I’ve mentioned before that I’ve long been reticent to discuss the essay and especially the five-paragraph essay on this blog because it is easily the most controversial corner of writing instruction. I’ve seen first-hand in discussion boards and department meetings how deep essay teaching practices can run (the one time that I waded directly into this space with the blog, I spent the better part of a summer day defending myself on Twitter), and with so much else to talk about, I have generally steered clear.

My tabbed and dog-eared copy of Why They Can’t Write

But in recent months, the universe has been sending me signs that it is time for me to discuss the essay in some depth. I’ve had a number or readers reach out asking about what I do, as the essay is central to most writing classrooms; I’ve also gotten several wonderful pieces sent to me by readers–including one from a student reflecting on her five-paragraph focused education that I will share with you next week–that illuminate some things I’d never thought about before, and I stumbled through a very happy accident into reading John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, which really got me thinking about the role the essay plays in our classes (also, despite its essay-centric title, it is a wide-ranging and deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking book that discusses everything from online “personalized” education to the role grades play in our classes to essay writing; it is one of the most interesting reads I’ve had in some time).

Add all of that together, and I have decide that May will be a whole month spent rethinking and hopefully reclaiming the much-maligned essay as a vibrant and lively genre, as opposed to the soul-crushing exercise in compliance that it often becomes. I hope you enjoy!


Choosing Their Own Adventures: Essays Without Prompts

The first time I ever saw an essay without a prompt was when I did the Oregon Writing Project with the divine Linda Christensen. Christensen recounts this process in her book Teaching for Joy and Justice when she says:

I don’t assign specific essay topics. Students generate these along the way. When students hit on an idea during a discussion, I might say, ‘Write that down. That would make a great essay.’ As we move to the end of the book, I ask students, ‘We’ve been reading Warriors Don’t Cry, studying integration and ally behavior. What moved you? What interests you? Make a list.’ After about five to 10 minutes, I begin collecting their ideas on the board…[Students then] choose topics based on their interest. My only condition is that they use material in the book as part of their evidence.

-Linda Christensen in Teaching for Joy and Justice

Before working with Christensen, I had never thought of the concept of choosing one’s own essay topic. In both my schooling and my classroom, essays were an exercise in answering a teacher’s question. What does the green light mean in Gatsby? Who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? The teacher asked and the students answered as best they could.

This, of course, is not meant to malign those who use such questions. The two examples above are actual essays I’ve assigned, and I believe there are plenty of moments where a prompt is warranted (more on that later). But what Christensen showed me is that if essays are only ever about answering someone else’s question, they will likely remain relatively joyless exercises in compliance for many students, as opposed to what they were designed to be: short pieces where they do battle with and ultimately come to a conclusion about an important idea or concept.

One word of warning though, when it comes to letting students choose their own topic, it isn’t as easy as just saying Please choose a topic. For many students, and especially those used to having relatively restrictive prompts, the blank page can be intimidating and disorienting. Many will have no idea how to write an essay without a question posed and will spend days perseverating before any work even starts. Others will attempt to do what they’ve often been trained to do: just parrot ideas from class in the hopes that this will make the teacher happy. With that in mind, when it comes to taking off the training wheels of essay prompts, I now follow these steps:

We read a lot of essays first

A student guest will talk more about this next week, but most students have never actually read an essay. Sure, maybe they’ve read a classmate’s essays during peer review or seen a teacher-constructed exemplar or two, but they’ve never really read a real essay in the wild. That is why before we write essays, we read a lot of examples from a massive range of authors to get the feel of the genre. Here is a link to a post that has some fun ones for students.

We brainstorm as we read

The first time I walked in Linda Christensen’s classroom, I was struck first by how her walls are covered in butcher paper and her whiteboards explode with student ideas and concepts. She alludes to this above, but it warrants repeating, as I think it is the true secret of how to effectively assign an essay without a prompt.

What she does is that as they read, she regularly has students write their interpretations or ideas on the board and then (and this is where she differs from many other teachers), she leaves them up for the whole unit.

By the end of the unit, the board is full of ideas from classmates that students can adopt, react to, or counter in their own essays. Christensen also makes sure that her students know that all the ideas are fair game to champion or challenge. In a sense what she is doing here is giving them dozens of potential prompts (or thousands if they start combining ideas), making it far more likely they will stumble into an idea that interests them. At the same time, those students who know exactly what they want to talk about can feel free to dive right into that whether or not it is written on one of the boards.

We have an early micro-conference

I’ve talked about micro-conferences before on this blog, but in short they are quick conferences with students designed to tackle a single issue or small suite of issues. I have found that even with a board full of ideas, many students struggle to find and frame the “right” topic when given full autonomy. This is why I always have a quick conference where students share their topic and the key points early in the process. This allows me to figure out who is quietly struggling and it also gives me the chance to help students craft what they are trying to say, which is much harder without a prompt. The most important part of this step–both for students who are stuck or those just need a little refining–is that our role should be as advisor, not co-writer. While we could likely jump in and fix their arguments or hand them more polished arguments in a manner of seconds, doing so often means we are doing the hard and important work for them.

Enjoy

Once students get rolling on their choice topics, I find their investment and often their enjoyment of the essay to be dramatically different than when I asked them to color within the lines set by me. For example, my students at this moment are writing an essay on an author of their choice from the second semester, and just yesterday I had to push the deadline back because nearly half of them asked for an extension. On the surface, this might seem like a bad thing or that I am a pushover (maybe a little), but the reason they nearly all gave was that they wanted to do more research or dig a bit deeper into the text, and this was backed up by a quick glance at their revision histories. This level of engagement never happened when students only had to answer my questions; instead most would just plug their noses and knocked out my essays quickly, viewing them largely as one of many hoops they would have to jump through that week at school!


A Quick Post Script:

Most of my essays are now student-choice essays, but this is not to say that all are. For example, when we read The Bluest Eye, I assign a paper about whether this book should be taught in a high school, as while it is approved by our district, it is banned in numerous districts around us. To set that up, I pull up news stories about its banning that show people arguing passionately for and against it.

The essay students write about this is used to inform a whole-class debate we have on the same subject, and while the prompt has a lot of room for students to talk about what matters to them (they can discuss book banning, themes, language usage, characters, etc.), it is still from a single prompt given from me. At the same time it is always a powerful essay that leads to papers full of as much passion as any choice piece. This is likely due to its relevance to their lives and the authentic audience their ideas will have (which is something I will discuss in a few weeks), which goes to show that like all things essay, having students choose their own prompt is a powerful teaching move, but it is not a universal panacea that will always be the best choice in every situation.

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

2 thoughts on “Choosing Their Own Adventures: What Essays Look Like Without a Prompt

  1. I have been doing the “no prompt” approach for quite a while now with my senior classes when we read Frankenstein. We write blogs, essentially they are essays, where the students come up with their own focus and topics as we read the book. Throughout reading we discuss what is going on, we talk about various literary theories, and discuss looking at a book from various angles and then the students go with what they are most intrigued with. I have had some of the most unique topics and the students enjoy writing the blogs. I give them constructive feedback on their writing style, structure, etc. then they write their next blog with those improvements in mind. I’ve never had a student get “worse” in the process. Their writing and level of analysis improve throughout the process. It is one project where the majority of students find their “voice” and it really comes through in their writing making it even more enjoyable.

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    1. I completely agree! I’ve found that when they realize that they have something to say, it is often deeply empowering! Thank you so much for sharing what you do! Your students are lucky to have you!

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