Essays, Essais, and Essaisists

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.


I’m teaching Social Studies again this year. Grade 8 Social Studies. My curriculum is…world history. Pretty much none of it is off the table. As a fan of history, this is great.

I started the year by running a Classroom Story where students create and run their own city-states/islands. We learned about some of the terminology we’d use for the year and the students constructed their islands based on the general learning outcomes of the curriculum. Power and authority; the land, people and places; historical connections; economics and resources; identity, culture, and community; and global interdependence. The student-made city-states interacted, had truces, fought pirates, studied new technologies, and explored new lands.

I had been listening to Dan Carlin’s “Death Throes of the Republic” podcast series (for a second time) and was sure I could make some fun of Roman subject matter. So, I did a bunch of research. Lots of podcasts and books, particularly Isaac Asimov’s “Roman Republic” and the aforementioned Dan Carlin Podcast.  I decided that history need not be learned nor taught, linearly, so I jumped to straight to Rome *gasp*.  

Playing With Content

I started a new Classroom Story by assigning famous Roman figures to the students as roles. Marcus Crassus, Pompey, Cleopatra, Agripina, Octavian, and so on. Twenty-five different figures. Students eagerly research this new, mysterious person they were assigned. To continue our information frontloading, we watched and took notes on some Roman videos on Now that we had learned some terminology, people, places, and events, we were ready to play with the content.

The class acted like the ruling class, the patricians and senators, and confronted some of the Roman Republic’s issues and historical events. With this power they defended Rome from Hannibal (even though the Romans weren’t nice to the Carthaginians either); engaged in foreign campaigns of conquest to enrich ourselves; and defended Rome from the northern invasion of the Cimbri and Teutons. All the while the students monitored the balance of food, slaves, wealth, and plebian happiness.

Then came the civil wars, Sulla’s Civil War, and the class turned upon itself in a vicious game of political chess. Optimates vs Populares. We played our own version of the dinner game Werewolf to simulate the danger and suspicions that were prevalent during the time, but also to have fun and make some facts stick. Then, we finished things off by learning about Julius Caesar. We looked at his rise to power, investigated his death, and saw the transformation of Rome from a Republic to an Empire.

The Big Idea

Ever since I saw the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, which featured the amazing teacher and student work from High Tech High, I fell in love with the idea of publicly displaying student work. I don’t mean putting work on the bulletin board outside the room, I mean creating work that is intended to be seen by others. Since we are studying history, I figured that we could make our own mini-museum with exhibitions based on Ancient Rome. We would invite friends, family, and community members to come see our creations and what learned. When I presented the idea to students I saw them give me a bit of the look that said, “are you sure we can do this?” I told them that I was confident we could do it and assured them we would be fine if we made sure our exhibits had the same purpose: to be engaging AND informative. We set the date for December 19th, giving us about a month to complete our exhibits.


Students got to work putting ideas onto paper and into action. Some ideas took off right away, some ideas were abandoned, and some ideas required careful developing and crafting.

Overall though, the classes (815 and 816) put together a healthy list of exhibits proposals. We had everything covered: traditional informative displays (which were done beautifully), an interactive Colosseum built in Minecraft, a Rome quiz made in Scratch, a Roman gods reality TV show, three escape rooms based on Roman content, digital sketched artwork, and much more. Topics covered things as general as an overview of the Republic and Empire. Other exhibits examined specific topics like women and children, Sulla’s Civil War, Roman beauty standards, mythology, and Julius Caesar and his death. Further, there was plenty of students at the ready to be hosts for the night. They were responsible for welcoming guests, ushering people to the different rooms, explaining the ideas behind the exhibits, and generally helping things run smoothly.

Throughout this, I was there to make suggestions, proofread, give feedback and ideas, hunt supplies, vet resources, circulate the classroom, conference with students, and encourage. The week leading up to the event we shared some previews on social media of what we were making. Students had already made sure friends and family had the date marked. We were set.

The Big Night

The exhibition was on a Wednesday. The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday leading up were crazy with prepwork. The students were equally excited and scared. Admin was totally on board, supportive, and ready to help. The day of, they went out and bought a bunch of great food for us to serve to guests and it really helped the experience. Students stayed after school to help move furniture, setup escape rooms, decorate the halls, and put up the finishing touches. Of the 50-something students, only 5 were unable to attend the exhibition. And of those, most had prior commitments.

The students were ready to stand behind their work.

Instead of having you read more text, examine the following photos taken the day of by two students, Jelsie and Yesenia. The photos capture the final preparation for the exhibition and the event itself.


The exhibition evening went amazing. The students really took the process seriously. Once all setup was done and we awaited the first guests, that’s when the students looked proud. That’s when they realized they did it.

