A Student Reflects on How We Teach Essays

A few months back, I got a message from a high school student named Ellie asking if I could publish a piece she wrote. I don’t publish many guest essays, but after reading it, I felt that this was a piece I should share, largely because (beyond being well-written and thoughtful) it contains a perspective rarely seen in discussions of education: the student perspective.

As teachers we may occasionally or even regularly ask students how a lesson, unit, or class went, but even when we are committed to hearing the students’ perspectives, the realities of the classroom mean that our surveys often have to be faster and more surface-level than we’d like. Further, even if anonymous, student responses to a lesson, class, or teacher tend to be heavily skewed by the relationship/dynamic they have with that class or teacher.

To get a truly deep and relatively objective look into how our teaching practices impact students is rare, and it is part of why I am handing the microphone today to Ellie. The other reason is that Ellie makes some novel and interesting points about form-first teaching, thesis statements, and creativity–points that I haven’t seen made anywhere else. I walked away from her essay holding an internal debate with both her and myself, which to me is a surefire sign that what I just read was worthwhile.

So without further preamble, here is a student perspective on the essay and how it is commonly taught. I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime I hope you get as much from it as I did! Thanks as always for reading!

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Choosing Their Own Adventures: What Essays Look Like Without a Prompt

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!

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Targeted Response: How To Give More Meaningful Feedback Without Staying Up All Night

As someone who focuses on writing instruction, the question I am asked most often is probably What are the most important things I can do to improve student writing? I used to give a far more complex answer, full of discussion of thoughtful models and carefully targeted reflection, providing lots of autonomy, building relationships through writing and our responses to it, and directly teaching both writing skills and the writing process in careful ways. I stand by all of this guidance–it is good practice and helps to speed student growth–but I now give a far simpler answer:

For students to grow significantly as writers they need to write a lot and get lots of thoughtful, timely feedback to that writing.

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Getting Rid of Comma Errors for Good

In my first discussion of grammar on this blog, I mentioned that one of my favorite words is shibboleth, which comes from the biblical Book of Judges. Here is what Dr. S. Kemmer of Rice University says about it:

shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group…The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. [It comes from the Biblical Book of Judges where] two Semitic tribes, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, have a great battle. The Gileadites defeat the Ephraimites, and set up a blockade across the Jordan River to catch the fleeing Ephraimites who were trying to get back to their territory. The sentries asked each person who wanted to cross the river to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimites, who had no shsound in their language, pronounced the word with an s and were thereby unmasked as the enemy and slaughtered.

-Dr. S. Kemmer

What I love about this rather grotesque word is that it so exactly captures why we focus so much energy on things like punctuation. We know that our world is full of shibboleths–hidden passwords and tests that our students will face that will lead to either their inclusion or exclusion from certain groups.

And I would argue few shibboleths are as dangerous as punctuation and specifically commas. Part of what makes commas such a tempting shibboleth is that they are instantly recognizable on a page. While a reader could easily overlook a moment of dull word choice or muddy phrasing, even one comma error stands out automatically to the seasoned reader. Further, commas are one of the few areas in writing where clear right-and-wrong rules exist (except the Oxford Comma, but that is the story for another post).

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Why We Should Engage in Less Kill-And-Drill and More Play Around Standardized Testing Time

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Spring in Michigan means many things. Piles of snow get traded for buckets of rain, the sound of birds suddenly comes from every window, the sun leaves the horizon it has barely perched on all winter to reclaim its space high in the sky, and, if one teaches mainly juniors (as I do), there is one other harbinger of the season that happens with as much regularity as dandelions poking their heads out of the warming soil: standardized test stress.

While for many, April might mean showers and tulips, for me it largely means the SAT, ACT, and M-STEP (Michigan’s on-again-off-again state standardized test).

I’ve found that in these tense weeks spent in the shadow of tests and their high-stakes, a quiet danger exists to my teaching. If I’m not careful, my classes could easily leave the realm of meaningful writing, authentic audiences, deep discussion, and creativity and end up instead in the realm of test prep followed by more test prep.

