Preamble – this post is largely based on the essay, The Age of the Essay by Paul Graham. It is absolutely worth the read. If you do not want to spend the 20-30 minutes reading it, you can look at my notes in the post below.
The essay. The scourge of language students everywhere. The almighty essay sits on its ivory perch. It is regarded by many as the ultimate measuring stick for literary expression and thought. A verbal gymnasium to flex one’s prowess with prose.
The best thing? There’s a formula on how to write one! Here it is:
First you write a catchy hook to really kick off your INTRO paragraph about the text you read. The intro? Just talk about what you’re going to talk about. Especially stuff teacher talks about in class. Confirm his bias. Next, you need to get wordy about it. Gotta get that word count up.
Show that you know how to string sentences and paragraphs together. This is called the BODY. 3 paragraphs. No more. No less. The body must present some solid arguments for whatever you’re arguing about. You can’t change your mind. You have to prove your point.
Finally, the CONCLUSION really hits the reader; you repeat your arguments in brevity!
The previous section was a ruse… and so are most essay writing tasks used in modern schools. Turns out those aren’t really essays. A real essay is an exploration and attempt to figure something out. My notes below:
If you didn’t read The Age of the Essay or look at my notes, the point is this: essays are a refined expression of the author’s attempt to figure something out. Essays are not about taking a stance and staunchly proving a point (which is not a bad thing in and of itself). Unfortunately this argumentative style is taught as the standard. On top of that, the formulaic way of teaching and using essays has become problematic. There is an over-reliance on “essays” as an assessment gathering tool for writing skills and as a medium for expressing student knowledge and learning.
Paul Graham wrote The Age of the Essay in 2004 and he predicted that a “golden age of essay writing” was on the way. I believe we are well into this golden age already. There are great essays out there everywhere. Excellent pieces by journalists, scientists, and authors across web and print. There is a burgeoning essay format in Sports Journalism. Savvy sports fans tired of forced stories and clickbait headlines by mainstream sports media. These fans are now flocking to subscriptions sites like The Athletic that offer podcasts, boxscores, orginal content, and engaging, well-connected writers. The Athletic combines high-end jounalism, sport analytics, and storytelling to create a unique brand of sports essays. Some (like me) even consider many Podcasts and YouTube channels to be extension of the form.
So the essay is doing quite well, thank you.
Yes, I had my students essais. We used the Age of the Essay as a mentor text. Read it, made annotations, discussed it. What did it mean for their writing? More freedom.
I wanted students to try. I wanted them to ask questions and write down observations and notes. What are you interested in researching? What connections do you see that you want to investigate? What feelings need to be explored?
The essays needed to have questions, research, attempts at answers, and a final written piece. Below is this simple rubric style borrowed from Cult of Pedagogy. I made the language fairly colloquial because that’s how we learned and talked about essays in class. The rubric was something that was used BEFORE the final assessment. By the time I see the “published” piece, I’ve seen the paper twenty times at various stages. I believe in process and feedback while writing, not at the end.
Students were intimidated at first, but they took it on. This writing was for meant to be for them, not just to show a teacher. Also, by this time in the year they had already accomplished so much. They had a confidence in process. At the end of this learning pursuit I had a nice stack of essays with titles that included:
- My Fight
- Body Image
- Lessons In Middle School
- Untitled – about an experience being racially profiled
- Why Music Is Life
- Are You Fake?
- What is Storytelling?
- What Girls Feel After a Breakup
- Athletes Becoming Athletes
- Something I Wanna Get Off My Chest
- My View of a Perfect Life
- My Future
…woah. These teens were writing some heavy stuff as they were about to transition to high school. I’ve assembled a bunch of the essays in a document below. These essays are not a set of exemplars. I’ve just added a bunch that stood out as very genuine. I’ve also removed the student names for their privacy. Please take a look. There’s sure to be something to connect with.