A fellow teacher asked me the other day, “How many essays have you done so far?” Already over six weeks into the school year, I replied, “One.”
It has taken me quite a long time to learn that English classes, especially honors English classes, are not essay driven courses. Instead, I wish that same teacher had asked, “What have your students written so far this semester?” I would have replied that my students have crafted letters to pen pals in foreign lands, written research project proposals, analyzed themes in many reflection journal entries, revised a personal narrative essay, and prepared a script for a video-taped speech. But most importantly, my students write every day in class, whether it is reflecting on a prompt related to what we are discussing or writing a brief reflection on a self-selected reading novel. Students must learn how to write in a variety of formats and in a variety of contexts. Although learning to write well-supported thesis-driven essays is important, it is a great disservice to focus on the expository essay to the exclusion of other forms of writing.
I should apologize to the students that I first taught years ago. Following every text we read in class, whether it was a book, poem, or short story, I fettered (my current students will appreciate the use of a vocabulary word here) students with predictable essay assignment after predictable essay assignment. What was the theme of this poem? Where and how does the author use symbolism in this work? What is the climax of this story, and how does this decision prove whether the protagonist is dynamic or static? My students dreaded finishing a text because they knew it meant all of them would be writing the same boring essay, which they would get back, look at the letter grade, and toss out.
I was trapped in thinking that I should teach writing like I was taught writing – through essay after essay. What I’ve learned over the years is that good writing is good writing, regardless of what form it comes in. Once I understood this, it freed me to use all sorts of writing assignments in my classroom and find better ways to engage my students in authentic writing experiences. Students talk about the best way to start a piece of writing when we analyze and write our own poetry. These same techniques can be carried over and used in academic writing. Students learn about writing effective thesis statements by first formalizing research questions into a research proposal. They practice grammar and punctuation skills when they write letters to their pen pals who are just learning the rules of the English language. I can teach students how to effectively organize an essay once we’ve written a few reflective journals based on what we’ve been reading and discussing in class. All good writing, whether it is a poem or a blog entry, starts strong, focuses on a thesis, supports that thesis with specific examples, is well organized, utilizes effective transitions, and ends strong. So my students don’t simply learn how to write expository essays, they learn how to write.