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Why You Should Probably Be Doing More Choice Writing (And How to Make It Happen)

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Whether it is the Nerdy Book Club, whose book lists and reviews are essential resources for the busy teacher to keep up with the newest books; Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, which funds class libraries across the country (you should seriously consider this if you want to expand your library); or Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer herself, choice reading is having a long overdue moment in the spotlight.

This is a wonderful development, as there is a large body a research that shows that the single most important factor in reading achievement is reading volume, and nothing promotes volume like choice reading.

It should also be mentioned since this is a blog focused on writing instruction, that the  benefits of choice reading don’t stop with reading skills either. Whether it is William Faulkner (see below), Stephen King, or researchers at the University of Hong Kong, the evidence from practitioners and researchers alike makes a fairly overwhelming case that robust reading is one of the most important (or even the most important) prerequisites for writers to fully develop their writing voices.

I’ve seen this magic of student choice reading firsthand; it is why every single one of my classes–composition or literature–reads choice books for 30 minutes in each 95 minute block. It is also why a few years ago I started to experiment with choice writing as well. The concept behind it was simple: If choice reading increases reading and writing skills, helps to turn reluctant readers into readers for life, and reframes what it means to read in a classroom, could choice writing do the same for the written word?

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The Best Way to Encourage Reluctant Writers

In 2009, Chris Hulleman of The University of Virginia and the Motivate Lab ran a study in which reluctant and developing ninth-graders were put into two groups in their science classes. One group (the control) supplemented their work in class with a 1-2 paragraph response each month that summarized what they’d learned while the other group (the value group) supplemented their work with a 1-2 paragraph response explaining how the topics they’d covered in class could potentially be relevant and valuable to them.

Outside of the paragraphs, everything else about their instruction was exactly the same, and yet the results at the end of the semester were anything but similar. The students in the value group saw their grade point averages soar nearly a point higher than the control and the grade gap between white and black students in the value group shrank by a staggering 65%!

Results of the study from The Motivate Lab
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Four Ways to Build Relationships with Students Through Their Writing

In recent years, research has begun to support what good teachers have known all along: Strong student/teacher relationships generally lead to strong learning outcomes.

For example, John Hattie in Visible Learning argues that establishing a positive teacher/student relationship is one of the most impactful things a teacher can do to speed student learning. His effect size of .72 for strong student/teacher relationship is nearly double his threshold of .40 for a highly effective practice, meaning that a good relationship can inspire nearly two years worth of growth in a single school year.

Image from The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching

The reasons for this are fairly simple and intuitive: When students feel close to teachers they are more willing to take risks, have higher motivation, and grow more engaged because they see the content of the class as more valuable and the teacher as more credible.

Where it gets tricky is the question of how we are supposed to build those relationships when our classes have so many students and our days have so little time. 

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How to Make Writing Less Scary for Students

Writing is scary for pretty much everyone. For example, I as I write this sentence, I can’t help but worry that…

  • My words are orphans; I am not there to clarify their meaning or defend their honor. They must speak without me.
  • Printed words stand as public monuments to my imperfection in this moment.
  • I can never be sure how my writing will be received. As far as I know, no writer has figured out the magic formula for how to always predict with accuracy how an audience will respond to the words on the page.
  • Writing can be easily compared. Once set down, my words can be instantly compared with every author that has come before.

The bulk of our students likely face these same fears, and a great many of them also likely face other fears, ranging from worries that they don’t measure up to their classmates, to anxiety over whether mistakes will lower their grades, to generalized fears born from previous bad experiences with writing papers for school.

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Want to Significantly Improve Your Feedback to Students? Stop Giving It in Isolation

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The lecture long dominated the classroom. The concept behind it was simple. Teachers have information and students don’t. So the teachers give information to the students, who have the choice to absorb the information or not.

These days we understand that there are often better approaches than to just throw information at students. We know that students usually learn best when a class revisits key ideas, skills, and content multiple times in multiple different ways.

The one common glaring exception to this trend away from here-is-the-information-do-what-you-want pedagogy and towards deeper, more recursive practice in our classes? The feedback we give.

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