I’ve spent the last few years of my career as an English teacher working on reclaiming the word essay. Students, for many reasons, react badly to that word. It’s not just because our assigning of it means they have to do some work, there’s something there.
My theory is that a lot of teachers have done disservice to the term. They’ve made it an onerous, overdrawn writing exercise that is more about hitting a checklist of arbitrary academic outcomes that the teacher assigning insists are all The Right And Important Things. It becomes about meeting a length requirement. It’s not a fun thing, and it’s not a space our writers can express themselves.
However, I do understand where that need to Teach The Essay comes from. If they’re post-secondary bound, we feel compelled to drill that into them.
I’d like to share an approach I had success with last year, and plan to use with more classes this year. I call it the FrankenEssay.
I teach thematically, wrapping much of what we do around a single overarching theme. This actually gave me a very good entry point for what I wanted to do. My students were very concerned about writing longer essays. However, I needed to balance that with the fact that I had students who were decidedly NOT post secondary bound, and insanely unreceptive to a longer writing assignment. My focus was on them expressing their ideas, as well as length – things I feel they needed to be more confident in.
Essentially, I had to sneak the long essay up on them.
This is where the theme based teaching worked in our favour. These Grade 12s had a theme I call The Three Is: Identity, Individuality and Independence. I decided I wanted them to write a longer piece about conformity. I didn’t assign that though.
We did a load of smaller pieces. Our first one was around the definition. We explained how we understood it individually, then talked about our experiences, positive and negative to conformity. This was a series of questions, with time to respond in their notebooks, discussing answers, and adding more to the notebook based upon our chat… reflection.
To be sneaky, I made a point of avoiding the term conformity through the next serried of activities. We watched The Breakfast Club, and I asked them to respond to it, with a guiding question, focusing on conformity. We did a similar piece in response to Dead Poets Society. We read, and responded to an article about the pressures of fashion on young people. As part of our work, we watch the show Freaks and Geeks, and respond to each episode. A number of those responses come back to ideas about conformity. I love to get students to look at a page full of quotes, finding one that speaks to them and responding to it. So, we came back to the term with the quotes, and them explaining which quote aligns most with their experiences, and understanding, of conformity.
As teachers reading this, you see what I did. The students didn’t. Since we work thematically, they’re accustomed to dancing around a topic for a while, and saw these things as distinct assignments. This bit of hocus pocus made the end result more powerful.
After the couple weeks of seemingly disparate work, I told them that they were expected to do the impossible – write a piece of greater length in a shorter time period. (Those numbers are dependent upon the students in the class – enough to challenge, not to sink them.)
You can imagine the response. As Hunter S. Thompson would say, “There was a lot of bad noise.”
And then, I went to the board, and we wrote down all the things that we had already written about conformity. And we realized that the essay was already written, we just had to edit, organize and form into a single cohesive piece.
And you know what? It went really well. We had great conversations about our writing, perhaps because we were less focused on what we were saying, and could focus on how we said it. In my experience, many of our writers wind up struggling with their writing because they are trying to do everything at once. They’re formulating ideas, organizing them and trying to show their skill at the craft of writing all at the same time. Each of those things in isolation is challenging, never mind trying to tackle all three at once.
The FrankenEssay relieves some of that pressure. They think about their ideas, and use things that they’ve already written to bolster them. If the things they’ve written are all over the place, they’ll need to consider their thesis again. Since they’ll be drawing from a number of smaller pieces, instead of organizing their arguments, they’re looking at what they already have to decide what fits where. As they’re putting those pieces into their bigger piece, they’ll need to be revising and editing to make it cohesive.
Ultimately, however, I love the FrankenEssay for the confidence it can build. Most students don’t balk at a page response – it’s something that peel off in a class. The grumbling rolls in when they need to do something bigger. The FrankenEssay process shows them that this can actually be a relatively simple process – effectively doing smaller tasks, assembling and organizing. While this process may not work for every longer piece that they write, once that they see that it can be easy, they often seem a lot more willing to tackle the big things.
How do you encourage and support students to write the big things? Do you see other applications for what I’ve outlined here?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!