in the amount of 1 million dollars, and at the end of the week, the students need to give their check to the group that they feel most deserved their funding.

It’s incorporating business with education, the reality of funding with Project-Based Learning. After all, while we may not run education lock step like a business, there is no reason not to be teaching some elements of business as we prepare our students for their future.

The most substantial part of my students’ writing contribution for their overall project is the Executive Summary. Yes, they also incorporated the science they learned into a science-fiction narrative. Yes, they have been doing research and taking Cornell Notes. But their end result must be presented in the form of an Executive Summary.

The Executive Summary is an interesting writing genre in that it hits many marks that make it applicable to life outside of school, which is why I’m choosing to teach it this year. For one thing, students can find examples of Executive Summary that exist in many industries. Can you say the same thing about the 5-paragraph essay?

Also, to prepare for it, I still teach the standards that are necessary for test scores. The genre, however, applies to both masters: meaningfulness and standardized performance. It uses Summarizing, Persuasive Writing, Research Skills, and Computer Literacy.

It also demands rigor in the form of simplicity, which can be uber-challenging, because it insists on concise writing and the role-play it connects to a real life scenario. In our case: our real-life scenario is speaking to a ballroom of scientists to convince them of our findings (Friday) and presenting in panels in front of our philanthropic peers (the following week.)

Yet the true rigor of this unit is the fact that it mashes so many genres of writing together. After all, life is not categorized. Scientists applying for a grant must summarize their findings and recommendations and still Persuade in order to receive it. Small business owners looking to present at a conference must Summarize their session, create a bio, and Persuade a committee to select their topic. A graduate student ready to venture out into the world must create both a Cover Letter and a Resume: both of which are versions of summaries using different methods of summarization (prose, bullets, numbers, headings, subheadings, paragraphs, bolded text, etc…) in order to Persuade potential employers to hire him or her.

So it is not surprising that presenting this writing unit is more rigorous than a more traditional unit. It is, in fact, more real. Which brings to light a question about our tendencies in education: if categorization of topics is easier to understand, but isn’t as true to life outside of education, are we really preparing our students for the expectations of real life by breaking our writings down into simple blocks of learning?

Look, the fact is that categorized, linear teaching is easier to comprehend. I get it. But it’s not life. So the best we can do to help each other is perhaps break down the components of the complexity of the job that we do as teachers every day. For it is complex.

To help break down a little about this particular writing genre, I thought I’d provide a brief outline that might help simplify what is far from simple. If you are interested in teaching Executive Summary, a simple order of the writing might be:

I. Why is this issue important?
II. Give a little background of the issue
III. Present some evidence of past/current methods
IV. State your own recommendations.

Remember with Executive Summary that the goal is short and sweet, max 3 pages. A person who knows nothing about the topic shouldn’t be slammed by a wall of dense text. The student needs to break up the information using Headings, Sub-headings, bold text, bullets, etc…The student can insert graphs, charts, and other simple visuals as well. It is a combination of fact-based, irrefutable evidence presented with no voice. Let the facts do the talking. Then, in the recommendations section, that’s where students can throw in more persuasive language and opinion. Of course, the whole piece takes a clear stance, which is opinion in itself. But it uses the strength of fact and summary to do the heavy lifting.

Overall, an Executive Summary should be positive, persuasive, and punctuated by simple and visual text design elements.

So here’s a snapshot of where we are in the whole project: I collect their Executive Summaries this Monday. Their multi-media presentations are also due on that date. The websites or PowerPoints are a collaborative, visual-based version of their Executive Summaries combined into one presentation where each panelist provided 2 slides to represent the main ideas of their research. The students will begin practicing this week for next week’s panels in order to earn the blank checks. In the meantime, the students will also be developing high-level questions using Costas and Blooms in order to grill their peers who were chosen this week to speak on the Sept. 30 panel to Florida. This way, the selected students can practice recalling their research and citing evidence on the fly when the time comes for the Q & A portion of our session.

Oh, yeah, and somewhere in all of that, we have to read the assigned short story in the textbook for a reading assessment bubble test the following week.

How’s the old Sesame Street song go? “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong…”

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