Lending a 'Hand': Using Lenses to Narrow Essay Focus

Quarter 1 has a lot to do with getting your students acquainted with global issues, filling the "blank slate"--so to speak—with those basics that’ll lay the groundwork for deeper research later.

While it’s true you simply can’t cover every contemporary and/or controversial issue out there, you do have the Quarter 1 obligation of helping students feel comfortable with (and even excited about!) these issues before they’re expected to write (at length) about them.  After all, a General Paper student's worst nightmare is not recognizing the wide variety of issues presented on the exam, and an AP Seminar or AICE Global Perspectives student’s worst nightmare is not being able to find a research question in time for through-course deadlines. Therefore, the better we are at teaching them about research range, the better off they’ll be when it comes time to perform.

What better way to open up exploration than getting your hands dirty! Using the ‘Hand’ Approach in your classroom will do two amazing things for your writers:

  1. First, it’ll show them the many ways in which researchers can delve deeply into a research topic;
  2. and second--once they’ve seen such variety--they can use this same approach to narrow and deepen their own research focus.

Once you've opened their eyes to the many research avenues worth exploring, students can then use [this tool] to narrow down exactly what it is they wish to investigate.


In brief, the Hand Approach works like this...first it BROADENS their mind, then it NARROWS their focus.  You with me?!

Ok, now, let's. get. down...

First of all,

What is the Hand Approach?

The Hand Approach helps students generate ideas that span the disciplines, opening their minds to the WORLD of possibilities at their fingertips, then using this awareness to narrow the focus of their essay.

Here's how we count to 5...


  • "thumbs up" to the innovative ideas of SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY


Your INDEX Finger:

  • point away at POLITICS and GOVERNMENT because "Uncle Sam Wants YOU!"


Your MIDDLE Finger (watch it now!):

  • it's at the center of our five fingers, and the ENVIRONMENT is "central" to our existence


Your RING Finger:

  • where we sport, for example, wedding rings, one of the many SOCIAL relationships a culture values


Your PINKY Finger:

  • this spans POP CULTURE...such as media, sports, and entertainment topics, or those things that Mini-Me-style..."complete [us]"

TRIBE NOTE:  I tend to color-coordinate ideas based on the hand as a means of "chunking" ideas together...it helps students see connections amongst ideas, which leads to an effective synthesis of advanced ideas! Oh yeah!

So what CENTRAL IDEAS do we place in the palm of our Hand to be explored?  Well, before you set your semester in stone (or your syllabus), do a little scholarly soul-searchin'...

What interests you as a teacher?  What topics are you most passionate about teaching (without sounding rantish)?  What do you anticipate will captivate a teen audience? And most importantly, what issues are considered contemporary, cutting-edge, not yet answered?  Hot buttons?  Trending topics?  Repeat news offenders/ongoing controversies?  Worries of the world?  Apocalyptic pontifications?  Better yet...hopes for the future?  Clear skies, and open seas?  Endless possibilities? 

The first order of business, though...LET. STUDENTS. LEAD.  Success will follow if they take ownership of what they're learning!

Introducing Lenses

No matter what kind of topic they're exploring, our students need to learn how to narrow the scope of writing.

The "Hand Approach" is meant to get writers thinking about their essay topic from different vantage points before selecting one or two angles of interest to pursue more specifically.

Simplistic in design, sure, but think of the 'hand' themes as a baby-access point to understanding more advanced 'research lenses,' which will materialize later in advanced-level writing courses like AICE Global Perspectives & Research or AP Seminar.  

If you're teaching either of these advanced courses now, you may need to adjust the lenses on the "hand" (namely, the pinky finger) to suit your needs, but these categories certainly serve the beginner or struggling writer well.  

If you're teaching a course like English General Paper, though, you're in mad luck because this tactic is an excellent tool to add to your teaching repertoire; it will help your students think critically about the essay prompts they come across, as opposed to simply regurgitating the surface level.

Interested in accessing the materials for this awesome activity?!  Simply join the fab, funky bunch by subscribing to our mailing list!

Just click HERE and poof...you're in!

Research teachers...looking to 'up the ante' on your hand?  Take a look at the blog content I salvaged from a previous post on my oldie-but-goodie blog, the Global Pen. Four years ago, during the last Olympics, our online, collaborative crew put the hand lenses to work (thanks Jess, from West Boca HS, for nerding with me!).  Perhaps these ideas'll reignite a conversation in your classroom following the 2016 Olympics in Rio (cue Rhianna song).

I hope this post paves a tidy path for you to tread upon!

Yours in Education,


PSSST...Here's a glimpse of another blog post that will serve you in the classroom!

Introducing Perspectives

Once students are familiar with lenses, it's time to take them a step further by breaking those lenses down into the stakeholders who possess a point of view exclusive to that lens.

For instance, if a student is exploring the research topic of Standardized Testing and is looking at it from a political lens, then he/she may want to look at the various, political 'stakeholders' who have a 'stake' in the standardized-testing matter.  This might include researching the perspective of figures like state governors; the Department of Education; Supreme Court officials; etc. etc.


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