The iconic writing resource They Say/I Say, begins with a quote by literary theorist and poet Kenneth Burke where he likens academic discussion to a dinner party…
You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about…You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you…The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
When I first encountered this quote, I was enamored, and then, nearly as quickly, horrified. The quote perfect encapsulated what I wanted my class to be, and for a moment I reveled in that vision before being crushed a few seconds later under the sad realization that my class as it currently stood looked nothing like that.
Of course, if I am being fair to myself, the discussions in my class around ideas and literature sometimes verged on passion and heat, but the essay–the main historical vehicle for centuries to deeply engage in the dinner party of thoughts–was generally as cold and lifeless as some remote moon orbiting an outer planet.
I’ve written before about the problems with keeping essays penned-in to five paragraph boxes, and there is no doubt that the form-first teaching of essays contributes to the lack of passion so omnipresent in so many student essays, but there is more to the story than that. Most students when questioned don’t actually know what an essay is, what they are for, and why they are valuable to write. They generally know nothing of the diverse universe of essays that exist beyond the school walls and are shocked when I tell them that authors ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Mark Twain are at their cores essayists. And nearly all of them chuckle and eye-roll the first time I tell them that writing essays should be fun.
But essays should be fun to write and read and learning about them is essential to becoming an informed adult. So after reading the Burke quote above, I set out to teach my students the value, importance, and yes, joy of essays. Like any teacher, my process is a work in progress and includes plenty of year-by-year improvement and improvisation, but in the end, my students now largely write excited and passionate essays that they gush about even months or years later. Here is what I do:
My first essay lessons are more remarkable for what I don’t include than what I do. I don’t start my unit with discussion of a thesis, supporting evidence, or tag analysis, as I did in previous years. That will come, as these are important elements of argumentation, but the first lessons are all about figuring out what an essay is and why it matters.
To start, I usually begin by simply asking students what the definition of an essay is. The answers to this are often wide-ranging, but the common thread that ties them all together is usually that the students ultimately have no idea. When I share the answer with them (see below), they are often surprised and somewhat relieved:
When boiled down by Websters, the big bad essay is simply an attempt to write a short piece on a particular subject.
The next step is to share some essays with them that are far removed from the classic literary essay that dominates most secondary schools. We’ll get to that too, but in the beginning, I want to reframe for them the possibilities that an essay can have and let them revel in the interesting language and ideas. Essays in this category often include…
- Tongue-In Cheek Essays like Christopher Morley’s “On Laziness”, “The Decay of the Art of Lying” by Mark Twain, or anything by David Sedaris
- Pithy, unexpected essays like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Unlikely Influence of Dungeons and Dragons
- Argumentative pieces, like this one on the danger of banning books for kids (it is banned books week after all).
- Thoughtful reviews of TV/movies/literature like this recent Esquire one on The Good Place
- Cultural commentary like this one from Sarah Zhang in today’s The Atlantic on the intersection of DNA and culture
- Or even something literary like this one from yesterday’s The Atlantic on the parallels between Trump and characters in The Great Gatsby
When it comes to which essay/s to choose, there is no one right choice; I always just think about the temperament and interests of the class sitting in front of me and strive to give them a blend both classic and contemporary.
After we have gotten used to a variety of essays, I have them attempt essays on various topics of their choice. I find that giving them as much autonomy as possible concerning the topic of the first essay/s is huge because the excitement and love of a topic gives them the fuel (and desire) needed to engage fully in learning the sometimes tricky organizational, rhetorical, and argumentative skills that are essential for an essay. Some of my favorite types of early essays include TED Talks that pass on an “idea worth spreading”, argumentative letters where they argue for some sort of change in the world, or “On ______” papers where they write “on” the subject of something (like the “On Laziness” one above).
Lastly, once students have strong commands of the skills, we move on to the essay style that has so long dominated the ELA classroom: the literary analysis essay. This comes last because analyzing literature in a written piece is tough, and so I want to ensure that the students have a strong suite of essay skills before we even try our hands at writing about literature. And once we get to this point, I make sure that the students know that just because we’ve arrived at literary essays doesn’t mean the fun has stopped. In fact, I argue it is actually the beginning of the real fun because we are now at the dinner party of ideas, and, as author James Clear (whose new book Atomic Habits is coming out soon and looks to be a game-changing text on breaking bad habits and acquiring good ones) says…
When we break down, analyze, and argue about literature we are getting to interact with and learn from some of the most interesting of those 107 billion people. Further, we get to measure our own ideas against theirs and strive to do them one better!
I stress this viewpoint early and often, and to further encourage students to adopt this approach too, I tend to encourage them to challenge ideas in their essays and I leave lots of room open for them to add their voice alongside the author’s. To see this in action, here are the last two essays of last year in my African American Literature class:
- As we read The Bluest Eye in the spring, I discussed how the book was banned in many districts surrounding ours. Their paper was to react to that in an essay. They could do this by writing essays to school boards arguing for or against such bans, examine the concept of book banning in the context of The Bluest Eye, or otherwise grapple with if and when the difficult and powerful messages of the book should be required for students.
- The final essay was for them to write an essay on race in America. The style of the essay was left wide open. They could write letters like James Baldwin, personal essays like Ta-Nehisi Coates, more academic-style arguments like W.E.B. DuBois, powerfully oratory like Frederick Douglass, review a recent book/movie/tv/ series/song through what it says about race (I got several amazing ones on Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and Childish Gambino’s “This is America”), or even give a poem/essay hybrid like Clint Smith.
In each of the essay options above, students were expected to have a thesis, textual evidence, lots of deep analysis, and organization, but they also were encouraged at every turn to be invigorated by the discourse, to engage in a battling of ideas, and to have fun as they tried on different ideas like they were playing with costumes in the aisles of a Halloween store, and the result were pieces that were enjoyable and fulfilling for them to write and me to read. Further, since taking this approach, the growth present has far surpassed what it was when they wrote cold, detached essays because the very things that make it fun–the engagement, value, and sense of seeking–also are potent accelerators for student learning!
Yours in teaching,
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