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.
In my early years of Article of the Week, its counterpoint was generally the heads slumping on desks and eyes dreaming out windows that instantly followed any mention of essay writing (which ironically, from a grade perspective, was the single biggest source of student grades). This response to essay writing always broke my heart because as many of us know, well-done essays can be among the most engaging, life-changing, and world-shifting pieces of writing out there.
This almost instinctive student aversion to even mentioning the word essay was why three years ago (as I chronicled on this blog), I set out to try to rebrand essay writing by in part reading a whole lot more essays with my students. I did this because I realized that most of my students had never seen a really great essay. Their only experience with essays were the mad-lib versions often taught in schools where one plugs a thesis here, a quote there, and some analysis after that and calls it good. Now, I don’t mean to infer that all formulas and frames are bad or shouldn’t be used (I actually plan to have a post on formulas/frames/scaffolding in a few weeks once the year gets rolling), but if that is all students have ever seen of essay writing, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they aren’t exactly enamored with the idea of it.
The way I introduced these essay mentor texts was that I created a recurring segment called “living essays” were we read actual essays that were living out there in the world. We read a combination of classic essays by James Baldwin, George Orwell, Chimimanda Adiche, Maya Angelou, Sarah Vowell, and even Montaigne himself and timely essays** from opinion pages, thoughtful movie/album/book reviews, and even in the form of daily poems from Button Poetry.
Almost right away when sharing these living essays, I began to see the same sparks of student engagement I generally saw during Article of the Week, even though I was using the word essay when I talked about them. Even more exciting was that it didn’t take long for students to start using what they saw in these essays in their own essay writing. Once they had a better understanding of the genre, many couldn’t help but to begin experimenting within it, infusing more of their voice and style like the authors we were reading, and finding places to take meaningful risks. As we read more and more of these essays, I noticed more and more students developing, in the words of Jennifer Fletcher, “Theories of Communication” concerning essays, where they could suddenly articulate and execute their own unique approaches to essay writing.
Jump forward to today and my “living essays” has morphed into Essays of the Week, which is one of the most dear and critical parts of my pedagogy. Here is how I structure it:
- I introduce it during the first week by telling my students that one of my hopes for this year is that they will come to see the essay as something interesting, vibrant, and alive–something they will maybe even enjoy reading and writing once it is better understood. We then discuss what essays are, why they are so often disliked, the students’ previous experiences with essay writing, and how we will approach essays in my class.
- After that introduction, we then start each Monday with a new essay. As I said above, I strive to pick a combination of timeless and timely essays in a variety of genres. For example, if our school had students this week (we are doing PD), I might choose Malala Yousafzai’s guest essay in the New York Times last week about the Taliban or maybe start with John Lewis’s soul-stirring final essay from last summer to set a tone for the year. I also try to pick essays that impart some knowledge in the Article of the Week tradition, while also trying to find writers who approach essay writing in different ways and showcase different moves.
- The students then respond to the essays in writing in a regular place in their writing notebooks. There will be no tests or quizzes or papers on these essays. We read them to grow and think and be human. Here is the slide I use for their responses:
- Lastly, we discuss our thoughts and observations as a class, making sure to always touch upon both the topic/argument and the craft moves. Also, when we find any cool craft moves, we add them to a list of craft moves that I keep up in my classroom.
In the end, my main goal of Essay of the Week is captured well in Thomas Newkirk’s new book Writing Unbound, where he says:
“Essays have been an open, fluid form since Montaigne began writing them in his tower in the 1580s. And from the beginning they have been a personal form, open to humor, anecdote, voice, even digression. If we are to derive any ‘rule’ from a study of essays it would be that essays are animated by the personality and thought process of the writer.” (32)
Essay of the Week has been a wonderful tool for helping students to animate their essays with personality, voice, and authentic thinking. So wonderful in fact that, similar to Gallagher and others, I will be adding a new tab to this site to share my Essays of the Week with you each week. Further, whenever you have awesome essays that you are using in your classes, please share them with me! My hope is that by expanding my list beyond my choices, we can make it more likely that you will find essays that fit for your class each week and ultimately build a bigger and better repository of essays teachers can use (in the vein of the Moving Writers’ Mentor Text Dropbox)!
Best of luck for those back with students this week, and thanks as always for reading.
*I have long agreed with Gallagher’s defense of knowledge acquisition because it still matters, even in the age of Googling it. One compelling study on this subject as recounted here by Daniel Willingham in the New York Times found that when a group of 3rd graders, divided into “good” and “poor” readers by a previous test, were given a passage to read about soccer, those who were rated as “poor readers” but knew a lot about soccer were three times more likely to make accurate inferences than those rated as “good readers” who didn’t know anything about the game. And it isn’t just reading comprehension where having deep and broad knowledge is useful. Knowledge can be useful in everything from sniffing out fake news and engaging in meaningful debate to crafting the perfect metaphor or lead for an essay. Plus, knowledge can be infectious. When we learn something meaningful, our general reaction is to go searching for more.
**My definition for what constitutes an essay is the classic Montaigne definition that an essay is an attempt to try on or test out an idea. The use of ‘I’ and contractions are just fine, if not preferred, and having five paragraphs is an option, but certainly not the only one.
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