The night of, students were great. They stood by their exhibits, educated guests, and delivered on our mission; make an engaging and informative evening. I could visibly see students either relishing in their success standing proudly beside their work as guests circulated, asked questions, and gave compliments. On the other side, not all students were proud of their work. Some students noticed their shortcomings.

Plenty of supportive parents, friends, and family came and had a huge amount of fun. They were amazed by the sheer amount, and quality, of content the students created.

I still feel like we missed out on the “public” aspect by not attracting more community members (but this could also be due to the fact it was days before Christmas in a cold Winnipeg December). If I were to do this again I would make a more concerted effort to reach local media outlets and Winnipeg celebrities.

As a teacher, it was awesome to see kids researching and asking questions. That was the process I wanted. For students to research, confer, and then form ideas. Because of this process, the final products were very solid in terms of overall presentation. Writing conventions and organization were on point. Visuals were crisp and well laid out. Art was done with care. During the event, the creations on computers were active and a source of a lot of laughs. It was validating to see so many “top performers”. This project had a high percentage of exceptional pieces of student work.

Overall 10/10.

Might do again 😉

Involuntary Hiatus

From mid-2017 until recently, I feel like I developed a bad habit: I was proverbially throwing the baby out with the  bathwater. I rejected the good things within a larger body because I didn’t like some of the elements.

What did I throw away? My involvement online.

The news made me mad, social media seemed controlling, toxic and lonely, YouTube comments were still a cesspool, and Reddit lost it allure. I was so turned off. Everything online looked like garbage to me. It was a place I did not want to participate in.

It’s a dangerous thing to look for perfection within human systems. It causes us to become cynical and pessimistic. We can’t see the forest for the trees. Our actions continue to poke holes into things that are flawed instead of acting an agent of change. 

What did I do? I ghosted my social media networks. I stopped posting things.  I would still creep (but less so), but was not a participant. I only made one blog post; a short, spontaneous idea during the summer.

I’m happy to say that I think I’ve dropped that sentiment; I’ve struck a balance. Being online too much (regardless of platform) is unhealthy, but shirking away my presence was incongruent with how I want to share the thoughts, feelings, and actions of my students and I.

In 2019 my hope is to share more.  More reading good content, less scrolling through posts.

Check out what we do in our classes by checking my Instagram @schmidtsclass

Join me!

Let’s Not Microteach

I had a little epiphany while playing with my son, WG. We were engaged in a boisterous game of basketball on a mini-hoop in the middle of our home. It was great. Running around, keeping score, yelling NBA Jam phrases (RAZZLE DAZZLE!), dribbling around the house. Good times. The he comes up showing me a controlled crossover. Not a left to right dribble, a crossover. He was also trying to mimic my movements.

Why was he learning this stuff now? Seriously. I had tried to coach him on some stuff before but the attention span was very limited. He does like basketball and we’ve been to gyms a bunch of times. He’s practiced and got better, but this was different. Here we were playing “basketball” and he was showing me all kinds of skill development, not to mention numeracy skills.

It’s because when kids are having fun with the game or subject, they’ll learn all sorts of stuff from another engaged mentor.

I think that’s what most of us want. We don’t want or need to learn a subject or skill all up front. We want to learn the basics, then play, enjoy, and learn. Having an engaged mentor (or community) will help provide modelling.

I feel we often get caught up in microteaching and overcoaching. We try to make kids fit into the box right away. You can’t just have fun playing basketball! You have to learn to do it “properly”.

This story repeated itself days later when I took WG to the driving range for the first time ever. I told him about a few basic things about a golf swing and safety reminders, but I would let him hit the balls and have fun. WG was hacking away, missed a bunch of times, and had some small successes.Occasionally he would watch intently at what I was doing across from him. I gave him a few reminders about how to hold the club and how to swing, but I kept my interference to a minimum. I just kept doing my hits and having fun with him.  In the end he ended up making some very solid connections.

In short, people learn when they’re engaged and mentored. Not when they’re info-dumped and left hanging.

Dichotomy in the Classroom: Teaching a Gaming Generation (Part 3)

I started this series earlier last year (Part 1 & Part 2), examining how video games have become one of our culture’s favourite types of text. But this series is not just about video games. It’s about how the benefits of games can crossover into education. This series stems from my fascination with how people learn vast sets of rules and garner a variety of skills when they are engaged in games and play. So, how do we use games and play for learning?

Dramatis Personae

EK – Edna Krabappel. Jaded teacher from the Simpson’s.

BRS – Brent Schmidt, yours truly.


EK: Why would we want to infuse gaming in the classroom? Kids play too much video games.

BRS: Gaming doesn’t mean video games. Many teachers over the years have used games to help their students learn, or used game elements to increase engagement.

EK: “Game elements?”

BRS: Game elements are things like: mystery, narrative, conflict, chance, scores, strategy, uncertainty, aesthetic appeal, competition, progress, emotional involvement, and collaboration.

