Why I Love Essay of the Week

We are back in the building this week, so my post will be short (for me). Still, don’t mistake my brevity for lack of excitement. Today’s topic, Essay of the Week, is something that has done wonders for my students’ relationships with essay writing and writing in general, which is why I didn’t want to wait until the school year settles in to share it with you.

Essay of the Week is based off the language arts/social studies teacher staple, Article of the Week. For those who don’t know Article of the Week, here is its originator, Kelly Gallagher (from his site) on what it is and why he does it:

Kelly recognizes that part of the reason students struggle with reading is because they lack prior knowledge and background. They can decode the words, but the words remain meaningless without a foundation of knowledge.  To help build his students’ prior knowledge, he assigns them an Article of the Week every Monday morning. 

From Kellygallagher.org

Gallagher is absolutely right about the importance of building knowledge,* but it is only one reason why I love Article of the Week. Another beautiful thing about it is that even though I always did Article of the Week without grades and other external carrots or sticks, it was usually one of the most high engagement/high interest moments of reading and writing in my classroom each week. If I picked the right article, I found that nearly all of my students couldn’t help but to break into debate or furious writing, even when it had no impact on the grades that far too often dictated their level of effort.

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Why This Is the Year to Get Serious About Student Self-Assessment

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One of my favorite creative writing teachers in college introduced me to the iceberg theory of character design. I’m sure many of you likely know it, but, if not, here is a quick primer:

The basic idea is that 90% of the mass of an iceberg sits below the waterline, and much like the secretive iceberg, the theory argues that when an author creates a character, she should only show a fraction of what she creates on the page. The logic is that the hidden, unseen depths will help the characters to feel more authentic and complete because, just like with the people around us, there will be much to deduce and infer.

I’ve always loved this lesson because I’ve found it to be so true, and not just when it comes to crafting characters. The world around us is awash with icebergs. Nearly everything we see, buy, consume, and do has so much more beneath the surface than can be seen above water.

As someone who writes regularly about his own practice as an educator, I’ve also come to find that my teaching is a land of icebergs too. So much of what I do and assign goes so much deeper than what can be seen on the surface–often to depths I didn’t realize until I sat to examine them in writing.

And of the icebergs in my practice, I’ve found few that go down further than student-self assessment, which is a suggestion that has been around for a long time and yet it is still relatively rare in practice, even in classes that otherwise put lots of emphasis on student voice and autonomy. In today’s post, I want to explore its depths and why if you make one change this year in particular, increasing the amount of student self-assessment should maybe be it.

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How Grammar Became My Students’ Favorite Subject Last Year

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I can’t think of a question that I disliked more as a new teacher than “How are we going to use this in the real world?” I got this question plenty in my early years, and it always felt so dismissive of the work we were doing, and, even though I didn’t yet understand why, I knew that if too many students asked that question too many times, it could seriously erode the work of the class.

In those days, when a student asked that question, I can recall usually responding in a curt and quick manner–my irritation thinly veiled, if veiled at all. These days though, I have come to realize that if ever there was a question that I need to respond to with great thought, it is this one. This is because a student who asks How are we going to use this in the real world? is really saying Why should I value this?, and that is a reasonable question for one to ask. In fact, it is likely the same question we ask before every staff meeting and professional development we attend, and we know how different our approaches to these meetings and trainings can be depending on our answer.

Now before moving on, it’s worth noting that focusing too much on a topic’s usefulness or utility can be a problem too, as Dave Stuart Jr. discusses in a recent video. Only teaching what is instantly recognizable as useful in the real world limits our curriculum and can backfire because what we view as useful and what a student views as useful might be quite different. In those cases, if our only major argument for engagement is usefulness, students now have a strong reason to disengage.

Still, value and utility do matter a great deal, as is evident by the prevalence of the How are we going to use this? question in our schools (and maybe also in our PD). This question also speaks to something important and related, which is that as educators, our knowledge of and love for our subjects illuminates so many things, but it can also blind us to other things. For example, it is generally so clear to us how the skills and content we teach connect to each other and will help students that we often forget that our students might not see these things as clearly as we do.

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