EK: Still don’t get it. How can we possible play video games in class? That’s not educational.

BRS: That’s not what’s being suggested here, although video games have been used to teach.  Think of it like this: how can we design our teaching and instruction in a way where lessons are more “playable” using the elements listed above.

EK: “Playable?”

BRS: Playable means a lesson, unit, or project is inviting. It means, it should pique a student’s curiosity . It means that play becomes part of the way we learn and practice skills. It also means that it’s done collaboratively.

EK: Whoa, whoa, whoa, there buddy! You can’t do all that!

BRS: Yes, you can! You just need to practice what it looks like in a classroom. You start with a setting, students have characters, there’s a problem, and the students need to learn and use the curricular stuff to progress.

EK: Okay, so what do we call this? What’s the acronym? EdGaming? Gamification? Game-based learning? EGGGBL?

BRS: Game-based learning is legit. A mantra my colleagues and I have used is “Classroom Story”. It’s not about acronyms, a detailed methodology, or cookie cutter lessons.  It’s having an approach using narrative and game elements to drive the students to learn and create.

EK: What about other methods? Like Project-Based Learning, or Writer’s Workshop, and Lit Circles? And what about technology?

BRS: All are still totally viable! A Classroom Story is using a creative narrative and game elements to drive the class forward. Teachers can still integrate their own strengths, styles, projects, and personality!

EK: You just said “Classroom Story” again, and before you were talking about video games! What are you trying to pull here!

BRS: I’m just trying to be part of a grander conversation about culture and education. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between popular culture and education system. I’m trying to incorporate the ancient practices of storytelling and game-playing, with modern technology and pedgogical methods to create a positive, creative learning environment. All those principles packaged together became something called a Classroom Story. 

EK: This confuses me and now I don’t want to do it.

BRS: If you try and don’t like it, or it doesn’t mesh with what you’re trying to do, I get it. This isn’t a magic bullet. It’s not a solution to education’s woes, but many teachers have found it increase student engagement, the quality of writing, creative output, and classroom cohesion.

EK: I’ve seen a bunch of stuff online about using badges, achievements, and level-ups. Is that gaming in a classroom?

BRS: Some will say yes, but I don’t believe it is. Just because there’s an electronic achievement with a little badge, packaged like a game, does not make it gaming. Remember learning about the “Types of Players“? Achievements and badges are just re-packaged grades, and there’s only one kind of “player” that goes for that; achievers. We need to teach to the “Explorers”, “Socializers”, and “Killers”, too. And I feel that the Classroom Story does that.

EK: Why do I need to do a song and dance for the students? Why can’t they just sit in rows, read the assigned texts, and do the work? Kids are lazy these days!

BRS: The human brain learns and retains information better when it is engaged. When there is purpose and joy. When students are working and playing in proximity and community. This is why we need to teach students differently.

EK: Well, I’ll just add more tech. And YouTube. Kids love tech and YouTube.

BRS:  ಠ⌣ಠ

Doodle Battle: Fight for the Whiteboard

As with most things in our classroom, it started with a story.

In our Classroom Story, “Carta Marina”, we had a portion called Dungeon Dash where students’ characters were navigating a dungeon looking for monsters, loot, and keys. One group encountered a Slime, the most basic, weak, and ubiquitous of the Fantasy Role-Playing Game enemies/monsters.

Below is the first page of a comic about the events one group experienced…and the advent of JERRY the Slime.

Then, one October day, Jerry found a spot on our whiteboard (he didn’t start with the Santa hat). I’ve always let students draw and doodle on a certain part of our whiteboard, but one day in December, Mr.Wichenko (teaching candidate), noticed the students started taking liberalities with the space given.  Their doodles were encroaching on our valuable whiteboard space so he asks, “when do I start erasing stuff and taking our spot back?”

I figured it was time to take it back to the students. What is the nemesis of slime?





Salt throwers. Army of salt men. Puddles of slime. Saltinerator. THE DOODLE BATTLE WAS ON.

We had a couple rules though. 1. No erasing other peoples stuff. 2. Doodles had to somehow relate to the battle.

Here’s my quick-notes on why this experience was awesome.

  • students planning and working together
  • student and staff interaction
  • drawing!
  • students laughing
  • teachers laughing
  • making something
  • seeing all the little things appear on the whiteboard from class to class
  • seeing how the drawings would evolve and interact

Personally, my favourite part was when I drew a spy amongst the slimes. It was just a bunch of salt people in a suit.

Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 1.06.50 PM.png

When the students eventually found it amongst the other doodles, they quickly acted.


And then sent their own unit into deep cover.


Over the course of a week the whiteboard became a living art installation in the room, constantly changing and expanding. We had our fun, and on the last day before Winter Break, the doodlers all got together and erased everything…except Jerry.

Oh, and here was our “finished product”.




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